By Robin H. Phillips
For most people, when you think of wine, you imagine Napa, Provence, Tuscany. Of course, wine enthusiasts know that many other countries produce terrific bottles, but there is one that is a stand-out: South Africa—the world’s seventh-largest exporter of fine wines. Bringing these magical wines to America has been the award-winning and innovative Cape Classics’ passion and business for nearly 25 years. CEO Robert Bradshaw explains that there is so much more to making a great wine than just harvesting grapes from ancient vines. “Our farms and our business, it’s been a revelation celebrating something that isn’t always found in the wine industry—authenticity and information,” he explains earnestly. “Cape Classics is about agriculture, not agri-business. Grapes that are brought in by hand. The farmers are not only religious about maintaining the delicate ecosystems around them, but the grapes are brought in by hand. That, and so much more.”
When South African native André Shearer saw a gap in the U.S. wine market for high quality South African wines, he created Cape Classics. Today, the importer employs 30 people between the U.S. and South Africa, and has expanded its portfolio to include French estates as well. The guiding force behind Cape Classics’ success is their meticulous selection of wineries—primarily family-run farms who hold the same values of quality and an unwavering commitment to sustainability. These are vineyards that they know will be committed, long-term partners.
“In over 20 years of business, we’ve always let the wines speak for themselves,” says Bradshaw. “For us, it starts with authentic, passionate people who have a story to tell and vision to share. When that is the premise for everything you do, then you can focus on relationships, service, and ultimately make a difference by sharing these stories, great wines, and by treating people with care and respect. In the end, that’s our true legacy.”
It might sound silly but it is true: in a Cape Classics wine you can actually taste something special—the energy of the devoted farmer that cultivated it. “What’s right for the land comes through in these wines,” explains Bradshaw. “The acidity, freshness, tension. The palate has soul.” Indeed, South Africa was practicing sustainable farming long before the rest of the world, and all of Cape Classics vintners earn a sustainability seal that marks how they handle water, alien vegetation, the wild land, and even how they treat their workers.”
Among its plethora of recognitions recently, Cape Classics won the Wine Enthusiast 2018 Wine Star Award for Importer of the Year. Seven of their wines landed on 2020 Top 100 lists, including several Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator prestigious picks. While fans of Cape Classics stable of wines grow every year, some of their biggest devotees are their most important ones. George Miliotes is a Master Sommelier and renowned restaurant wine buyer. Currently he runs what Bradshaw says may be the best, and perhaps most surprising, wine bar in America: Wine Bar George at Disney Springs.
“We love South African wine at Wine Bar George. Our love knows no bounds as we list classics from South Africa like Pinotage from Kanonkop, Chenin Blanc from Raats, Cabernet Blend from De Toren and Chardonnay from Excelsior. This wide range of varietals and styles keeps us infatuated. We also love Cape Classics as they are one of the original importers to introduce wines from South Africa to the USA. Their passion and follow through in finding the finest producers is unparalleled. Cape Classic’s open mind to new producers and growing areas reflects the possibilities of all of South Africa while still being true to the classic makers and areas,” explains Miliotes.
While 2020 was a painful year for the entire world, it rained heavily on the parade of the wine industry. Restaurants and hotel shutdowns—some 30 percent of Cape Classic’s business—along with South African banning alcohol sales and shutting borders and retail stores operating at 25 percent capacity—all of this had an impact on Cape Classics, and of course, all luxury goods. But the ever-positive Bradshaw doubled down and found other ways to get his wines to the world, from Trader Joes to Wegman’s to Costco—to the best online location for wine—Wine.com. Bradshaw and his creative, hard-working team ensured Cape Classics made it to consumers through the channels that were still open. With so much of America stuck at home, it’s no surprise Cape Classics online wine sales at Wine.com rose 219 percent in 2020.
“Cape Classics is a genuinely passionate team of people with a strong commitment to social responsibility,” explains senior Wine.com buyer Wendy Stanford. “South Africa’s vast and varied landscape boasts unparalleled natural beauty, from oceans to savannas to mountains, it’s an incredibly unique terroir and the Cape Classics portfolio takes full advantage. One particular favorite is also a Wine.com top seller, Terre Brulee Chenin Blanc. With the French influence of winemaker Vincent Careme and the unique soils of the Swartland region, it elevates South African Chenin Blanc to a whole new level of quality and expressiveness,” she explains. “Another standout is the everyday-priced collection from Indaba, a brand that reinvests in education and sustainability for underserved South African communities, making it a wine you can really feel good about stocking up on.”
Bradshaw is proud of his company and how they have made the best of a difficult situation and kept their staff intact. While 2021 isn’t promising to have us back to normal anytime soon, Bradshaw feels we have all learned a lot and he certainly sees the silver lining. “Amidst this hardship, many of us find that more than ever, we are treasuring our lives and our families, and now so appreciate all those luxuries of a non-pandemic world—like eating out and celebrating with friends. We can’t wait to get back to it.”
Don’t miss these Cape Classics wines
- Glenelly Estate Reserve, Chardonnay 2018
Glenelly’s proprietor is May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, former owner of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Bordeaux. The 2018 Estate Reserve Chardonnay is #34 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2020 list.
- Excelsior Cabernet, Sauvignon 2019
Excelsior was a Shanken News “Hot Prospect” for Imported Wines and the 2018 Cabernet landed on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Best Buys of 2020 list. The 2019 rivals the ‘18!
- Kanonkop Paul, Sauer 2016
The 2015 Paul Sauer was South Africa’s 1st 100 point wine, as rated by Tim Atkin. The 2016 is off to favorable start in regards to reviews with 96 points by Vinous.