Excelling again: the just released 2017 vintage of Vin de Constance, still in the traditional asymmetrical 50cl bottle, but now with a straighter neck so that it can be sealed with top quality cork
It's not only one of the great sweet wines, Klein Constantia Vin de Constance is one of the world's most original and historic wines, so the release of a new vintage is always an occasion, although not so much of an occasion as the rare ten-vintage vertical tasting, spanning 1987 to 2015, that I did with winemaker Matthew Day. You can read my review, including the 2016 vintage and more about the wines, in The World of Fine Wine issue 69, published later this month. This review of the 2017, with a little bit of scene-setting to start, serves as a taster.
In brief, Vin de Constance is an unfortified dessert wine made from late-harvested Muscat de Frontignan grapes on the Klein Constantia estate in the Cape created in 1685. It’s not a botrytis wine like Sauternes. Instead, a significant proportion of the grapes are raisins. And it's never fortified.
In the 1700s and 1800s, Vin de Constance was famous around the globe – praised in poetry and literature and enjoyed at the grandest of dining tables. But in the later part of the nineteenth century its star began to wane and production finally ceased in 1890 (phylloxera is often blamed, but there were social and economic factors, including the end of the slave trade, powdery mildew, new trade agreements and changing tastes). It lay dormant, but not forgotten, until the 1980s, when the Jooste family bought and revived the estate and, using a journal from the early 1800s, recreated the wine. Its star has been rising again ever since, now under owners Zdenek Bakala and Charles Harman, with Bruno Prats (ex Cos d’Esournel) and Hubert de Bouärd (Château Angélus) as shareholders.
Matt Day has been winemaker since 2012 and has been the architect of a fresher, lighter, more vibrant and consistent style. No one who loved the wine before need fear. The essential Vin de Constance is untouched, but it has been fine-tuned for greater aromatic expression, definition and balance. Not a sea-change so much as a series of gentle, elegant adjustments. (There’s more about these in my piece in The World of Fine Wine.)
"The essencia is the most time-consuming part, but it's the heart and soul of Vin de Constance"
2017 was the third vintage in the new cellar and came at the end of what Matt Day says was an exemplary growing season. The harvest was spread over two months, producing 20 separate batches to draw on when blending. The most time-consuming to deal with is always the essencia made from individually picked raisins by a specialist team. It is, says Matt, “the heart and soul of Vin de Constance.”
During the long fermentation, they blend numerous times to get the perfect balance between sugar, alcohol and acidity, so that the wine will stop fermentation by itself without any intervention. Matt again: “We can thus just leave batches to finish fermenting for a long period of time. It depends on the year but some batches will reach this point after one month while other batches may take up to six months to finish. We have even had a batch that decided that it wasn’t finished after three years in barrel and started to go again. This is not ideal but still adds character to the wine.” After the lengthy fermentation the wine is aged in barrels and foudres, although for less time than in the past and in larger formats.
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2017
This was aged for the now-standard three years in a combination of 50% new oak and acacia barrels and large format foudres before the final blending and bottling.
14% abv, 165g/l residual sugar (which is Matt’s goal, whereas in the past it varied greatly), 6.6g/l total acid, pH 3.7.
Bright, medium-straw colour. Beguiling, vivid aromas – fresh Muscat grapes, stem ginger, honeysuckle, rose, peach and tangerine. The palate combines intensity and creamy opulence with precision, vibrancy and persistence and a delicious twist of grapefruit-peel bitterness to refresh and sustain the long finish. A stellar, 30-year wine.
The 10-vintage vertical tasting of Vin de Constance with winemaker Matt Day, which I have reviewed for The World of Fine Wine issue 69. Note the varied colour palette
Photographs by Joanna Simon