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How do you see it?
Huguenots? Ox wagons? Wild animals? A Khakibos infused landscape?
What an interesting time to be alive! But was it a time to drink wine?
How did wine, such a precious instrument and statement of Cape life today, fit into the scenery so many years ago?
THE INCEPTION OF WINE IN THE CAPE
It all started with a man named Jan Van Riebeeck. He left with his wife and son for the Cape on the 24th of December, 1651; arriving at Table bay on the 6th of April, 1652. The Cape of Good Hope served as a stop along the Indian Spice Route for fresh fruits and vegetables; and Van Riebeeck was put in charge of managing this station. He was also instructed to plant grape vines and produce wine as it was believed to assist passing travelers with scurvy. This belief turned out to be an old wives’ tale; however, it ended up serving its purpose by declaring the official documented inception of wine in the Cape.
In 1655 the first vines in the Cape were planted and by 1659 the first successful South African wine was produced from French Muscadel.
Next came Simon Van Der Stel, the Cape Colony’s last commander and first Governor. In 1685 Van Der Stel was awarded land now known as greater Constantia. Constantia sits a stone’s throw from the Table Mountain range in a stunning floral valley close to coastal False Bay. Its location allows the perfect micro-climate to produce distinctive World Class Wines. Van Der Stel planted Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Palomino and Muscat in his vineyards. He was well known for being a perfectionist, and only demanded the best quality wines; even importing the help of some French winemakers. It wasn’t long before his wines had earned a glowing reputation in Europe.
In 1714, after Van Der Stel’s passing; the estate was split up and sold by way of auction. It was divided into three farms: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Berg-vliet. Groot Constantia was bought in 1778 by Hendrik Cloete who had great intentions of reviving the estate. The Estate stayed in the family from 1778 to 1885, and it was the Cloete family who would bring the world’s attention to Constantia.
THE RISE OF SWEET CONSTANTIA WINE
As the 18th and 19th centuries rolled on, the Constantia valley became known worldwide for its legendary dessert wines. These sweet wines were popular with aristocracy and royalty all over the world. Historical figures such as Bismarck, Frederick the Great and King Louis Phillipe of France were just some of the famous figures to enjoy the sweet nectar. The wine was also sampled on Downing Street, and the English Prime Minister made sure this wine was delivered to Buckingham Palace for the King on a regular basis. Constantia dessert wines were also written about by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, among others. Napoleon even drank Constania Wijn on the Island of St. Helena during his lengthy exile.
The Decline of Sweet Constantia wine
Sweet Constantia, an extremely labour intensive wine, experienced a shortage of labour after the abolition of slavery in 1834. Twenty-five years later, in 1859, powdery mildew arrived in the region and had a direct effect on the vines producing the sweet wine.
In 1860 Britain terminated their preferential import duties on Cape Wines, which was followed by the conclusion of a 10-year free trade agreement between Britain and France.
The reputation of the sweet wine was further damaged by dealers who placed inferior “pirate” versions on the international market.
In 1864 a book was published by AV Kirwan called Host and Guest; a Book about Dinners, Dinner-Giving, Wines and Desserts. In the book Kirwan wrote: “The Constantia wine of the Cape, though much liked by Frenchmen of seventy and upwards and Frenchwomen above forty, never can be generally a favorite with Englishmen…”
Consequently, Hoop op Constantia went insolvent in 1857.
In 1872, Groot Constantia was next. Jacob Cloete (descendent of Hendrik Cloete) had filed for bankruptcy and was subsequently declared insolvent. The Cape Government bought the farm on auction in 1885 for a mere £5,275 and used the estate as an experimental wine farm. Unfortunately, phylloxera invaded in 1899 – killing all the newly planted vines. In 1925, disaster struck Constantia yet again and the farm’s vines were burnt down by a wildfire. The Government decided they desperately needed to re-asses the farm’s position.
In 1971 part of the existing wine cellar on the estate was turned into a museum. By 1984, both Groot and Hoop op Constantia were declared National Monuments, and by 1993 ownership of the entire estate was transferred to a Trust to maintain the heritage and culture associated with the property.
In 1980, Cape Town businessman Duggie Jooste bought Klein Constantia. He consulted with viticulturist Professor Chris Orffer of Stellenbosch University during the estate’s redevelopment. They studied early records of wine production in Constantia and decided to plant Muscat de Frontignan in 1982.
Klein Constantia was able to produce the now iconic Vin de Constance Natural Sweet dessert wine in 1986. Since its launch, the wine has consistently appeared on lists as one of the world’s top rated wines. The 2007 vintage was awarded 97 points by Neal Martin of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, making it the highest rated sweet wine in South African history.
In 2003, Groot Constantia reintroduced Grand Constance, a highly rated natural sweet made from both white and red Muscat de Frontignan.
So, is the rich tale of sweet Constantia making you thirsty and curious?
Why not experience it for yourself and sip on South African history by investing in your own bottle of Vin de Constance. Unbelievably enjoyable now or safe to age for decades to come; this sweet dessert wine is one experience you will never forget.
Constantia Valley boasts quite a few wineries that produce a large range of sweet and non-sweet wines. Why not browse the following producers?
Klein Constantia & Vin De Constance
I believe wholeheartedly that by understanding the stories behind the producers and varietals we drink, our experience of drinking will be more personal and fulfilling.
Cheers for now (and happy tasting),