The oldest Cape wine region is also the newest
The Cape wine industry turns 350 years old this year. While the first vines were planted in what are today known as the Company Gardens, the first commercial plantings were further down the peninsula, around Wynberg (Wine Mountain) and on Van der Stel’s farm, Groot Constantia, which was proclaimed in 1685. Later, in the hands of Hendrik Cloete (from 1778), Groot Constantia became world famous for its natural sweet-style wine made from Muscat grapes. This wine, made from very ripe, but not botrytised grapes, is now replicated in the Vin de Constance of Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance.
Today, Constantia symbolises both Cape wine’s history – and its future. Those early farmers knew what they were doing. Choosing gently-sloping land with good soils and a view of the ocean, the cool sea-breezes mitigated the heat of summer and helped them make balanced wines. Another influential factor has always been the Constantiaberg itself, which casts long shadows over the vineyards in the afternoons, as the sun sets on the other side of the mountain. By the late 20th century, Constantia’s reputation was built on its white wines, as many of the newer clones of the red varieties need more sunlight to ripen ideally.
The local wine industry has changed in a number of important ways since our re-admission to global markets. Technologies are better, clones are improving, and wine-makers travel to make wine and learn from international peers. At home, there is a spirit of discovery – and no more crucial than the establishment of new areas for the planting of vines. Previously farmers mainly worked in the traditional areas of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl and on the flatlands or gentle slopes where it was easiest; now new regions are being farmed – and the vineyards are climbing higher.
The winery Constantia Glen is a great example of the new in the old. Here the vines are planted high on the Constantiaberg slopes, just before the spill over onto the Hout Bay side. The height and access to a few more aspects allow some of Constantia Glen’s vineyards a couple of hours more late afternoon sun – perfect for the ripening of red varieties. So whereas the white to red ratio down the valley is dominated by white; here red is king. Altitude has other benefits like different soil profiles – they are often more rocky (compared to the finer weathered soils down slope). These stonier soils undoubtedly give the wines a different dimension.
350 years on, and Cape wine is still evolving. For all our successes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that three and a half centuries is not a long time in the world of wine. Even constant Constantia is changing.
The Original Icon – Klein Constantia Vin de Constance
Made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes which have not been botrytised, this is a powerful wine of undeniable sweetness but also rich in complexity. They age famously: bottles from the late 18th century can still be enjoyed! First made during the long reign of the Cloete family, the wine became famous in Europe but then disappeared towards the end of the 19th century when the Cape wine industry was crippled by the phylloxera louse. The current owners of Klein Constantia, the Joostes, re-introduced it in 1986.
The New Icon-in-Waiting – Constantia Glen 2007 Bordeaux Blend
Since their first bottling of Sauvignon Blanc in 2005, the property’s wine has caught world-wide attention, winning numerous awards. But with 80% of the farm planted to red varieties, it is this red blend that will now become Constantia Glen’s calling card. This is a wine of excellent balance and fantastic elegance, made by Karl Lambour in consultation with Bordeaux’s Dominique Hébrard of Cheval Blanc fame. If you thought fine red wine starts clumsy and tannic, you will be stunned by the feather-soft tannins of this still-young wine. Certainly a label to watch closely.