“I was in Spain recently where I drank Vin de Constance with a tapas of Iberico ham,” says Hans Astrom of Klein Constantia, the South African estate renowned for its sweet wine Vin de Constance.
This would work.. the salty savoury flavours offset by the sweet. “However,” Hans continues, “we usually prefer to serve it with cheese at the estate, but the most important thing is to serve it cool. When it’s too warm the sugar dominates and the wine feels heavy in the mouth.”
Given the estate was established in 1685, they’ve had plenty of time to work out food and wine combos. Simon Van der Stel, first governor of the Cape chose the spot, 20 miles outside Cape Town for its beauty, its decomposed granite soils and cooling ocean breezes – the later being perfect conditions for growing vines.
And it was not long before Vin de Constance hit the sweet spot for royalty, wine lovers and collectors across the globe.. Sadly however this was not to last. Phylloxera and a new fashion for Bordeaux saw the winery and its sweet nectar fall into obscurity.
Fast forward to modern times and Duggie Jooste bought the estate in 1980. When The Nose visited many years ago to sniff through a vertical of Vin de Constance, these sweeties had been joined by a range of dry wines.
However the estate faltered and by 2011 the vineyard had shrunk to just 4 hectares. Czech-American investor Zdenek Bakala and Charles Harman came to the rescue. Together with Bruno Prats and Hubert de Bouard they saved this vinous damsel in destress… and an important part of wine history.
Apparently they had a bit of party, opening bottles from the 1700s and 1800s to trace the stylistic changes over the ages in order to discover the true Vin de Constance. It was always a late harvest wine, in other words left to ripen on the vine, rather than passito where grapes are harvested and dried. Traditionally there was no botrytis. During the 80s the style changed as Duggie Jooste experimented with botrytis, but the new team feels strongly that the wine is more elegant, purer and true to the original without.
The strong winds and heat of the Constantia Valley encourage the Muscat grape to develop a thick skin which makes it quite resistant to botrytis. However if the mould develops, it is cut out. The new team, if I understand correctly, they harvest by berry, not by bunch, and over a stonking period of 90 days, making the attention to detail quite extraordinary.
As Jooste carried his experiments into the winery, Vin de Constance pre 2011 can vary immensely in style with much drier wines, illustrated by the 1996 (see below) to wines with a whopping 240g of residual sugar.
Another thing to point out, Vin de Constance is not a fortified wine. Well… not recently and never by choice. In the very early days, when it was shipped in barrel to Europe, it would start to flag en route and was stabilised aboard with a dose of spirits. Yet by the early 1700s a Dutch shipper, rather ahead of his time, persuaded the estate to bottle at the winery.
While the wine is not shy in alcohol – it’s about 14% Vol, these are naturally fermented sugars. This leaves around 150-160 grams or so of residual sugar in the wine. It takes about a year to ferment in 500l barrels with a further 2 years of oak ageing to follow. From the 2015 vintage, the new team prefer to move it to large fudres for the second half of ageing.
Enough of history and winemaking, it’s time for some wine. Just a word of caution. You can drink Vin de Constance young, but it’s a shame to do so. 2016 is the latest release. It may be five years old, but best left for ten… to ease into middle life and the opportunity to develop complexity.
At the moment 2012 is also too young. 2008 and 2007 are at the beginning of an interesting evolution. My favourite at the moment is 2007, but 2016 is the best wine in this small flight. So buy some now, tuck it away and don’t be tempted to open it. It is practically indestructible. You could do worse than cellaring 2016 for the next generation.
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2016
This is the most recent release. Very light colour, something quite new for Vin de Constance which began life with a deeper colour in the past. It’s perfumed and expressive with notes of lemon balm on the nose. The palate is citrusy and juicy with plenty of energy and freshness. There is a savoury note of rosemary and spice. There’s plenty of residual sugar (164.8 g/l) but the texture is slim and the wine has precision and a slightly saline long finish. This is the most elegant of vintages in this small flight, but far too young for drinking now. Score 18.75. From 2028 but I would wait much longer.
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2015
Rich, intense and beautifully balanced. Notes of lemon grass and oregano. Maybe not as pure as the 2016, but I tasted this later, separately and rather swiftly on the hoof so it’s difficult to compare.
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2012
2012 was the first wine of the second change of ownership. (The estate was on the market during the 2010 and 2011 vintages, so they may not be the best, but I have not tried them).
This has developed a slight hint of coffee on the nose. Rich, maybe deeper in texture than the 2016, but nicely contained and with freshness to balance. It has luscious elegance. Slightly caramelised with some spice and a touch of tamarind. It has a long, purposeful and pure finish. Score 18.65. Drink from 2025 and for a long, long time.
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2008
This is a light amber colour. The new team didn’t make it, but they blended it. A honeyed aroma, maybe a touch oxidative. On the palate toffee, butterscotch. It’s very attractive, but lacks a bit of energy and length in comparison with 2012. Score 18. From now onwards.
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2007
The first wine of the new era. Once again, the new team didn’t make it, but they did blend it. At this point the estate changed direction. I prefer this to 2008. This wine is both sweeter and more acidic and really seems to punch. Good tension. Notes of caramel and cocoa… but it also has a cleanliness and purity. Slightly herbal and smoky graphite finish which is certainly persistent. Score 18.25
Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 1996
Much darker amber colour. A slightly medicinal aroma and butter-mint on the palate. It has a nicely bitter caramelised note which adds to the crispness and bite on the palate. It’s drier than the previous wines at 112 g/l residual sugar. While not as energetic and intense as the wines they are making now, it’s a lovely mature wine. Score 17.5
Despite the new found security for Klein Constantia, it’s a sad, but irrefutable fact that sweet wine has fallen out of fashion. By the time most of us have reached dessert, sweet wine is a wine too far. Hans recommends serving Vin de Constance with panna cotta, but maybe, he suggests, the answer is to bypass the dessert and sip a glass of sweet wine instead. Wine as dessert. The Nose approves.
Constantia Estate – to access their website.
2016 – Lay & Wheeler, Farr Vintners, Fine + Rare Wines (£39 IB so around £48.50 DPD)
2012 – Armit Wines (£50 DPD)
2008 – Fine & Rare (£60 IB), Lay & Wheeler (£73.30 IB)
2007 – Fine & Rare (£50 IB)
Back vintage prices vary across different stockists, but the above is an example of what is available.