Thursday, May 31, 2018

Constantia revisted

Michael - Thursday

If you notice some similarity between this post and an earlier one, then all I can say is that you have a very good memory. It overlaps the first blog I posted in 2009. Partly because not many memories are that good, partly because it leads into next weeks post (about Bonaparte, but not the one mentioned here), and partly because tomorrow is the absolute deadline for the fifth rewrite of our book, I thought it was worth resurrecting.

In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck landed at what became the Cape of Good Hope with the aim of providing fresh produce for ships of the Dutch East India Company on the 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. The Netherlands is not renowned for her wine.

But 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 also.  He was the son of Adriaan van der Stel and Maria Lievens, the daughter of a freed Indian slave woman, which made him “coloured” in the racial parlance of the apartheid government.  (Needless to say this was not a feature emphasized in the school history text books of the day.)

The Cape peninsular has a climate not too different from that of southern Europe with winter rainfall and moderate temperatures.  It's the area of South Africa which most reminds people of the Continent with gnarled oak lined streets and the genteel plants that thrive in the “old country”. Van der Stel carefully selected a wine farm for himself along the southern slopes of the Cape peninsular, actually testing the soils and choosing a cool microclimate with winds from the sea.  He called the estate Constantia and did very well.

But 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.  He planted new vines and specialised in a wine made from grapes ripened almost to raisins on the vine, matured in vats, and fortified.  The wine was called simply Constantia and it held its own with all the choice sweet wines with the rich and famous of the day.  All this came to an end late in the nineteenth century when phylloxera devastated the vineyards.  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 two hundred years.

A famous story about Constantia is that it was one of Napoleon's favourite wines and he received a regular supply to cheer him up on Saint Helena - an island off the west coast of Africa to which he was exiled the second time after Elba couldn't hold him. A juicy twist was that the British used the wine to kill him with small doses of arsenic poisoning, but if arsenic was involved, it was more likely to have been from the glue in the wall paper. The modern consensus seems to be that he died of stomach cancer and that spoils the tale altogether.

In 1980 a new estate named Klein Constantia (part of the original van der Stel estate) decided to try to recreate the wine.  It was to be a sweet desert wine in the late harvest style – not botrytis – 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.  It's available outside South Africa – a friend in Australia has a good selection of vintages, and I've had a bottle in a restaurant in New York.  If you like dessert wines, this one is worth trying if you have the chance.  

You can imagine you're sharing the bottle with Bismark or Napoleon or King George... It will set you back more than a few dollars though. The wine has become something of a collectors item.

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