Klein Constantia, and the historic Vin de Constance
South Africa revisited part 14

I’d visited Klein Constantia before, as a humble consumer while on a family holiday. So it was nice to return and visit professionally, with winemaker Adam Mason. While Klein Constantia make a full range of wines, the focus of this visit was the famous Vin de Constance. This is a piece of living history: in the 18th and 19th centuries, Constantia was one of the world’s great sweet wines, but it disappeared with the phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century.

But since 1986 Klein Constantia have been making a sweet Constantia which they have labelled Vin de Constance based on the original wines that were made here. Back then, the original Constantia property was around 900 hectares. Part of the original vineyard is now suburbs, and the remainder is split into four properties: Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Groot Constantia and Constantia Uitsig.

When the Jooste family bought the property in 1980, they were approached by a Stellenbosch Univeristy viticulturist, the late Professor Chris Orffer, who encouraged them to try to recreate the historical sweet wine. Orffer assisted the Klein Constantia team in their quest to produce something resembling the original as closely as possible, and through the skilled winemaking of the late Ross Gower, this was achieved.

Botrytis wasn’t a feature of the original Constantia wines, because it wasn’t present in the Cape at that time. For the sake of historical accuracy, therefore, Vin de Constance is a late-harvest style made from Muscat de Frontignan (aka Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) grapes, without botrytis. First plantings of these Muscat vines were in 1982, and the first release of the new era Constantia was the 1986 vintage, released in 1990.

Adam Mason

The vineyards are arranged on the slopes of the Constantiaberg mountain, with a progression of soil types: sandstone at the top with sandy, rocky scree, then richer clay soils over decomposed granite, then at the bottom soils with more sand. There are 8 hectares of Muscat planted here.

10% of the Muscat is picked early, to make a base wine at 12.5–13 % alcohol with good acidity. Then they go and pick raisined grapes. The remaining grapes are left to accumulate sugar, and leaf removal exposes the fruit to the sun, which helps raisin some of the remaining grapes. Then, the big pick takes place in three passages through the vineyard. Altogether, around 10% of the crop will be raisins. If the raisins have lots of sugar left in the skins, then the base wine is used to flush the flavour out.

The skins are pressed quite hard, because tannins are an important part of the style. It’s not possible to settle this dirty juice, so it goes to barrels for fermentation. These barrels are 500 litres and the wine stays in these on gross lees for up to four years. For example, the 2006 is still in barrel and the oxidative maturation makes it quite stable.

Adam wants fermentation to end at about 14% alcohol to leave enough sugar to protect the wine. By this stage, the wine is naturally stable. ‘A feature that runs through the range is a textural dry character on the finish,’ says Adam.

Since Klein Constantia released their Vin de Constance, neighbouring estates have joined the game: Groot Constantia have their Grand Constance, and Buitenverwachting have their 1769.


We had a wonderful chance to try an extended vertical of these wines, back to 1993.

Vin de Constance 1993
Lovely fresh herby edge to the sweet raisin and butterscotch nose. There’s lots of spicy complexity and a hint of volatility. The palate is bright, fresh and citrussy with a deliciously sweet, rounded character countered by spiciness and bright acidity. So lively and expressive with lovely sweet complexity. 93/100

Vin de Constance 1996
This was a wet vintage so there might be a touch of botrytis here. Intense, brooding nose with sweet spicy peach and pear notes and a fresh apricot character. The palate is bright, fresh and complex with rich textured fruit. Very smooth and elegant, and so alive. An amazing wine. 96/100

Vin de Constance 1999
Fresh, open nose displaying fruity, marmalade and barley sugar notes. The palate is fresh and intense with amazing richness yet bright subtly raisined apricot and spice flavours. Pure and concentrated, with a beautiful texture and great length. Thrilling. 96/100

Vin de Constance 2001
Lively and intense with lemon, herb and apricot notes on the nose. Intense and viscous, yet lively and fresh with bold grape, pear and apricot notes. Good complexity and citrus freshness. 94/100

Vin de Constance 2004
Very rich, smooth and ripe on the nose with aromatic sweet grape, pear, peach and apricot notes. The plate is fresh, light and open with some spice and citrus complexity. Very sweet but not heavy: a fresh style with good acidity and real potential. 93/100

Vin de Constance 2005
Just about to be released. Complex nose with spicy, lifted, citrus peel character. Very sweet but with a pithy edge. The palate has viscous, bold, pithy fruit with some spice. It’s still quite primary with amazing potential. At the moment the pure apricot, pear and citrus fruit are to the fore. 94/100

Part 1, Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards
Part 2, Cape Point Vineyards
Part 3, AA Badenhorst Family Wines
Part 4, Eben Sadie: Sadie Family Wines and Sequillo Cellars
Part 5, Paul Kretzel of Lammershoek
Part 6, Mullineux Family Wines
Part 7, Vondeling
Part 8, Scali
Part 9, Sterhuis
Part 10, Raats
Part 11, Migliarina
Part 12, Charles Back and Fairview
Part 13, Hermit on the Hill
Part 14, Klein Constantia
Part 15, Iona, Elgin
Part 16, Paul Cluver, Elgin
Part 17, Eagles' Nest, Constantia
Part 18, Anthonij Rupert
Part 19, Oak Valley, Elgin
Part 20, Shannon, Elgin

Wines tasted 11/09  
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