Life lessons with Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira

South Africa’s most celebrated sparkling winemaker, Pieter Ferreira has been instrumental in the evolution of Graham Beck’s Cap Classique wines. Adam Lechmere meets the cellarmaster turned COO, who's still in pursuit of the perfect bubble

Words by Adam Lechmere

pieter ferreira with glass of Graham Beck cap classique wine
'Mr Bubbles': Graham Beck cellarmaster and COO Pieter Ferreira

You have to have a certain type of personality to carry off the nickname ‘Mr Bubbles’, and Pieter Ferreira manages it with no little aplomb. On the sort of chill February morning that only London can produce – persistent rain falling from a sky the colour of dirty tupperware – I meet him in the lobby of his budget hotel. His right foot is clad in an enormous plastic boot. ‘I tripped over a hose in the winery,’ he explains cheerfully as we stomp out under an umbrella to find breakfast.

Pieter Ferreira is South Africa’s most celebrated sparkling winemaker, a veteran who has been in on every significant development in South African bubbles over the last three decades. He created the Graham Beck collection – non-vintage (including the demi-sec Nectar), vintage and the premium Cuvée Clive – which is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from seven different regions, with 70 per cent coming from their own vineyards in Robertson. The UK is Graham Beck’s number one market; the range starts at around £15 and goes up to £50 for the Cuvée Clive, which Ferreira is confident can take its place among the very best: ‘Bring out the big guns. Put it against Dom Pérignon, put it against [Veuve Clicquot’s] La Grand Dame, Bollinger RD, [Taittinger’s] Comtes de Champagne.’

pieter ferreira

Born in Durban, Ferreira was apprenticed in Franschhoek and worked vintages in the 1980s at Champagne Mumm, George Vesselle in Bouzy and at Moët & Chandon. He joined Graham Beck in 1990 and has been there ever since, establishing himself as the foremost exponent of Cap Classique in South Africa, as well as forging a joint venture with England’s Hambledon Estate.

My life has been bubbles

‘My life has been bubbles,’ he tells me over coffee and croissants. He’s been with Graham Beck for 33 years, during which time he has overseen its transformation to a two-million-bottle producer, which should rise to three million in five to ten years. In 2016 he took the decision to drop all still wine production, on the basis that ‘if you asked a hundred people what the Graham Beck name meant, they would say sparkling.’ He doesn’t regret it for a minute, he says. He was instrumental in the creation of the ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ name, which is now the generic brand for South African sparkling wine (unable to call their wine ‘Méthode Champenoise’, the 14 main producers in South Africa got together over a long weekend in 1992 and ‘thrashed out’ the new name).

graham beck sparkling
graham beck winery
The Graham Beck Collection is made using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from seven different regions, with 70 per cent coming from their own vineyards in Robertson

Ferreira might not have moved jobs in half a lifetime, but he’s never stood still. He’s a restless experimenter and leaves nothing to chance, flavour-profiling the Chardonnay ‘from Robertson to Stellenbosch to Paarl to Darling – there is no winery that can show the research and development that we do.’ He experiments with barrel age and size and type, with amphora, concrete and ceramic, and is convinced the latter is the future for sparkling. ‘Concrete is on the way out’. He dismisses the craze for concrete eggs. ‘Why do they always stand upright when no bird sits on an upright egg?’

Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier grapes, which Pieter Ferreira is currently planting, along with Pinot Blanc and Albariño

He’s also planting some Pinot Meunier (they’ve found a clone they like – previously it was just ‘too smokey’). Then there’s some Pinot Blanc, an experimental hectare of Albariño, and he’s even thinking about Assyrtiko, ‘though you have to be very careful with the phenolics’. The idea is to future-proof production. ‘We know we’re in a semi-arid area, so we have to find more drought-resistant varietals. We’re not completely wedded to being only classic.’

The first South African sparkling was released 50 years ago, an anniversary which Ferreira is celebrating by looking forwards. ‘We’re trying to be future fit, preparing ourselves for the next 50 years.’ He’s also made the recent step from cellarmaster to chief operating officer, in order to focus on Cap Classique’s international evolution. As for the journey so far, Mr Bubbles has enjoyed every minute: ‘It’s just been fabulous,’ he says with a smile as we head back out into the rain.

What was your childhood ambition?

To rule the world.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?

Nothing. I was in a happy space at 21.

What exercise do you do?

I grew up a surfer boy, and as I was in Durban I then went on to play a little rugby; in later years I started mountain biking and that keeps me in shape.

durban beach
Durban Beach, a popular South African surfing spot near which Ferreira grew up

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I’d like to be a better communicator.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?

A mountain bike – the Scott Spark RC 900.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

Wow, tough question. It would have to be Portugal. It’s about the Portuguese character, the scenery and their food and wine. It is endless. My wife Ann and I love going there for holidays; every time we go back, we find so many new things to do and experience.

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?

There’s no other job – other than to be a better bubblemaster.

Pieter Ferreira and Pierre de Klerk
Ferreira works his dream job with fellow Cap Classique cellarmaster Pierre de Klerk

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?

I don’t own a Rolex watch so will take my wife, Ann.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

My aspirational philosophy is the pursuit of the perfect bubble and I haven’t achieved that yet…

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

Champagne or Cap Classique for breakfast.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Dom Perignon, Sir Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

A magnum of bubbles.

What’s your secret talent?

I love cooking. I love the adventure of it, learning as I go, understanding a recipe then closing the book and making it. If we are at our beach house, we forage crustaceans and fresh fish, and I’m a mean cook with our pizza oven, which is extremely versatile. I also learnt a lot from my wife’s mother – an incredible cook.

When were you happiest?

Being with my family at our beach house in Pearly Beach [in the Western Cape].

pearly beach western cape
Pearly Beach on the Western Cape, where Ferreira has a house

Who do you most admire?

I admire the grower Champagne houses and how they have rediscovered themselves.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

‘Fabulous’; ‘Delicious’.

What’s your greatest regret?

Not travelling more with Ann.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

Pink Martini [a multi-discipline band from Portland, Oregon]. They are really versatile; my favourite album is Hang on Little Tomato [2004]. I’ve never seen them live but they sound great in the winery during harvest.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?

My handmade Nguni cattle leather shoes. Nguni is a cattle breed indigenous to Southern Africa, introduced by the Nguni people.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

I have so many special memories for so many different reasons, but Domaine Les Crayères in Reims, where Ann and I got engaged, is a very special place for us.

What time do you go to bed?

By 9pm.