Loved by Dickens, Austen and Napoleon, the sweet wines of Constantia were legendary in the 18th and 19th century. But Klein Constantia – the estate revived in the 1980s – is done with looking back. Ahead of the release of the 2019 vintage, Sophie Thorpe caught up with winemaker Matthew Day to find out what lies ahead
South Africa is one of the most exciting wine-producing nations right now. A new generation – led by the likes of Eben Sadie, the Mullineux, Chris Alheit and many more – has put the Cape firmly on the fine wine agenda. Its pinpoint Chenin Blanc, serious Syrah and laidback winemakers have made it the darling of the industry – yet this modish group of surfer-cum-winemakers seems a world away from the sweet wines of Constantia.
“Constantia Wyn” was South Africa’s original vinous export – savoured by the good and great of the 18th and 19th centuries. Bismarck, Frederick the Great, Louis XVI and George Washington are all noted to have enjoyed it, while Napoleon had vast volumes shipped to him in exile on St Helena (drinking up to a bottle a day) – and it was supposedly the only thing he wished to consume on his deathbed. The wine is mentioned by Dickens, Dumas and Baudelaire, while in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility Mrs Jennings famously recommends the wine for “its healing powers on a disappointed heart”.
How, then, did such a legendary wine fall from grace? Economic downturn in the second half of the 19th century, followed by the arrival of mildew and phylloxera in the Cape, and the subsequent dominance of the KWV – the state-run cooperative – saw it vanish.
But in 1985, the Klein Constantia property was bought by Duggie Jooste. He replanted the vineyards, built a new winery and worked on overhauling the long-neglected estate. In 1986 he and winemaker Ross Gower produced the first vintage of Vin de Constance – their tribute to “Constantia Wyn” – released in 1990. It was made with Muscat de Frontignan (a particularly thick-skinned clone of Muscat) left to raisin on the vine, producing a luscious sweet wine, with no botrytis influence. It was an instant success – but quality and style was inconsistent, and Vin de Constance was just one wine in the range, rather than a focus.
It’s only in 2012 that the new chapter for Klein Constantia begins. The property had been for sale for a while and – as Vice Chairman Hans Astrom told me – it was “a bit dusty”, severely in need of attention. It changed hands in 2011, with Zdenek Bakala – an American-Czech billionaire – and British banker Charles Harman taking over, merging a year later with the Stellenbosch estate Anwilka, part-owned by Duggie Jooste’s son Lowell Jooste, Hubert de Boüard (of Ch. Angélus) and Bruno Prats (previously of Cos d’Estournel). Matthew Day – who had been working at the property since 2008 – took over as winemaker. While the estate still produces a full range of whites and reds, Vin de Constance is its flagship.
Klein Constantia’s winemaker Matthew Day
Now, a decade on, the importance of this shift is shining through. Being a “legacy winery” used to be “what got us in the door”, Day explains – but Klein Constantia is no longer trading on its past.
The wines made between 1986 and 2012 were experimental, Day notes – with bottlings ranging significantly in sweetness (from 80 to 180g/l residual sugar) – but they were “vital in figuring out where we are going”. His favourites from that era are the 1987, 1991, 1995, 1996 and 2001 (“with 1991 and 1987 being at the top of that list”), but he’s more excited about the wines he’s producing today. “The older Vin de Constances are more in the style of being sweet wines, whereas the newer vintages are just wines,” adds Day.
Since 2012, they have been gradually evolving the style, striving for balance and freshness, with increased precision. For Day, the aim is to make “a sweet wine that doesn’t taste sweet”.
The first shifts were in the vineyard, which since the mid-2000s have been farmed sustainably with some organic and biodynamic practices. The team planted more bush vines that ripen and raisin earlier in the season, therefore retaining more acidity. While they used to pick parcels from January to have high-acid components for blending, now – with the bush vines – they can pick a more uniformly ripe crop, yet not sacrifice acidity. The end goal remains to have as many components as possible for blending, with the harvest team picking in passes and bringing between one and five kilograms of grapes in per day. While the wine used to vary in alcohol and sugar level, they now aim for around 165g/l residual sugar and 14% alcohol – where they think the best balance is found, varying slightly according to vintage.
The new winery at Klein Constantia
The 2016 vintage was the first to be made in a new cellar – a practical and hygienic space. As for what actually happens in the cellar, the key changes have been around skin contact and élevage. The must now spends a week on skins, inoculated with a non-saccharomyces yeast to protect them from biological contamination and the development of volatile acidity, extracting all-important flavour compounds, but not phenolics. They then inoculate for alcoholic fermentation, which lasts between one and three months. They also started re-introducing the use of foudre for ageing the wines in 2016. From 2019, the wine will spend its first 1.5 years in new 500-litre barrels (encouraging the evolution of secondary flavours), before being transferred to older foudre for another 1.5 years (giving oak influence but without the ageing effect of micro-oxygenation).
Tasting the 2012 alongside the 2019 highlights the differences. The two vintages were similarly cool, both picked in April, and although the residual sugar is almost identical, the 2019 feels significantly fresher – with a pithy, textured freshness that offsets its sweetness.
This whimsical wine of yore might feel like a counter to the nation’s new wave, but it’s not so, says Day. “For me, Klein Constantia has always been on the forefront of the movement, but in a completely different way. We might not be as trendy as some of the newer producers, but we like to think the work that we have done with Vin de Constance over the past decade has shown the world that South Africa has the potential to compete with best of the best in the world.”
– Sophie Thorpe