The constancy of change

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

South Africa as a country has transformed democratically and dramatically over the past three decades. If anyone had been in a coma for that period, they would hardly recognise the local wine industry because of the renaissance it has experienced – and continues to undergo.

One of the biggest changes which has been brought to bear on South African wine is the attention to detail. No one factor, however small, is overlooked. Just one example of a wine that is changing, albeit ever so slightly but with laser-focused attention to detail, is Klein Constantia’s world-famous Vin de Constance.

There’s a part of me that believes in the old maxim that ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ but I’ve also learned that winemakers find it almost impossible not to tinker a little bit… Having attended the release of the latest vintage of Vin de Constance – the 2009 – I have to say that I’m impressed by the tinkering the team are doing and their future plans for the fabled sweet wine.

Ross Gower was the man who introduced the maiden modern Vin de Constance to the world in 1986 – and it has consistently gained global plaudits and awards for the past 28 years. That continues to be the case, with Decanter magazine having done a vertical of the wine in 2013 and awarding between 93 and 96 points out of 100 to each of the six vintages tasted.

“We want to make Vin de Constance South Africa’s greatest wine and take it back to its former glory,” MD Hans Astrom said bullishly. The intent is to make Vin de Constance automatically associated with the best sweet wines in the world – as it once was, historically drunk by Napoleon, Baudelaire and Jane Austen. “Everyone on the team’s heart and soul is invested in making this dream a reality.”

With the extensive cellar revamp which is currently underway at the Constantia property, one section of the cellar will be devoted specifically to Vin de Constance. “It has to have a ‘home’ that people can touch and see and visit – and know that this is where the wine is made,” Astrom said. And it’s not about PR hype or glitz and glamour: it’ll be authentic.

Current winemaker Matt Day revealed a number of things when talking about the 2009 release. Volumes were down by 25% to 30 000 bottles in 2009 because of stringent quality control – and there will be no 2010. The next vintage will be 2011.

Starting before sunrise, harvesting teams go through the Muscat vineyards time and time again, literally selecting and cutting individual berries which are at the right stage of dessication out of bunches. The selection is stringent. That sort of care extends into the cellar where Day vinifies a variety of components. Some parcels are macerated on the skins “nice and cold”, another is made like a white wine, for yet another the juice is added to very raisined berries to plump them up and rehydrate them. The 2009, for example, is the first Vin de Constance to have had time in acacia wood barrels rather than more traditional French oak. Day is also experimenting with larger volume barrels and new oak too. Vin de Constance traditionally spent four years in barrel. No longer. “We recognised that the oak wasn’t playing a role other than storage – the wine rested in barrel for four years because that’s how long it took to sell out that vintage!”

One of the things noticeable in the Decanter tasting in October 2013 was how the sugar level rose inexorably. In 1988 it stood at 88g per litre, 1992 was 103g, 1996 112g, 2005 157g and 2007 177g. On the current 2009 release the sugar clocks in at 160g/l. The Decanter panel spoke favourably of the wine’s acidity, commenting on the 1996, for example, that it was ‘vivid and bright, still with that steely acidity running right through the core of the wine’.

“We don’t want Vin de Constance to be super sweet,” said Day. “We want it to be a dry sweet wine.” The winemaker is keenly aware of the responsibility which rests on his shoulders and is excited by it. With the various components he has available to him he intends to live up to the challenge. “If you don’t get the picking and winemaking right, you don’t have the complexity, richness and balance between the acidity and sweetness.”

– Fiona McDonald