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Wine Legend: Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 1986

Vin de Constance 1986 is a legend because…

Constantia was one of the most famous and expensive sweet wines in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jane Austen and Charles Baudelaire referred to the wine in their writings, and it was favoured by the likes of Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, George IV of England and Otto von Bismarck. Most of those fortunate enough to taste 19th-century bottles, including Michael Broadbent, are of the opinion that Constantia was fortified.

The outbreak of phylloxera in the late 19th century brought production to an end, and with it the precise details of how it was made. Nonetheless, in the 1980s Duggie Jooste of the Klein Constantia estate, together with winemaker Ross Gower, resolved to try to recreate the original wine.

The idea was first proposed by viticulturist Professor Chris Orffer. His formula has proved a great success, with consistent quality over the years. The 1986 was the first year of production, but that wine was never released commercially, as the Joostes had no idea how well the wine would turn out. The special bottle, still in use, was designed in Italy.

Looking back

Klein Constantia is one of the original estates in the Constantia zone close to Cape Town. It forms part of the larger 900-hectare estate created in 1685 by Simon Van der Stel, who planted grapes here. Its long history explains why South African producers bristle when they are patronisingly described as ‘New World’ estates. Constantia seems to have made its first appearances in Europe in the 1720s. The Jooste family, who sold the property in 2011, was an admirable custodian of the estate, one of the finest in the region.

The vintage

1986 is remembered as a good vintage for red wines in the Cape. Very dry conditions in January and February led to early ripening and to perfect conditions for the Muscat de Frontignan to form perfect raisins.

The terroir

The wine is made from Muscat de Frontignan (aka Muscat à Petits Grains) and picked very ripe with no botrytis. The eight hectares of vines were planted in 1983 on a slope with varied soils: sandstone higher up, clay and decomposed granite in the middle, and sand below. For the maiden 1986 vintage, most of the crop was thinned so as not to stress the young plants and a small amount was left to mature on the vines until it raisined.

The wine

Very little is known about how the 1986 vintage was made, but the tiny harvest would have been macerated on the skins before a hard pressing designed to extract not just sugar and flavour but tannins too, giving the finished wine more texture.

The wine was fermented in two 500-litre barrels and aged for 18 months before being bottled. There is no fortification and fermentation stops naturally because of the high levels of sugar and alcohol.

In current vintages the grapes are picked in various stages to bring in a range of sugar and acidity levels. Each batch is made using a variety of methods: some are fermented on the skins, while others are macerated for two weeks.

Then the finished wine is aged in barrels for up to five years, providing a light oxidation that forms the stable yet complex character so typical of Vin de Constance.

The reaction

As the wine was never released, printed comments are scarce. South African wine writer Angela Lloyd tasted the wine in 2002 and wrote: ‘Intense, lifted, fresh honey and lemon bouquet. Racy, minerally acid lends vivid clarity to the rich fruit, silky texture. Excellent balance. Incisively clean, long. Amazingly youthful.’

A few years later, Tuscan wine producer Sebastiano Castiglioni of Querciabella acquired some cases at the Nederburg auction, so more bottles may become available for tasting. In 2014 Klein Constantia winemaker Matthew Day brought a bottle to London for tasting.

I noted: ‘Startling caramelised orange nose, smoky, a touch of rancio, vivid. Mediumbodied, moderate concentration, good acidity, a trace of oxidation, yet vibrant, with some tropical fruit. Peppery finish, fine length.’

The facts

Bottles produced 950 500ml bottles
Composition 100% Muscat de Frontignan
Yield 3.3hl/ha
Alcohol 13.7%
Release price Not sold, but the 1987 was ZAR22 ex-cellar (about £6.80)
Price today N/A

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