Squabbles in the cradle of Cape wine

It’s become clear in recent years that there’s something of a struggle going on between Groot Constantia and at least some of the other estates in Constantia, especially Klein Constantia. And especially over the legacy of the famous old Constantia wines of the 18th and 19th centuries. But Groot Constantia also claims that it is the only current estate justified in giving its origin as 1685 – the date of the original grant of the whole vast Constantia farm to Simon van der Stel.

Let’s deal with that one quickly: the only difference between GC and the many other Constantia properties that derive from the 1712 break-up of the original estate is that GC includes the buildings (a nice advantage, but not one that disqualifies the others from tracing their origins to 1685). In fact, if no-one else is entitled to claim 1685, nor is Groot Constantia, given that the name wasn’t used until 1712. And during the period of the wine’s fame, two estates and later three, were responsible for supplying it: the wine was most generally known as “Constantia”, without a specific farm being mentioned.

And so to today’s little article on wine.co.za entitled “Constantia’s dessert wines; when Vin can really be Grand”, by one Dave March.

It’s a pretty shameless piece of propaganda on behalf of Groot Constantia ­– I don’t know if they commissioned the article but he does point out his indebtedness to estate personnel, and doesn’t seem to have done any research or consulted Klein Constantia. Perhaps what I’m writing here can be seen as propaganda on behalf of KC and the rest of the ward’s wineries – but I can at least assure you that I am indebted for my information only to the standard histories of the area (notably Jose Burman’s classic Wine of Constantia). And my only interest is to challenge the manipulation of historical fact by Groot Constantia and those who peddle the results. Constantia is too important a part of the Cape’s wine history for such manipulation to pass unchallenged.

VindeconstanceMr March (who comes very close to accusing KC of telling lies)  seems confused by the name of Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance, and the claim that it is a recreation of the original Constantia wine (or one of the original wines – there were various versions, including red). It’s a modern name, Dave and GC – there’s no significant claim, as far as I know (as there is for Grand Constance) that the name was used historically. So, pointing out triumphantly that Vin de Constance has only been produced since 1986 is not disputed, and doesn’t prove anything. It certainly doesn’t prove that Vin de Constance is not a “true descendant” of the original.

Continuing his theme of “Vin de Constance” not having been produced back then, Mr March says:

“Also, Klein’s VdC was not being produced at the time they refer to on their website in a Baudelaire poem of 1856 and Charles Dicken’s ‘Edwin Drood’ (1859) in which the Constantia sweet wine is mentioned – the wine mentioned came from Groot yet Klein Constantia make mention of it inferring it came from them?”

Now, if we disentangle that, add a few commas and replace “inferring” by “implying” we might get to a point that is valid: Klein Constantia  does not seem to have contributed to “Constantia” wines in the mid 19th century. Groot Constantia did contribute – and so did Hoop-op-Constantia and High Constantia, which is something that GC and their propagandist conveniently ignore. In fact, by the middle of the century, it seems that High Constantia was doing rather better than Groot.

grand-constance-2Anyway, the wine was generally known as Constantia, though it seems that in France at least some bottles were labelled “Grand Constance” – the name that GC have chosen to give to their recreation of the historic wine (a few decades after KC’s was launched).

So that’s a point, but then Mr March continues by saying that “No, the wine supped [he must mean sipped] copiously by the likes of Frederick the Great of Prussia and Jane Austen before 1817 … was a wine from Groot Constantia”. That “No” is inaccurate, and it’s all meaningless if you want to deny Klein Constantia’s role. Firstly, as I say, there were three farms (early on only two) that supplied the wine known as “Constantia” to most of its customers. There is no knowing the precise origin of the grapes in Jane Austen’s Constantia.

Secondly, in 1817, Klein Constantia was part of Groot Constantia as it had been for a century! That split came only in 1823 (the name Klein Constantia was dormant till then, having earlier been used for a quite different estate).

So KC’s vineyards were undoubtedly supplying grapes for Constantia in those days, including the whole of the 18th century. Any claims Groot Constantia can make about pre-1823 Constantia can obviously also be made by Klein Constantia.

What’s the point of this aggressive bickering by Groot Constantia and its scribes? Can’t they see that getting on with their neighbours, and jointly revelling in a splendid history, would be better for everyone, including themselves? Trying to take to themselves all that glory (they already have many of the best buildings, even if the GC manor house was reconstructed after the great fie of 1925), and trying to rubbish Klein Constantia is not only against the facts of history – it’s downright stupid. Just as Romanée Conti and Echezeaux, or Lafite and Latour don’t detract from each other in Burgundy and Bordeaux – rather the opposite – there’s plenty of room for both Vin de Constance and Grand Constance to celebrate great modern wines in continuity with their splendid past. A shared past. Let’s have a shared present.

11 thoughts on “Squabbles in the cradle of Cape wine

  1. Well, I guess discussion is healthy, so can I make a few points? Firstly, no-one commissioned my article, it never was ‘shameless propaganda by GC’, though I did check details with them…I had no idea there was any animosity between the estates re the original dessert wine, any interpretations were mine alone. Secondly, I do mean ‘supped’ and not ‘sipped’ as was used in the days of Dickens eg ‘to sup ale’. I agree the grapes in GC may have come from KC vines, I was trying to establish that the producer of the C19th wine could not have been KC. That is all; I certainly was not trying to disparage any wine lineage or take any side. You are more blatantly supportive of one than I. Lastly, the tone of this article – it feels quite personally critical – hardly contributes to an easing of any tension that might exist (which I agree seems utterly silly), and I am certainly not a GC scribe as you imply. Had I known you had so much research at your fingertips I would most certainly have consulted you.
    Dave March CWM

    • Humph, Dave, have you not got let alone read Tim’s book, Wines of the New South Africa, into which he put more research than many other who claim to have written about the country’s wine history? Historical accuracy, which I believe Tim’s account gives, is much more important than producer one-upmanship

  2. Dear Tim.Just to put the facts straight. Dave decided on his own to wright the article after we have notified him about a mistake in the Cape Wine Academy’s course material. We have not tasked him to wright this article and you are therefore wrong to call it “a pretty shameless piece of propaganda on behalf of Groot Constantia”. We however support his article and you are more than welcome to come and discuss your understanding of the historical facts with me as we share the vision to have history correctly represented.
    Jean Naude,CEO Groot Constantia.

  3. Dave, ask yourself just one thing: would your article have cut the mustard as part of a CWM thesis, considering the poor research? Methinks not.

    Jean,your “support of the article” and “understanding of the historical facts” are irrelevant.Neither the GC wine nor the KC wine is made from 17th-19th century vineyards. Klein Constantia has built a world-class track record with their Vin de Constance, roughly for 30 years longer than your own product. Both wines strive (and aptly so) to regain the brilliance of a lost era. Offering a one-eyed view of history doesn’t make yours better- much rather it negates all the goodwill Boela Gerber is generating with his superb work in the cellar. He doesn’t deserve that.

  4. Dave seems to have had good intentions in attempting to “set the record straight” by arguing that Klein Constantia could not have produced the world-famous sweet Constantia wine of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The problem is that Klein Constantia has never claimed this, for the simple and obvious reason that it cannot do so, having only been established in 1823 when it was sub-divided from Groot Constantia. All Klein Constantia ever set out to do was RECREATE the wine, which it has done with considerable success, and which it was perfectly entitled to do, having been part of the vast original Constantia estate established by Simon van der Stel in 1685.

    Of relevance is that when Klein Constantia was carved off from Groot Constantia in 1823, it came with some 30,000 vines (according to the Opgaafrolle/taxation list). It’s impossible to state with 100% certainty that fruit from those vines had previously gone into Groot Constantia’s sweet wine, but it seems highly likely, given how much demand there had been for it. Meanwhile, Groot Constantia was never the exclusive producer of sweet Constantia wine. There was in fact an earlier Klein Constantia, created in 1712 after Simon van der Stel’s death, when Constantia was divided into three to create Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Bergvliet. In due course, this original Klein Constantia was renamed Hoop op Constantia, but right up until the 1850s its vineyards produced the “legendary” Constantia wine alongside Groot Constantia.

    I am not making this up. It is very clearly documented (in Dutch East India Company memorials and visitor accounts alike) that there were always TWO celebrated vineyards of Constantia (joined much later by the likes of High Constantia). What’s more, it was Klein/Hoop op Constantia’s Johannes Colijn who arranged the first regular shipments of Constantia wine to Europe, starting in 1726, at a time when Groot Constantia doesn’t appear to have been producing much wine, if any (its owner, Olof Bergh, had died in 1724 and his widow, Anna de Koningh, lived in Cape Town until her own death in 1734, at which point Colijn secured a loan for his brother-in-law to purchase Groot Constantia).

    Suffice it to say that recovered old bottles labelled “Constantia Wyn” are just as likely to have come from Klein/Little/Hoop op Constantia as from Groot Constantia. It was only towards the end of the glory days, and in the face of new competition from the likes of High Constantia, that the farms really started differentiating themselves. Groot Constantia eventually even labelled some of its wines under the name of its then owner, JP Cloete – the same JP Cloete who in 1843 took out some advertising, stating rather sarcastically: “In consequence of several Constantias having latterly sprung up it has been thought useful by the undersigned to publish the following travelling directions for the information of strangers, by which disappointment may be prevented…” (The original Klein/Hoop op Constantia, in case anyone is wondering, was/is a very short stroll down the hill from Groot Constantia. Although it was incorporated into Groot Constantia in the 1970s, its own history is so remarkable that it doesn’t deserve to be glossed over…)

    Of course, ALL of Constantia’s vineyards were wiped out in the late 1800s, effectively leaving only the “terroir”. When the team at Klein Constantia decided to try and recreate the famous sweet wine of Constantia in the early 1980s, they planted vines propagated (at Ernita Nursery in Wellington) from a clone of Muscat de Frontignan that Professor Chris Orffer firmly believed had come from the original Constantia vineyards, given that he could find no other records of Muscat de Frontignan being imported after Jan van Riebeeck’s time.

    Regarding the name… I don’t believe Napoleon requested “Vin de Constance” or even “Vin du Cap”; he is only quoted as having said “give me a glass of Las Cases’ wine” (and it’s Emmanuel, Comte de las Cases, by the way, rather than Immanuel de la Casse). However, Restaurant Véry in Paris had “Vin de Constance” listed on its menu as early as 1790 (costing 40 francs for a half-bottle compared to 10 francs for a full bottle of Vin de Chably [sic] and 25 francs for the Vin de Sauterne) so the name isn’t an entirely modern invention. All in all, the history of Constantia is fascinating and wonderful – far more fascinating and wonderful, in fact, than the narrative currently provided (and sometimes contested) by the Constantia producers of the modern era.

    In closing I would like to state for the record that I researched the history of Constantia wine a couple of years ago on behalf of Klein Constantia, but if I’m biased towards anyone, it’s towards the Colijns of the ORIGINAL Klein Constantia. Watch this space…

  5. All this talk …. i have opened up a bottle of Vin de Constance 2007 . Long live both farms and top dessert wines from these 2 farms.

    Ps great article Tim

  6. Comprehensive response Joanne, I would like to know what source you used to state KC was craved out of GC in 1824; my understanding is this split happened in 1712 on vd Stel’s death.
    Hence the entire premise of one property claiming to be the source of sweet wine prior to 1712 becoming void; as it was called Constantia.

  7. If I may reply to your question, Francois. The confusion arises from the fact that there were TWO Klein Constantias. The first KC was, indeed, one of the original three-way split of Constantia. But its name was changed to Hoop-op-Constantia with a new owner in 1776. The modern KC was the name given to a deduction of land from Groot Constantia in 1823. (The wine was called just Constantia virtually all the way through the 18th and 19th centuries and came, as I and Joanne pointed out, from more than one farm.)

    • Just to add that the “new” owner of Klein/Hoop-op-Constantia in 1776 was Johannes Nicolaas Colijn, son of Johannes Colijn, the man who first started exporting Constantia wine in 1726. He was a toddler when his father died, and in the interim it was his mother’s new husband, Lambertus Myburgh, who took the winemaking reins at Klein/Hoop (while his aunt’s husband, Georg Wieser, made Groot Constantia’s wine until 1759). Suffice it to say that the Colijns were hugely important from 1718 right up until 1857, yet they have all but been written out of history.

  8. Thanks Joanne, find all this very interesting.
    I sent Tim two Swedish authors names who also wrote about the production of the region during this period, sure their journals will be archived somewhere.

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