An old – not so old! – Constantia

Today, greatly privileged, I had a small glassful of Constantia, probably from 1875.

That was a significant year for the valley. Jacob Cloete of Groot Constantia died, and it was revealed that the famous estate, the largest and most important in Constantia, was insolvent. The whole valley was in a bad way, for various reasons, despite the great international lustre of Constantia sweet wine over the preceding century and a half. Ten years later, in 1885, Groot Constantia was bought by the Cape government, and it became a model farm and wine-school and a major grower of American rootstocks for replanting grapevines when phylloxera was devastating the winelands.

It is an immense loss to Cape wine, as Klein Constantia MD Hans Astrom pointed out today, that there was no continuous production of Constantia (as the dessert wine was generally known) from the late seventeenth century when the estate of Constantia was founded by Simon van der Stel until today. Production of a wine made in the old style was resumed by Klein Constantia in 1986 (with 1987 the first commercial release) – but it is very unclear when the last sweet wine before then had been made, surely close to 80 years.

In an article I wrote some years ago on “The ghost grape and other mysteries of Constantia” (here’s a link to it: Constantia mysteries) I remarked on the oddness of the situation where more people today have drunk Constantia from the late 18th century than from the late 19th. I could then find no tasting record of a wine bottled later than 1862. Sweet wine did, though, continue to be made for some years after 1875 even, though clearly on a much reduced scale.

Groot Constantia reported in 1894, for example, a wine harvest of “100 leaguers, of which 30 are sweet”. In 1899, it was reported that “the output of the old famous Sweet Constantia will be considerably reduced”. Several reasons were given, the main one being that “of late only one year in three has proved to be hot and dry enough for the making of a good sweet wine”. And I’ve seen a 1907 report on an ‘Exhibition on the Wine Trade’ in England, showcasing four leading Cape firms. The judges there said that said the best of them were the sweet white wines – mostly Constantia. The report lists those wines as being White, Frontignac, Muscadel, White Muscadel, Red Muscadel, and Sweet Pontac: it’s too often forgotten that the famous old Constantia was not one wine, but many, including red and white versions – one of the latter being from chenin blanc, virtually a stranger to the valley these days (this 1875 was unquestionably from white grapes).

So, it’s clear that sweet Constantia was still being made as late as the early 19th century, though we don’t know (in the absence of any known tasting notes from the time) if it was up to the standards of the old wines. Since I wrote my article, I believe some latter 19th-century bottles have emerged and been tasted, but the 1875 I had today was the first that I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of tasting. (There was no label, but the auction house apparently had reasons for giving this as the vintage.) Twenty years ago I did have a small glassful of a superb Constantia from the late 18th or early 19th century (the exact vintage wasn’t known); today’s was as fresh, exciting and fine as that.

The tasting, for a smallish group, in the old cellar at Klein Constantia, was made possible through the generosity of a Swedish collector and lover of wine (especially old wines), Nils Sternby, who donated two bottles of a parcel of six he’d bought at auction many years ago – he’d drunk two of them and had for a while forgotten about the others! Klein Constantia provided a little context by also serving Vin de Constance from 2013, 2012, 2004, 1995 and 1987.

The colour of the wines told a significant part of the story. Modern South African dessert wines seem to get dark distressingly soon, and the range of Vin de Constances showed the expected progression, with the 1987 being dark amber-brown, with a clear olive-green rim. The colour of the 1875 was somewhere between those of the 1995 and the 2004: a beautiful gradation from an amber heart to a yellow-gold-pale olive rim. (Even the 2004 was acquiring that olive tinge to its rim.)

The cork of the 1875. In suspiciously good condition? There’s no knowledge of the wine having ever been recorked.

It must be said that the 1875 was fresher, and more elegant, than the older Vins de Constance – though there was still plenty of life in the rich, enticing and aromatic 1987. And there was a definite aromatic connection between all six wines, with even the ancient one still hinting at its muscat origins. It did seem to most of us there that there was a detectable hint of spirit in the 1875 (this will be confirmed when the wine is analysed, via the alcohol level, and we will also learn about the acidity and residual sugar levels), but it was as beautifully integrated and light, if so, as in a fine fino sherry. The wine was subtly, elegantly aromatic, lightly spicy. Flavours included touches of resin, Christmas cake, rose-petal, and just a hint of caramel – and I dare say other tasters found other characters: the wine was complex enough to cater to all of our associations and physical specifications! And no need to hurry drinking up any bottles of the stuff you might have lying around; this wine is cruising.

Why have these old Constantias lasted so long and so palely? (The 200 year-old one I had was also light.) Not just the fortification, it seems, as some seem not to have been fortified at all. I’d love to think that the 2012 is going to make fine old bones; I find it a most impressive wine. I’ll never know if it makes at least 50 years (or longer) as totally gracefully as the 1875 has made 140, but for the sake of tasters to come, I do hope so – if it doesn’t prove irresistible long before then.

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