Its name may hint at smallness but Klein Constantia looms large on the local and international wine scene. And it’s not ALL because of Vin de Constance, that paean to South Africa’s historic Constantia wines. Fiona McDonald recounts the remarkable rebirth of this 146 hectare wine farm. Its name may hint at smallness but Klein Constantia looms large on the local and international wine scene. And it’s not ALL because of Vin de Constance, that paean to South Africa’s historic Constantia wines. Fiona McDonald recounts the remarkable rebirth of this 146 hectare wine farm.
It seems almost inconceivable that just over 20 years ago Klein Constantia was “two-thirds alien bush and one-third neglected vines”, as owner Duggie Jooste puts it.
Manicured, picture-perfect rows of leafy green vines can be seen for miles around, marching in ordered precision across the slopes of the Constantiaberg. Needless to say, the view from those vineyards is awe-inspiring. The Cape flats roll on towards Somerset West and craggy granite outcrops stretch southward before plunging dramatically into the blue crescent of False Bay near Muizenberg.
Vineyard manager Kobus Jordaan says a visitor summed it up when he asked Kobus where he’d go when he died “because you’re already in heaven right here”.
There is no single remarkable thing about Klein Constantia – but rather a collection of many factors: the almost overnight purchase of the farm, the rapid transformation of neglected property to one of the country’s showpieces and the amazing continuity of style, because their first winemaker and vineyard manager are both still in harness and the ownership hasn’t changed.
Duggie tells the tale of how he was waiting one Thursday night at Jan Smuts airport for his return flight to Cape Town when he ran into Ian Austin, family friend and then owner of Klein Constantia.
“He wanted to move to the Transvaal as it was called in those days, and said he wanted to sell Klein Constantia ‘last week’. I said I might be interested”
On Monday morning he was summoned to a meeting with Austin and his lawyer, who duly made notes of the agreement on a piece of foolscap paper.
“Austin wasn’t prepared to wait for the lawyer to get the notes neatly typed up. He demanded that I sign the agreement, there and then!”
And so it was that in 1980 Duggie Jooste bought the historical property for a million rand.
Klein Constantia was part of Simon van der Stel’s original landholdings and was once a portion of Groot Constantia, which belonged to the Cloete family.
“It was granted to one of the two Cloete sons in 1817 when Groot Constantia was split – which is why it was called Klein Constantia,” Duggie, a keen historian, recounts.
Having sold the family business, Sedgwicks, to Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery some years earlier, Jooste had a good relationship with the company.
“Ronnie Melck and I entered into an agreement. SFW would help us plan the farm, assist us with nursery material and also do our distribution – because I knew nothing about farming.”
In those early days Professor Chris Orffer suggested Duggie meet SFW’s viticultural expert Ernst le Roux who in turn recommended Kobus Jordaan as farm manager.
Ernst played a crucial role in the planning, selection of the right vine material and the planting of the farm.
After national service in the elite parabat unit and a few years with SFW at Plaisir de Merle, Elsenburg-trained Kobus joined in 1981 – and has never seen the need to leave.
“Oom Duggie’s been like a father to me,” the ginger-haired, ruddy-faced Springbok tou-trekker says. “As the visitor said to me, this farm is like heaven.”
Kobus Jordaan was responsible for overseeing the conversion of the woefully neglected property to its currently manicured precision.
“Jislaaik, it was terrible – so rundown! There were old tractors, rusted cars, wire all over the show – and no infrastructure.
“We brought in D8 Caterpillars and cleared everything, cutting down trees, burning the brush and then ripping the soil before trellising and planting.”
Environmental laws were not quite so strict in the early ’80s and Kobus recalls how clearing the vegetation meant that fires burned on Klein Constantia “from 6 am on a Monday to 5 pm on a Friday – for two-and-a-half to three months”.
“Even the big blue gum trees, we’d fell them, chop them up, push everything into a heap and then set it alight.”
He modestly admits it was “quite a job you can’t believe what it used to be like when you see the farm today.”
While there was “some Hanepoot, raisin Blanc and a bit of Pinotage” on the farm as Kobus recalls, it was soon planted with Chenin Blanc, Rhine Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, with Cabernet Franc planted in 1986 and Pinot Noir added in 1991.
“The first year we planted 77 000 vines, the next year 70 000 and the third year 68 000,” he says.
“And yes, we made a few mistakes. When we finally got some Chardonnay – it wasn’t available when we first planted – we put it high up on the slopes. Firstly, it doesn’t get cold enough up there and secondly, the south-easterly wind is a problem, especially at flowering time. We’ve learned that Sauvignon Blanc is better up there with the Chardonnay lower down.”
The rock on which Klein Constantia’s success has been built is Ross Gower.
Words like consistency, persistence, innovation, tenacity all apply to him. Also an SFW product, he gave the Joostes the assurance that he’d be their winemaker following a stint at Corbans winery in New Zealand. After three years in the land of the long white cloud he returned in time for Klein Constantia’s first harvest in 1985.
But his first task was to work on the cellar design in conjunction with visionary architect Gawie Fagan. “My input was simply how I wanted the cellar to work – the design was Gawie’s.”
Duggie’s son Lowell who has run the business side of the operation since 1987, recalls that Fagan was adamant that the cellar not be intrusive – he wanted it to blend into the landscape and not stand out.
Something else Fagan wanted was the building to be as eco-friendly as possible. While he incorporated the space for cooling equipment in the design, it has never been required. Natural air movement and the fact that most of the cellar is subterranean means a near constant temperature of 14 degrees is maintained.
His design was recognised with an award by xxxx.
Not everything was sunshine and roses. The day before their first grapes were delivered to their new cellar certain vital winemaking equipment was still not working – and had never been tested.
Ever one to understate the case, Gower adds: “It was great fun”
“It’s a miracle we didn’t kill ourselves,” he says. “We didn’t have catwalks in those days so there were ladders up everywhere. Grapes often ended up on the floor. The cellar was complete but it was also a construction site. The builders were still busy with the offices and the barrel store.”
The first wines were made in the Nederburg cellar and went into the SFW system in 1985. The maiden vintage under the Klein Constantia label was the following year: 1986.
That same year KC announced its presence by winning the best white wine trophy at the National Young Wine Show – and then promptly followed that up with the champion red wine for a Cabernet Sauvignon in 1987, and being judged overall champion, thus winning the General Smuts Trophy.
“Nowadays we’re all fairly scathing about the Young Wine Show – but it really put us on the map,” Gower admits. There were no bottled wine shows then, so this was the only chance winemakers had to judge their product against the competition.
Those accomplishments were no flash in the pan. Klein Constantia maintains its spot in the Cape’s winemaking firmament with consistently excellent performances.
Take the maiden 1986 Sauvignon Blanc. Not only was it judged the champion white wine at the National Young Wine Show, it garnered one of only 11 5 Star ratings ever awarded by WINE magazine – when it was tasted in 1996!
Gower attributes that wine’s success to the youth of the vines, their balance and a good, early harvest. “We’ve never repeated anything like that.”
But they have made equally distinctive wines. Like the 1987 Blanc de blanc that was the talk of the town.
“It was a very wet year. We had a lot of botrytis (noble rot) and we didn’t do a selective picking. Basically we had a Sauvignon Blanc with a botrytis character.
“I didn’t feel it could be called a Sauvignon Blanc because it was so different in character to the 1986 and was very untypical of the variety. We decided to call it Blanc de blanc.”
That was repeated in both 1991 and in 1993.
HISTORY IN MAKING
Perhaps the sweetest – and most successful – part of the Klein Constantia success story has been that of Vin de Constance.
It was while sitting on the stoep of the manor house after dinner one evening that Prof Orffer reminded Duggie of South Africa’s most famous wine.
“He told me that there had been no historic contributions to the world of wine by the newer wine producing countries – except for the sweet Constantia wines of the 18th and 19th century.”
That seed fell on fertile ground and Duggie felt it was “almost our duty” to revive the famous tradition. In their heyday these wines were reputed to be favoured by, among others, Napoleon, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
“Ross believed that it had to be a natural wine because botrytis was first recorded in the Cape in 1902,” Duggie says.
A bottle of 1791 Constantia wine, obtained on auction from the Duke of Northumberland’s cellar, was opened on the occasion of Duggie’s 75th birthday in 2001 – and more than lived up to lofty expectations.
In early 2002 former Burgundian wine character and old friend of the family, Paul Bouchard, brought a bottle of 1850 Constantia to open.
“I preferred the 1791 – it was a better vintage,” Gower was quick to quip. But the differences between the two wines was in the laboratory analyses. The 1791 had an alcohol of 12,2% and 145 g per litre of sugar while the 1850 was 10,5% alcohol and a whopping sugar reading of 267 g/l.
“They could have been made from different varieties,” Gower said.
There were no winemaking records to guide the KC team in their quest. It was decided to make it from Muscat de Frontignan – the original vine variety planted in the Cape by Governor Jan van Riebeeck.
In years gone by Hendrik Cloete had labourers walk through the vineyards, twisting the stems of the bunches to raisin the grapes on the vine and concentrate the sugars in the fruit while retaining the acidity. Nowadays leaves are removed at the level of the bunches which has the same shrivelling effect on the berries.
Once vinified the wine spends 18 months in large 500 litre seasoned barrels.
This wine has been an unprecedented success, hailed from Sweden to the United States. Even the French have sung its praises – and tourists constantly arrive at the tasting cellar seeking “the Emperor’s wine”.
Annual production runs to 14 000 of the distinctive squat dark brown bottles – but this nowhere near satisfies demand. More Muscat was planted two years ago but it will be another five years before its impact is felt.
When it comes to awards, Klein Constantia has a list of accolades even an octopus couldn’t accommodate: Veritas gold and double gold medals, South African and British Airways listings, trophies at SA wine shows, regular star ratings in WINE magazine and more besides.
“It’s been a huge challenge,” says Lowell. “We have this straightforward agricultural enterprise on one hand – and a sophisticated business operation on the other – 40 to 45% of which are exports.”
Their biggest problem in the coming year is to maintain their supplies.
“About 80% of our Sauvignon Blanc is snapped up by the local market – it’s very buoyant and we can hardly keep up with demand. We had a slightly smaller vintage this year so have less available.”
But they’re not resting on their laurels. They’ve replanted certain vineyards and constantly reassess their range. They’re cutting back on both Riesling and Chardonnay and upping their Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Vin de Constance production. They have gone from being white wine dominated to placing more emphasis on red wine. The cellar handles 700 tons but has capacity for 1000 – yet they won’t compromise on quality.
The Klein Constantia team seems vaguely surprised when confronted with evidence of their extraordinary success – and of their role in helping to create the quality tag that is attached to the Constantia wine region.
“I always believed Klein Constantia had potential” smiles Duggie.
Sales: 08h30 – 17h00 Mon – Fri; 09h00 -13h00 Sat
Cellar tours: by appointment
Size of farm: 146 hectares (81 ha under vine)
Grapes planted: Rhine Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Muscat de Frontignan; Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Merlot
Altitude: 90 m to 300 m above sea level
Rainfall: 1 200 mm p.a.
Soils: Decomposed granite
Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rhine Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest, Vin de Constance; Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Marlbrook (Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend).
Sauvignon Blanc – 1986 SA Champion white wine, WINE 5 Star, SAA listing in 1997/8/9, 1996 WINE 4 Star, 1997 Veritas DG; 1999 – SAA listing.
Rhine Riesling – 1995 WINE 4 Star; 1998 Juliet Cullinan Cape Wine Masters Award.
Semillon: 1997 WINE 4 Star.
Cabernet Sauvignon – 1988 SA Champion, SAA red wine trophy; 1991 WINE 4 Star, Veritas DG; 1992 WINE 4 Star; 1993 WINE 4 Star, Veritas DG; 1994 WINE 4 Star.
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – 1993 WINE 4 Star, 1997 gold medal SA Trophy Wine Show.
Shiraz – 1997 Veritas DG, WINE 4 1/2 Star, Gold IWC, London, Diners Club Top 10, Air France PB Classic medal; 1998 WINE 4 Star; 1999 WINE 4 Star.
Marlbrook – 1988 Veritas DG; 1989 Veritas DG, 1995 WINE 4 Star.
Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest – 1996 Air France PB Classic medal; 1998 Veritas DG, WINE 4 Star, Michelangelo gold, Air France PB Classic medal
Vin de Constance – 1993 WINE 4 Star; 1994 WINE 4 1/2 Star, Platter 5 Star; 1995 WINE 4 Star, Platter 5 Star; 1996 WINE 4 1/2 Star, Platter 5 Star; 1997 WINE 4 1/2 Star, Platter 5 Star; 92/100 Wine Spectator. British Airways First Class listing for the past 5 years. Featured in 100 Legendary Wines and Les Plus Grand Crus du Monde (one of only 44 wines).
Klein Constantia chosen as one of 25 Great Vineyards of the World by the US Wine & Spirits magazine in September 2002.
Tagged Wineries & Cellars