Constantia, South Africa
Today I’ll be speaking about a region that has been making wine since 1685. Now many of you would automatically think that I’d have to be talking about somewhere in Europe, and indeed the name Constantia does have an old Latin ring to it, however this region was actually one of the first ‘New World’ wine regions on earth, and is located in South Africa’s Western Cape. So what made this area leap out as a place where wine should be made? And what made it so special that it has existed for so long?
Well, the main reason a wine region was established in Constantia is a little unromantic, and has to do with Cape Town’s location at the southern tip of Africa. Cape Town was established on the 6th of April, 1652 when explorer Jan van Riebeeck’s arrived and established the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. The colony sat on the shores of Cable Bay, which was deep, calm and the perfect half-way stop for the Dutch East-India Company ships as they travelled from Europe to India, East Africa, the Far East, and even Western Australia, and then back again (we’re talking about a time before the Suez canal of course). The men on these ships required supplies and of course needed fresh wine for the journey, so Constantia was established as a southern suburb of Cape Town, located just on the other side of Table Mountain, producing grapes in all its forms; dried, fresh, and as still and fortified wine. And so the grapevine came to Southern Africa and Constantia wine, or Vin de Constance was born.
While grapes were grown all throughout this new colony, Constantia was seen as a superior location, and the suburb of Constantia was established in 1685 by the second Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, Simon van der Stel to focus solely on wine. This was because the Constantia area possesses a unique set of geographical and weather factors which make it ideal for quality grapes. South Africa is of course a very hot, dry country, however on the south-facing hill sites of Table Mountain, the vines are shaded from the sun, and are hit by the cooling winds off the Atlantic Ocean. The hillside vineyards reach up to 400m above sea level and are among the steepest in South Africa, making them hard to work, but incredibly well-shaded from the sun- they only receive the gentle morning and calm afternoon sun. The soils assist as well; Constantia sits on top of ancient deposits of decomposed granite. These soils are well drained, fertile and have high clay content. Water absorbed by the clay during wet winters helps to keep the vines hydrated over the dry summers. These hot, dry growing seasons allow long ripening, as well as reduce risk of frost and disease in the vineyards.
At their peak, the wines of Constantia achieved prestige, patronage and prices unattained by any other New World wine, with fans such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Emperor Napoleon- most famously ordered by him at dinner whilst suffering exile on the island of St Helena. But what kind of wine was this Vin de Constance? Well firstly, it was made in both red and white versions, with the white being made from the variety Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, with smaller percentages of Muscat of Alexandria and Chenin Blanc added to lift the acid profile. Red Vin de Constance was made from the very rare red grape mutation of Muscat Blanc, mixed with a bit of the now almost totally extinct Pontac grape. The long, even, dry climate of Constantia allowed the grapes to naturally ripen to levels almost unheard of in Europe, giving wines with alcohol around 17%. Some were fortified higher, depending on how far they were travelling, but most were around this level. Sugar levels of this magnitude are not unheard of in European wines, but these wines usually require the Botrytis fungus to reach these levels. The windy, dry climate never allowed its development in Constantia; it was only “unmodified” grapes that went into Vin de Constance, without the structural and organoleptic changes Botrytis causes. So it was a complex, concentrated, rich, highly alcoholic and quite sweet wine- incredibly rare, hard to produce and one apparently not easy to forget!
Today, producing wine in Constantia is a niche industry. As the region sits literally on the other side of Table Mountain to Cape Town, this metropolitan city has spread to envelop it. Land prices in Constantia are some of the highest in all South Africa, so it makes little financial sense to have acres of vineyards here.Up on the slopes of the mountain where mansions are less common there are still vineyards, which produce very good Bordeaux Blends, and a handful of producers are seeking to revive the glories of the past by making a Vin de Constance-style wine, though by and large, this region is a chapter in the wine world’s history, rather than its future.
Wine Sales Manager