The history of wine making in the Cape goes back to the earliest settler days. Jan van Riebeeck landed in 1652 on what became the Cape of Good Hope with the aim of providing fresh produce for ships of the Dutch East India Company on their way to and from the Indies. Ostensibly because wine was supposed to help scurvy, but perhaps for a quiet tipple on the side, he planted the first vineyard three years later. And on the 2nd of February 1659, he was able to proclaim: “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time.” By all accounts the wine was pretty foul - not too surprising given the level of expertise around.
Van Riebeeck was succeeded twenty years later by Simon van der Stel, an interesting if contentious character, who did know about wine and saw the opportunity for a guilder or two to come his way. The Cape peninsular has a climate not too different from that of southern Europe with winter rainfall and moderate temperatures. The soils were also appropriate, so once the Cape had some experienced winemakers, it wasn’t too difficult to find good places to produce wine. One of the best turned out to be Constantia, which in those days was close to Cape Town - and is now largely a wealthy suburb of Cape Town but still boasts a few iconic wine estates.
The wines that made Constantia famous came later when Hendrik Cloete moved from Stellenbosch (named after van der Stel) and bought a portion of the Constantia estate in 1777. He planted new vines and specialized in a wine made from grapes ripened almost to raisins on the vine, matured in vats, and fortified to help it survive the trip to Europe and long life in the cellar. The wine was called simply Constantia and it held its own against all the choice sweet wines of Europe with the rich and famous of the day. Jane Austin recommended it in Sense and Sensibility for “its healing powers on the disappointed heart” and I’m sure that did no harm to sales. Napoleon developed a taste for it, and polished off a bottle a day on Elba. There is even a rumor that it was used to poison him when he refused all other sustenance.
At the end of 1817 the estate was divided into Groot and Klein Constantia (“Big” and “Little”) and Johan Gerhard Cloete built himself an imposing manor house on the latter in 1822. The wine continued to sell out in every vintage. All this came to an end in 1865 when phylloxera devastated the vineyards and winemaking ceased. Still, a few bottles survive to this day. A wine-writer friend of mine was fortunate to taste one some years ago and pronounced it still luscious after 200 years.
In 1979 Duggie Jooste bought Klein Constantia and embarked on an ambitious experiment – to try to recreate the historic Constantia wine. It was to be a sweet desert wine in the late harvest style with the berries hand-selected. The venture was a stunning success and celebrated in the name – Vin de Constance – and in copies of the old Constantia hand-made bottles which the estate uses for the modern wine. The wine rapidly reestablished its pride of place as South Africa’s best respected dessert wine – at least of the non-botrytis style.
The estate changed hands again in 2011, so time will tell if the new owners keep the traditions and the quality. Hopefully, the Phoenix will keep on flying. In the meanwhile the wine has rocketed back to the sort of prices that require you to be rich and famous! $50 for half a liter is regarded as cheap in South Africa, and you’ll pay in the $80 range overseas. Still, it’s worth trying. And you can imagine you are sharing the bottle with Bismark or Napoleon or King George...
Michael - Thursday