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RESEARCH NOTES BY PROFESSOR DJ VAN ZYL
The Constantia wine tradition

The reputation of Constantia wines

Historically, the red and white Constantia sweet wines produced at the Cape during the 18th and 19th centuries were the only great wines ever to be produced in the southern hemisphere. These unique wines were among the most sought-after vintages until they vanished after 1886, mainly due to the outbreak of phylloxera which destroyed the original Cape vineyards.

During these centuries, Constantia wine was the most prized sweet wine throughout the world, particularly highly valued by the kings and the emperors of Europe. From the Prussian King Frederick the Great and King George IV of England to King Louis-Philippe of France, almost all the crowned heads imbibed it. Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte, while in exile on the isle of Saint Helena (1815–1821), requested a glass of Constantia wine on the evening of his death.

Appreciated by monarchs, the wine was also celebrated by numerous poets and writers. In Sense and Sensibility, the British novelist Jane Austen recommended to her heroine a glass of Constantia for its “healing powers on a disappointed heart”. Charles Baudelaire, in Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), compares the charms of the beloved to the pleasures of the night and Constantia wine: “Even more than Constantia, than opium, than Nuits, I prefer the elixer of your mouth, where love performs its slow dance.”

The famous producers of Constantia wines

In recognition of his development of the Cape, the VOC granted Commander Simon van der Stel a huge tract of land in 1685 – an estate as large as the city of Amsterdam, in the beautiful valley of Constantia on the lower slopes of the Steenbergen. Here on Constantia – after Simon’s death in 1713 divided into Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia, also known later as De Hoop op Constantia – the famous Constantia wines were produced.

Although Simon van der Stel gave birth to the legend by producing the first excellent Constantia wines, it was Johannes Colyn and his family successors of De Hoop op Constantia, and since 1778 Hendrik Cloete (who built the beautiful homestead on Groot Constantia) and his family successors of Groot Constantia, who really made Constantia wines internationally renowned.

Character of the Constantia wines

Constantia wines were natural sweet wines made mainly of Muscadel grapes (Red and White), but small quantities were also made of Pontac and White Frontignac grapes. (The original vines were probably imported from France and planted by Simon van der Stel on Groot Constantia and the neighbouring De Hoop op Constantia).

On each farm, about 14 000 litres (140 hectolitres) of Red Muscadel wine (sold as Red Constantia) and 7 000 litres of White Muscadel wine (sold as White Constantia) were produced. Only a few hundred litres of Constantia Pontac and Constantia White Frontignac were produced, and these were often used to blend with the Muscadel wines.

These wines, due to their extremely high quality and scarcity, were 10 times the price of ordinary Cape wines and not available on the open market. The VOC, as well as the British government after 1795, however, claimed a high percentage of the production of Constantia wines from their owners for local and foreign high-ranking people at much less than the market price. This was highly detrimental financially to the Constantia wine farmers up to the 1830s, when the authorities stopped taking advantage of their precious products.

The superior quality of the Constantia wines can be attributed to a combination of positive factors: the quality of its terrain, combining a Mediterranean climate and a temperate sea influence from two different oceans; a particularly rich granitic soil suited to the cultivars ideally suitable for making high-quality sweet wines from; the excellent and careful viticultural and winemaking methods followed by the winemakers; the absence of major vine diseases; and the sunny weather condition during the summer months which allowed the vintners to leave the grapes on the vine until the berries had virtually become raisins. Picking late in March, they kept the must in their well-equipped cellars until the wines had acquired a delicate, full-bodied flavour.

The original Constantia wines, some of which were tasted by C Louis Leipoldt, author of a book on the history of Cape wines, were described by him as follows: “a magnificent, pre-oidium, liqueur wine, unique in its low alcoholic strength for such a full-bodied wine, exceedingly aromatic with a rich, sparkling colour and with a delicious flavour. Its low acidity probably prevented it from having much of a bouquet… It improved with age, as all such full-bodied wines do, but lost something of its colour, becoming lighter but throwing no crust…”

The revival of the Constantia wine tradition

A century after the famous Constantia wine tradition ended as a result of the original vineyards at the Cape being destroyed by the phylloxera plant insect, Duggie Jooste and his son, Lowell, new owners of Klein Constantia (a wine estate neighbouring Groot Constantia which formed part of the original Constantia but not to be confused with the original Klein Constantia, also called De Hoop op Constantia), decided to bring the unique heritage of Constantia wines back to life. Under the influence of the late Professor Chris Orffer, a passionate oenologist, the Joostes began to research and experiment in order to produce a wine faithful to the original vintage.

In order to “revive” the Vin de Constance, as they called their new Constantia wine, the new masters of Klein Constantia selected small-berry Muscat planting material, called Muscat de Frontignac, which had been identified as one of the original cultivars. Since the late 80s of the previous century these vines were planted only on a small section of the vineyards, just over two hectares in all. Like the method applied by the original Constantia owners, harvesting takes place at the end of March, giving the grapes ample time to ripens for a very long period of time on the vine, whence the concentration of sugar and fruity aromas.

Since 1990, when Vin de Constance was first launched on the market, it has become extremely popular with wine connoisseurs, both locally and abroad, especially in Denmark and France, and has been praised for its stunning Muscat flavours. The demand for Vin de Constance soon outstripped the production by far. It is regarded as one of the rare cult wines of the Cape and, possibly, the only truly international one.

Vin de Constance is possibly as close to the original Constantia wine as you can get. It is, however, doubtful if there will ever be a wine being produced on a par with the traditional Constantia wines. That is something of the past because the original vines do not exist anymore. The specific character of those wines made from the original vines was unique and can never be reproduced.