The strikingly different colours of the 10 vintages of Klein Constantia Vin de Constance spanning the years 1987 to 2015. The oldest wasn't the darkest.
The text of this article was first published in The World of Fine Wine issue 69 (2020)
Scarcely had head winemaker Matthew Day said, “The main theme of the tasting is that this wine ages extremely well” than a well-known fine-wine trader commented under the photo I had just posted on Instagram: “I love the wines and I love the style but I don’t feel they have the longevity of Sauternes or many other sweet wines which, for me, precludes them from being world class.” There’s no way of knowing if he would have changed his view had he been there to taste the ten vintages of Vin de Constance, but the wines stretched back to 1987 and none was showing signs of decrepitude, although they had, of course, been chosen for the tasting, rather than necessarily being a warts-and-all line up of almost three decades.
Ten vintages, while by no means a marathon, is apparently one of the biggest Vin de Constance tastings ever done in the UK. The full title was ‘Exploring the relationship between perfect balance and ageing potential of Vin de Constance with head winemaker Matthew Day’. For Day, the key to achieving this potential is balance: “If you get sugar, alcohol and acidity right, the wine will age.” It’s hardly a new insight in sweet wines, but Day, who became head winemaker in 2012, seems to be focusing on it in a notably methodical, detailed way.
Vision, investment and a new era
One advantage Day has had is the vision and investment of new owners and shareholders. Zdenek Bakala and Charles Harman bought Klein Constantia in 2011, then merged with Anwilka the following year, bringing in Bruno Prats and Hubert de Bouärd as shareholders. That’s not to underestimate the enormous achievements of the previous owners. Duggie Jooste was the visionary who bought Klein Constantia in 1980, deciding first to revive it as a great wine estate (it had been dormant since 1890 except for one failed attempt in the 1970s) and then, with the encouragement of a Stellenbosch University viti-viniculture professor, to recreate the legendary Vin de Constance. The inaugural wines of the new era were released in 1986 to much acclaim. Duggie’s son Lowell Jooste continued the momentum for more than two decades before he sold to Bakala and Harman.
"A favourite of emperors kings, queens and presidents and praised in poetry and literature"
That’s the nutshell version of the modern era of Vin de Constance, but there was a long and distinguished history before it, for which there isn’t space here. Much is well known anyway (I recommend the history section and timeline on kleinconstantia.com for filling in gaps), but suffice to say that the Constantia estate was created in 1685 by Simon Van der Stel, Commander of the Cape; the wines were already being well received by the Dutch East India company in Batavia by 1692; and by the final quarter of the eighteenth century Constantia wine was a favourite of emperors, kings, queens and presidents and was soon being praised in poetry and literature by the likes of Klopstock, Austen, Dickens, Dumas and Baudelaire.
Much less familiar is the role of several generations of the Colijn family. Their involvement began in 1718, when Johannes Colijn married the widow who owned the Klein Constantia portion of the estate (it had been divided into three after Van der Stel’s death in 1712), and the Colijns continued to be owners at Constantia until the latter half of the nineteenth century when the estate went into decline (for a variety of reasons, including the end of the slave trade, powdery mildew, Britain’s ending of preferential duties on Cape wines, a free-trade agreement between Britain and France and shifting tastes to drier wines).
"The journals of Lambertus Colyn from the end of the 18th century were invaluable in the 1980s re-creation of Vin de Constance"
The contribution of Lambertus Johannes Colyn (as he spelt it) at the end of the 18th century is especially significant and was invaluable in the 1980s re-creation of Vin de Constance. His journals record in detail what went on in the vineyards and cellar. For example, soils were prepared with one basket of manure for every four vines; weevils were caught by putting rolled up vine leaves in the vines (today they use cotton wool); picking did not start before March 1; the end of fermentation was determined by listening to the barrels; and each cask of wine was fined with a basin of sheep or goat’s blood. It seems likely that Lambertus Colyn was written out of history until relatively recently because he was coloured: Johannes Colijn had been the son of a wealthy freed slave of West African descent.
Raisined, not botrytised, and unfortified Viticultural and winemaking methods may have been updated – picking can start as early as the end of January – but modern Vin de Constance is made in the image and spirit of its forerunner, from raisined not botrytised Muscat de Frontignan grapes and unfortified. It’s not standing still, however. The goal is to improve quality long term and make it more consistent, while still allowing for vintage expression.
To this end the estate has been sustainable and organic since 2010 and has had a programme of developing its own clones. The original 1980s block is a selection of hundreds propagated from old vines growing throughout the Cape. From these, the team identified superior vines and cleaned them up via somatic embryogenesis to give six unique clones that can now be used for further planting.
Matt Day has also planted 0.5ha each of Petit Manseng and Furmint and is making a barrel of each to see whether either or both could be useful in future: “If they work, I’ll plant more.” Meanwhile, Harslevelu, which was also tried, has been abandoned because it didn’t give the acidity he wanted.
Less oak for a lighter, fresher style Another decisive change is to the ageing regime, producing a lighter, fresher style (as evident in the 2012, 2015 and 2016 wines). Under Day’s two predecessors, Vin de Constance used to be aged for up to four and a half years in oak, which gave a more tertiary expression and a marmalade and dried apricot character. Day has reduced the period to three years and moved to larger vessels – 4200-litre foudres of French oak and 500-l barrels of French oak, Hungarian oak and Acacia – to “allow for a much slower development with the same oak integration.” Ideally, he says, the wine will be in barrel for 18 months “to get really good integration to start” then progress to foudres, which “preserve the really perfumed delicacy”.
All this has been made possible by substantial investment in refitting the cellars, including dedicated tanks for maceration and fermentation of the Muscat skins, designed to enhance the extraction of flavours and sugar, while protecting the juice and skins from oxidation and over-extraction. There’s also a new barrel cellar set at optimal temperature and humidity to mature the wine for three years.
Other initiatives include experimenting with a non-Saccharomyces yeast to enhance complexity by stimulating a non-alcoholic microbial fermentation; using a straighter-necked bottle since 2014, to allow for a longer, better quality cork (Amorim’s NDtech); and a recorking programme. Taking a different vintage each year (last year it was 1989), Day tastes the wine, tops it up with the same vintage rather than a younger one and writes a note on the wine, which the owner can access via a unique code. If Day is as assiduous with his journal keeping as Lambertus Colyn, future generations will be very grateful to him.
Vin de Constance 1989
15.9% ABV; residual sugar 84g/l; total acidity 8.5g/l.
Winemaker: Ross Gower
Green-edged amber brown, but not as dark as some of the more recent vintages. A pretty, floral nose, quite delicate and grapy but not raisiny, with touches of spice and coffee. Still giving an overall impression of brightness. The palate is carried along by crystal-clear, citrus-accented acidity and fans out in the mouth, with apricot and tangerine joining the grapy and spicy notes. Quite intense, but not heavy, and sweet but not especially sweet (at 84g/l, the residual sugar is much lower than any of the other vintages). There’s a harmony to the aromas and tastes and the freshness is impressive, but the alcohol (higher than any other modern-era vintage) stands apart and lingers.
Vin de Constance 1987
13.9% ABV; RS 125g/l; TA 9.4g/l.
Winemaker: Ross Gower, his second vintage.
Green-edged green brown, slightly darker than 1989. A riper nose dominated by raisins and sultanas and a slightly dusty, earthy quality. Sweet and concentrated in the mouth; unctuous but with piercing acidity (as Matt Day says, “a monster” in terms of acidity). Livelier than the nose suggests; citrus-conserve fruit and lime marmalade but without any marmalade bitterness. Good length. As it turned out, the nose didn’t do justice to the palate, at least of this bottle.
Vin de Constance 2004
14.2% ABV; RS 130g/l; TA 8.7g/l; pH 3.51.
Fermented in a combination of stainless steel and 500-l wooden barrels. Bottled after almost four years. Winemaker: Adam Mason, his second vintage but his first was not released.
Shimmering orange-gold; only 2012, 2015 and 2016 are paler. Flowers, grapes, oranges apricots and spice on the nose – quintessential Muscat aromas. Silky textured, fleshy palate with spice and stem ginger, bright, citrus-zest fruit and finely etched acidity. Focused, persistent and alluringly silky.
Vin de Constance 1994
14% ABV; RS 139g/l; TA 8.8g/l.
Aged in used French oak barrels. Winemaker: Ross Gower.
Deep golden brown; no green edge and less dark than 1987, 1991 or 1999. Clean, very perfumed nose. Again, it’s quintessential Muscat, but here it’s more about fragrant roses and raisins. Intense, concentrated palate: Moscatel raisins, spice and coffee sweetness, fresh orange and grapefruit zest and luminous acidity. It gives so much immediately but keeps unfurling. Beautifully balanced and satisfying.
Vin de Constance 2008
14% ABV; RS 150g/l: TA 8.0g/l; pH3.6.
Aged in 500-l French and Hungarian oak barrels (60% new) for four and a half years. Winemaker: Adam Mason, but bottled by Matt Day, who says: “I was figuring it out as I went along.”
Bright golden brown. Vibrant, singing, appetizing aromas – ripe apricot, fresh orange, orange marmalade, a pinch of cinnamon and cumin. Intense orange pomander on the palate with acacia honey, delicate marmalade, a whisper of chocolate and a fine satin texture. Great concentration and sweetness balanced by acidity that comes through almost shyly at first but gathers momentum.
Vin de Constance 1991
14.1% ABV; RS 158g/l; TA 8.3 g/l.
Winemaker: Ross Gower
Deep, green-edged, slightly opaque brown; the darkest in colour. A nose dominated by raisins, fruitcake and hints of coffee and nutmeg – evolved aromas lifted by the fragrance of mock orange blossom hovering around them. Very sweet and concentrated in the mouth, with walnut joining the spice and raisin richness and intensity; and acidity flowing through giving vitality. Interestingly, the analysis of this early vintage is close to where Matt Day says he likes to be today.
Vin de Constance 2012
14.3% ABV; RS 165g/l; TA 7.2g/l; pH 3.6.
Ageing on gross lees in French oak, Hungarian oak and Acacia barrels, 60% new, for 2.5 years, then 6 months in tank after racking and blending. Winemaker: Matthew Day, his first vintage and it was a baptism of fire. A long, cool summer resulted in the longest harvest, starting at the end of January and finishing three months later, by which time it was the latest ever picked and one of the smallest. It was also one of the trickiest to press, taking four days, because the grapes were so rich in sugar and the rain made the grapes prone to go to pulp. Day changed the ageing regime, aiming for a lighter, fresher style.
Bright pale gold. An arresting nose: dried apricot, rose petals, spice and Turkish delight. The palate is rich and sweet and the rose becomes even more intense – like rose essence (or the powerfully scented Old Rose Brother Cadfael, one of my favorites) – but it never becomes heavy. The texture is lovely – silky, almost oily – and shot through with radiant acidity, with an uplifting flourish of ginger and cinnamon towards the end. Great length and harmony. A stressful but ultimately very successful vintage and a new, lighter, fresher style.
Vin de Constance 2015
13.97% ABV; RS 172.7g/l; TA 6.6 g/l; pH 3.65.
Ageing in French oak, Hungarian oak and Acacia barrels, 50% new, for 3 years on gross lees, then 6 months in tank after blending and racking. Winemaker: Matthew Day. In contrast to 2012, this was a fast-ripening, shorter harvest at the start of a three-year drought. Fortunately, most of the grapes were in the winery by the time the Southern Peninsula was hit by a devastating two-week fire in March. It was the first vintage in the renovated cellar with dedicated tanks for macerating and fermenting the Muscat.
Bright and pale in colour. Captivating aromas again – floral, especially roses, but a suggestion of mock orange too, together with juicy peach and pear. Intensely sweet and concentrated with notes of acacia honey, apricot, Turkish delight and crystallised orange peel, and an almost oily silkiness similar to 2012. Although slightly sweeter and lower in acidity than 2012 it is effortlessly light on its feet.
Vin de Constance 2007
14% ABV; RS 177g/l; TA 8.3g/l; pH 3.5.
Fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and 500-l barrels of mostly new French and Hungarian oak. Bottled after 4 years. Winemaker: Adam Mason
Bright golden brown, marginally paler than the 2008. A very rich, intense nose – a burst of raisins and fresh Muscat grapes followed by blossom, spice and coffee. Very concentrated, sweet and rich, with ginger, crème caramel, citrus, juicy raisin and fresh grape flavours, and the vital acidity to counterpoint the richness and volume.
Vin de Constance 1999
14.65% ABV; RS 177g/l; TA 8.3g/l; pH 3.69.
Fermentation in stainless steel; ageing in French oak for 18 months. Released almost 5 years after the harvest. Winemaker: Ross Gower.
Golden brown. Opulent, evolved nose of coffee, spice, fruitcake, raisins, marmalade and walnuts lifted by a delicate, breezy floral note. Complex, concentrated, very sweet, raisiny palate; unctuous richness vitalized by zesty orange marmalade and vibrant acidity. High alcohol, high sugar and high acidity working as a team.
Vin de Constance 2016
14% ABV; RS 164.8g/l; TA 6.5 g/l; pH 3.7.
Not part of the vertical tasting but tasted two weeks earlier. Ageing for three years, half in French oak, Hungarian oak and acacia 500-l barrels and half in new French oak foudres. A very early, short harvest (25 February to 22 March) thanks to El Nino-induced heat and drought. Winemaker: Matthew Day.
Beautifully precise, luminous aromas – honeysuckle, acacia honey, delicate rose petal, fresh Muscat grapes, a hint of cinnamon. Great concentration and sweetness suffused with rose water, Turkish delight, stem ginger, orange peel and shimmering, resounding acidity. Such vitality, radiancy and length. Exceptional.
Vin de Constance 2017
Tasted in September 2020, just before it was released, and reviewed here, with a score of 97.
Photographs by Joanna Simon