Vin de Constance over four decades

South African wine writer Malu Lambert happened to be in London when her country’s most famous wine was displayed in all its glory. We asked her for a report. 

Vin de Constance is living history. It’s South Africa’s most fêted wine, and it has been for centuries. In the early 19th century, Constantia’s sweet wines were all the rage in the European courts. Nobility was said to prefer it over the likes of Yquem and Tokaji.

But unlike these two famous sweet wines, Vin de Constance isn’t botrytised. Termed a natural sweet wine, it is made from pale-skinned Muscat de Frontignan grapes left on the vine to dessicate until almost raisined. The must is fermented partly in tank and partly in barrel, then the wine is matured in oak, without fortification. 

Vin de Constance is described as ‘a recreation of the legendary Constantia sweet wine made in the 18th and 19th centuries'. Towards the end of the 19th century, phylloxera put a stop to its kingly reign, and it disappeared for around 100 years until its contemporary renaissance in 1990, which heralded the release of the Vin de Constance 1986 by the Klein Constantia estate in the suburbs of Cape Town. And it’s been going strong ever since. 

Klein Constantia’s winemaker Matthew Day (below) ew to London to present a four-decade vertical at the Institute of Masters of Wine, organised by UK distributors Mentzendor.

‘The journey of these wines is up and down the whole time, they’re constantly evolving', said Day, addressing the room. Glasses of amber, ochre, toffee and gold were poured – 10 vintages spanning 1987 to 2015.

On the use of oak, Day commented, ‘With time in oak the Vin de Constance evolves from primary and super-aromatic with Turkish delight and Muscat aromas to more delicate and oral secondary aromatics and then much later to a tertiary profile of dried apricot, marmalade and roasted nuts.

On the making of the wine, Day expanded, ‘We aim to have numerous components with completely dierent attributes that we blend together, both during and after fermentation, in order to create the perfect balance between sugar, alcohol and acidity. In order to do so we first pick the greener, low-sugar berries that contain high acid levels, and then throughout the season we pick fractions that are riper, riper and riper until a point that we have sufficient raisins that we can pick berry for berry. Once the bunch has a certain percentage of raisins, we will harvest bunch for bunch and pass through numerous times looking for the perfectly ripened bunch. 

‘The trick is getting the balance between sugar, alcohol and acidity right. That’s why we have reduced the ageing in barrel to roughly three years. We find the wine is fresher, more aromatic and more in balance. So all vintages from 2012 to the current one are aged for three years, and the rest were aged for approximately four years.’

The current vintage (2015) was matured on the gross lees in 50% new barrels, of which 85% is French oak, 10% is Hungarian oak and 5% is acacia. The remaining 50% is aged in a combination of second- and third-fill barrels, with a similar breakdown for the origin of the wood. After this period the wine was racked out of barrel and the nal blend was made. It then spent a further six months in tank before bottling. 

The original Constantia Wyn (Dutch for 'wine') was made by Van der Stel on Constantia in the late 1600s. Today Van der Stel’s Groot Constantia estate next to Klein Constantia makes a wine similar to Vin de Constance that they call Grand Constance, also a natural sweet wine but made from both white and red Muscat de Frontignan grapes. 

One of the most detailed records of making the wine was kept by Lambertus Johannes Colijn in the 1720s, who made it at Hoop op Constantia. His maternal grandparents are said to have come to the Cape as slaves from West Africa. 

Colijn’s story is now re-emerging. It’s said he kept a journal detailing the making of the Constantia wine with notes on soil preparation and pest control (‘placing rolled-up vine leaves in the vines to catch weevils’); barrel treatment (‘those with a musty smell must be kept full of clean water for eight days’); and fining (‘each cask with a basin of sheep- or goat’s blood’).

Most illuminating is his account of the making of the wine, which is very similar to how it is produced today (albeit with modern winemaking equipment): ‘In order to make good Constantia wine, one should allow the grapes to ripen thoroughly before cutting. They should be half-way towards becoming raisins, and during the cutting all rotten and unripe berries have to be spotted, picked out and disposed of. Great care must be taken to listen daily, and if fermenting continues [the wine] has to be placed in a cask, which was treated the day before with a piece of sulphur six inches long and four fingers broad, but no longer than this, as otherwise the wine is bleached too much. And after it has been lying still for eight days, it is poured over into clean casks which are treated the day before, on the first of May. And then from the first of August, clean casks again’. 

The Klein Constantia farm’s current era began in the 1980s, when it was purchased by the Jooste family. The late Professor Chris Orer proved instrumental here. A viticulturist at Stellenbosch University, he encouraged the new owners to try to recreate the historic sweet wine. Alongside viticulturist Ernst le Roux, the professor managed to source and propagate a clone believed to be descended from the original Muscat de Frontignan, imported by Jan van Riebeeck in 1656. 

The 1987, the oldest in the flight, sang: vibrant with flavours of marmalade and apricots and earthier notes of mushroom and cola, the balance is finely tuned by its acidity. The next in line, the 1989, didn’t quite have the fruit and shine of its predecessor, its tertiary characteristics evolved and nutty with a gingery edge. The 1994 was dense and concentrated and showed just how well the Vin de Constance can evolve. 

About the 1991 Day said, ‘The point of the tasting isn’t to showcase how good the wines are, but rather to highlight what balance is all about. I purposefully placed some of the vintages into the flight to demonstrate this – even though we knew they weren’t the strongest representation of what Vin de Constance is all about. The 1999 stood out as being too sweet and isn’t a style that I would necessarily strive for.’ 

The 2004 entered with candied mango and deepened to notes of mushrooms and coffee, clearly still evolving. The 2008 was a bright surprise, spiced with cloves, vanilla and pithy Seville orange, saline and fresh yet honeyed at the same time. ‘It’s the absolute discovery of the flight', agrees Day. ‘I’ve never tasted it that good before, I’m blown away.’ 

On to Day’s wines. His maiden vintage was 2012 and the longest on record, the harvest taking three months from the end of January until the end of April. Fermentation was also extended and took a full six months. 

From the get-go he has steered Vin de Constance in a fresher direction. ‘I want to bring out the fruit and oral character in the wine and for it to be as expressive as possible. I don’t want it to display tertiary aromas too early on.’ 

Super-fresh with aromatics of white blossom, candied orange, marmalade, dried g and spice, on the palate the 2012 was full and unctuous, balanced by bracing acidity. Day was thrilled with the way it is currently showing. ‘That’s the thing with these wines', he said, ‘they’re always changing'. 

The 2015, a vintage lauded as one of the greats in the Cape, has also subtly shifted direction. This wine was the rst to be produced in Klein Constantia’s new cellar, with equipment dedicated to the making of Vin de Constance. 

It was also the vintage that came on the back of the three-year drought, resulting in the earliest harvest since 1986. ’The drought affected all vintages from 2013 until 2018', Day observed. ‘Now in 2019 we hope we have finally seen the end of the drought. It has been a very wet winter.’ 

The 2015 is steelier than the 2012 – showing vibrant expressions of citrus and oral aromatics, while the mouthfeel is luscious with creamy stone fruit and flint.  

To end the tasting Day had a trick up his sleeve. Alongside the flight, there are three glasses filled with colourless liquid. Glass one is pure alcohol and water; two is acid (demonstrated using tartaric); and three is a mix of sugars – fructose and glucose. The building blocks of Vin de Constance. 

‘These components need to be in perfect harmony, and if you get that right, you get balance, and that’s the number one thing. Sweet wines shouldn’t be about the sugar, it should be about creating the balance between sugar, alcohol and acidity in order to create a wine that almost tastes dry.’ 

What Day couldn’t isolate for this experiment was the intangible combination of time and terroir; and with those wings it flies into its new age of making history. As from 1 September 2019, as reported in The Place de Bordeaux spreads its wings, Vin de Constance became the rst South African wine to be sold by the Bordeaux négociants, with distribution by CVBG, Duclot Export and Maison Joanne.

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