For much of the 1990s, and into this century, Klein Constantia was one of the notably under-performing grand old Cape wine estates. Even the illustrious sweet Vin de Constance was only usually excellent, and the Sauvignon Blanc was a trifle erratic in its performance. The Riesling was usually nice – and the Marlbrook red blend was really pretty poor compared, say, with Buitenverwachting’s Christine, which showed that Constantia was not doomed to produce only whites.
Things started looking up again when Adam Mason was appointed winemaker in 2003; he brought a much-needed rigorous professionalism to the place. Work in cellar and vineyards yielded good results. Then came the end of the Jooste regime, which had brought about the revival of the estate in the early 1980s –and, together with Buitenverwachting,set in motion the marvellous rebirth of this great wine region, which had largely only survived at all because of the apartheid state’s ownership of Groot Constantia and its interest in developing that place as a model of the triumph of white Protestantism at the southern tip of Africa.
Family squabbles preceded the sale of Klein Constantia in 2011 to the American-Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala. Hans Astrom came in as an energetic and deeply involved MD, determined to build, especially, the international reputation of Vin de Constance, along with that of the estate. At the same time (but not connectedly) Mason left, and his assistant since 2009, Matthew Day, took charge of the cellar – something of a risk, perhaps, putting such a young man in this position at this time, but I don’t think anyone’s regretted the appointment. In the vineyards, equally young Stiaan Cloete (ah, there’s a name for Constantia) moved things in an organic direction – for a short period with the advice of Rosa Kruger; Craig Harris – more youth! – came in as viticulturist in 2013.
And that’s the team now – though it’s undoubtedly significant, especially for the estate’s red wine, that Matt Day has the advice and genuine interest of two of Bordeaux’s most luminous names, Bruno Prats and Hubert de Boüard. They are, in fact, now shareholders in KC, since the merger with Anwilka, which they had founded along with Lowell Jooste.
If I’d had any doubts about just how much has been achieved by Hans Astrom and his team in the past five years, they would have been comprehensively resolved last night. The occasion was a dinner party given in the (much restored and heavily interior-decorated) manor house, to launch the 2012 vintage of Vin de Constance – an important moment for both Matt and Hans, as it is the first made entirely under their aegis.
Pairs of wines separated by one vintage were served with the different courses. Two very different pairs of sauvignons, 2013 and 2015: first, the Metis, rather mineral and elegant, both vintages in fact very youthful. They were both less obviously, typical sauvignon than the Perdeblokke: I admired the intense, concentrated and well balanced 2015 of the latter very much, though it was too exuberantly aromatic for my drinking taste. But clearly 2015 is as good a vintage as expected in Constantia.
The pairs of sauvignons were separated by two very interesting vintages of the Estate Red Blend: the 2012, a firmly structured, ripe and slightly herbal Bordeaux blend, and the 2014 which included syrah (much as Anwilka did from the start, under the influence of Prats and Boüard). The 2014 was certainly more open and easy – perhaps too much so for many people round the table, who found the bigger tannin structure and the flavours of the 2012 more typically Constantia. I myself preferred the freshness and lightness (it seemed less alcoholic, and perhaps less oak-influenced) of the 2014. But both were good – when I think back to a depressing vertical tasting of the KC Marlbrook red blend sometime during Adam Mason’s reign (when it started getting better), well there’s no comparison, and there’s no doubt how much viticulture and winemaking has improved, making a Klein Constantia top red not a contradiction in terms.
The climax of the evening was, of course, the 2012 Vin de Constance, but the pairing in this case was with an older, foreign dessert wine: Château d’Yquem Sauternes 2005 – a great name, of course (apparently not the greatest vintage there, but the wine was lovely). When I was chatting earlier with Hans Astrom about the Vin de Constance, he spoke of “benchmark” tastings including great sweet wines from around the world. When I surmised that VdC would be easy to pick out, having no botrytis, unlike nearly all the others, he looked at me quizzically, and said it was not always easy at all.
And, in fact, this pair proved that point – though it was reasonably apparent which was which, but that was partly because of the substantial age difference, which had added to the “dryness” of the Yquem; sweetness was more apparent in the VdC, but it was very subtle, in fact, and far from dominating the fresh, lively balance. In fact, I found a slight coconut note common to both of them too – and the muscat character of the VdC is even more subtle than usual in 2012 it seems to me. The VdC is still very young (though probably not enough of it will be allowed to develop greater complexity with the decade’s ageing it deserves). It’s a truly fine wine, this 2012 – I think many people around the table preferred it of the pair – and not just out of politeness to the host. (Christian Eedes has given the useful facts and figures about the wine’s production in his comment on Winemag – here).
The price of Vin de Constance has risen a lot in recent years – that’s part of Hans Astrom’s marketing strategy, as well as a signal of its success. Most of the shortish-vintage 2012 has already been sold and allocated around the world (with some peevishness about the reduced volumes). Today there were 60 bottles of it available from the estate – how many of those remain, I don’t know.
It’s strangely comforting to think of this icon doing so well (rather beyond my own reach – it was a privilege to have a few glasses of it last night). And even nicer to have it emerging from a vinous setting that is worthy of it. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I’m returning to Klein Constantia, to spend some time with the winemaker and viticulturist, exploring further.