Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira lets bubbles go to his head

Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira lets bubbles go to his head
The art of sabrage and a Graham Beck milestone. (Photo: Supplied)

The Robertson estate has marked its 40th anniversary. TGIFood speaks to Graham Beck’s legendary winemaker, who produced the estate’s first Cap Classique, literally under the stars.

Pieter Ferreira is in the thick of harvest for the latest vintage of Graham Beck Cap Classique, with teams picking about 450 tons of grapes in just three days on the Robertson estate. 

One would expect the heat to be oppressive in the vineyards because it’s hot and dry in Cape Town, which usually means it’s murder inland, but in the Robertson valley, renowned for its cold winters and hot summers tempered by cool morning mists come mid-morning, after a gloriously mild 11°C.

The valley’s wine producers are blessed with a particular combination of abundant sunshine, limestone soils and a pronounced diurnal shift in temperature, meaning day and night are almost polar opposites.

The entire area is rich in the same chalky soils found in Champagne, the French region, which are porous and allow for good drainage, thereby increasing grape quality.

Graham Beck estate. (Photo: Supplied)

Robertson has the highest natural occurrence of limestone deposits in the Western Cape, Ferreira, the chief operating officer at Graham Beck, explains.

Just 6km from Graham Beck, where the legendary winemaker has been obsessively pursuing the perfect bubble since before the dawn of democracy, there’s a limestone factory, which is still in use.

“There are lots of limestone ridges that run through the whole valley, which is blessed by three things: Sunshine, limestone deposits and beautiful diurnal changes in temperature between day and night. We can have a 40°C day but at night the temperature will drop by 20° minimum.”

Ferreira, a microbiologist, had a fortunate break in winemaking in 1983 with Achim von Arnim, who worked at Anglo American at the time. Von Arnim, the founder of Haute Cabrière and creator of Pierre Jourdan Cap Classiques, had needed someone to look after his farm.

“I spent seven amazing years with him in Franschhoek. He was the first specialist producer of Cap Classique and during that time, I also had the opportunity to do four vintages in Champagne. That’s where my love of bubbles really caught on. If you eat, sleep and drink it all the time, you master it quicker.”

Pieter Ferreira in his element, doing what he does best. (Images supplied. Composite by Tony Jackman)

It was his dear friend and mentor, Jan Boland Coetzee, who introduced Ferreira to Graham Beck, a charismatic coal mining magnate with a wine and stud farm in Robertson.

Beck, who bought his first farm in Robertson in 1983, believed it was perfect for sparkling wine production.

He had developed the farm from scratch, after identifying the valley’s limestone soil as ideal for both Cap Classique in particular and horse breeding. He later acquired the Bellingham winery in Franschhoek and Douglas Green Bellingham (which were sold about a decade ago), Steenberg wine estate and the Gainesway Farm in Kentucky, in the United States, where his son Antony and offspring have settled on a 1,500-acre thoroughbred stud.

Despite not having studied winemaking, Ferreira’s experience under Von Arnim had cemented his reputation in the industry — experience further refined over the years through passion, enthusiasm, dedication and the counsel of his peers. “When we stopped at Graham Beck, Jan told me that there are enough people around me who will teach me, but the best way you learn is when you fall into a wine tank and you learn to swim. Microbiology is so close to winemaking because you have to understand the right chemical processes that do the job.”

Winemaking is about processes, gut feel and especially about a good palate. Fortunately, Ferreira had them all in abundance.

By 1990, Ferreira joined the Graham Beck winemaking team, producing their first cap classique vintage a year later, literally under the stars, because the cellar roof was not completed in time.

(Photo: Supplied)

Today, Graham Beck only produces cap classiques but in the early years, no less than 15 varieties produced in a variety of still wine styles were planted on the 3,850ha property, which is predominantly a natural preservation area, with only 160ha of the property is dedicated to grapes.

“When the historic Bellingham property in Franschhoek was sold, we saw that the writing was on the wall for Graham Beck still wines. In 2014, we realised that we couldn’t be all things to everyone so we started producing only Cap Classique.”

Slowing down is never going to happen but his protege, cellar master Pierre de Klerk has been working by his side for more than a decade.

Graham Beck’s biggest international markets are the UK, the US and the Netherlands, followed by the rest of Europe and Japan.

Ferreira says they benefited from the most fortunate timing: Graham Beck Cap Classique was famously served at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama’s presidential win.

“In September 1993 we launched our first non-vintage Cap Classique in Cape Town, just at the point when Mandela was free. And then in 1994, when the markets opened, it was the right time to take our wines into the international market. So from the very early days, our exports were at least 40% of our market.”

Cap Classique is performing extremely well internationally, he says, because of the “insane” price point to quality ratio: while prosecco consumption is slumping, and Champagne is becoming unaffordable, good South African bubbly is increasingly enticing: “Prosecco is too one-dimensional. That’s not to say it’s bad but it cannot be valued at more than £12/13. A great Cap Classique sells for £15 to £20, Champagne is £35 and English sparkling wine is around £30.”

(Photo: Supplied)

The British market is a great one to be in, which is why Graham Beck set up a “little project” called GB in GB — Graham Beck in Great Britain — in 2018. It’s still not 100% but Ferreira believes it has potential, because the UK is their biggest market.

“We just need a little halo. One of my ambitions in Graham Beck’s days, when he was still alive, was that I wanted to make wine in Champagne. That never happened so Antony has said well, you know, the UK is making wine and the category is really growing in reputation.”

Through GB in GB, they hope to launch a British bubbly by the end of 2024 or early next year.

“It’s small volumes, around six and a half to 7,000 bottles. I think it will be a nice teaser. We’re looking forward to that.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    A lovely story of a great entrepreneurship; beautifully written. But there’s a BUT; and it’s a big one. There is strong research that commercial alcohol, even one glass of wine a week, significantly increases the risk of cancer. 17,000 people die every year in the UK from a malignant tumour caused by commercial booze.

    Is it possible for Graham Beck to start looking into what are known as ‘natural wines’? I believe the potential is simply vast. We need entrepreneurs like GB to start producing wines that are not detrimental to our health; unpasteurised and with no sulphites.

    Today I started a homebrew with Catawba grapes, the only ones that I know of that grow in KZN without fungicides, and honey producing what is known as a pyment. It will be a year before I know with any certainty what the taste is like. But I do know this; it will not increase the likelihood of me getting cancer.

    And the other honey meads using other fruits such as cherry guavas, mulberries and even peppadews are lovely beyond any singing of them.

    Natural wines, no chemicals, no preservatives are an excellent probiotic. That is perhaps where the secret lies. Science, a deep understanding of microbiology, entrepreneurship, that’s what we would like to see from the Graham Beck of the future.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options