SA Wine History: What were the best wines after Constantia?

By , 12 March 2019

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In my last column, which looked at Napoleon’s fondness for vin de Constance (Constantia wine), I referred to pioneering wine critic André Jullien’s encyclopaedic Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus (first published in 1816) which described the wines coming from Groot and Hoop op Constantia as ‘some of the best liqueur wines in the world’.

At the end of his chapter on Africa, Jullien classified the red and white wines of Constantia as first class; the Cape muscats and ‘red wines called Rota from the district of Stellenbosch’ as second class; the white wines of ‘Perle’, ‘Dragenstein’ and Stellenbosch as fourth class; and the wines of (wait for it) Robben Island, Fayoum in Egypt, and Abyssinia as fifth class.

In more recent times, grape growing on Robben Island was undertaken on a small scale by political prisoners, with actual winegrowing resurrected by Philip Jonker of Robertson estate Weltevrede (a feel-good story I covered for The World of Fine Wine in 2014). Exactly what Rota may have been is worthy of further investigation (any ideas, anyone?) but Jullien was remarkably specific regarding the second-class Cape muscats: ‘The most esteemed crus are those of Becker and Hendrick.’

I immediately thought Becker must be the man whose farm Napoleon’s secretary, the Comte De Las Cases, was banished to in late 1816 after being caught smuggling letters from St Helena to Europe – Altydgedacht in Durbanville, then still known as De Tijgerbergen.

In the Cape section of his Mémorial, Las Cases wrote that he had been ‘removed to the very extremity of the civilised world’ but was nonetheless treated with ‘more than kindness’ by Franciscus Josephus Becker (‘not my jailor, but merely my host’). He was moreover delighted to find that most locals admired the exiled emperor: ‘The most victorious game cock in the neighbourhood was called Napoleon! The swiftest racehorse was Napoleon! The most invincible bull!’

Levaillant map

Map of southern Africa prepared for Louis XVI of France (a fan of Constantia wine) by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde based on Francois le Vaillant’s detailed descriptions of his African travels, published in 1790. Measuring 9ft x 6ft, the map is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. (Source: Wikimedia)

Rather disappointingly, however, the wines so esteemed by Jullien can’t have been produced at Altydgedacht because Becker only acquired the property in 1816 (the same year the first edition of Topographie was published). Even more disappointingly, further digging reveals that Jullien merely copied (almost verbatim) what French explorer and ornithologist Francois le Vaillant had written all the way back in 1790, in his Voyage dans l’Intérieur de l’Afrique par le Cap de Bonne Esperance dans les années 1780, 81, 82, 83, 84 & 85 (a decade before this particular Becker’s arrival from Germany).

The digging continues, needless to say, to establish precisely which Becker and Hendrick may have been making decent wine in the early 1780s. Meanwhile, I’m also trying to find out more about another highly regarded wine from the early 1800s, named ‘Diamond’ after the farm where it was made.

According to the Imperial Russian vice-admiral Vasily Mikhailovich Golovnin, who was detained at the Cape for a year before managing to escape in May 1809, ‘Diamond’ was the best imitation of Constantia (which, incidentally, he noted was made ‘at only two places, the one next to the other… One is called Groot Constantia and belongs to a Mr Cloete; the other belonging to Mr Collin and is called Klein Constantia’ [note: not the Klein Constantia we know today but Hoop op Constantia]).

Regarding the Cape’s various ‘imitations’ of Constantia, Golovnin wrote: ‘The best is the one called after the name of the farm where it is made, Diamant. It is not much inferior to the Constantia wine. It has a very agreeable sweet taste, with some strength, and is light pink in colour.’

There’s a chance this wine came from Paarl Diamant, now an equestrian and guest farm located north-west of Paarl Mountain (on the R44 to the north of Black Pearl Wines) but I think it’s more likely to have come from Diamant Estate, now a popular wedding venue in the shadow of the Taal Monument, just off the Suid-Agter-Paarl Road.

The original Diamant Estate was formally granted in 1693 to Coenraad Cloete (whose grandson would turn out to be Hendrik Cloete of Groot Constantia fame). Its immediate neighbours to the west were Bloemkool and De Leeuwen Jagt – the properties we know today as Fairview and Spice Route, both owned by the visionary Charles Back.

Just imagine what Golovnin and other early travellers would think if they visited the ‘destination of dreams’ that is Spice Route today! Not to mention Fairview with its cheesery, now producing more than 50 artisanal products, and its very many fine wines (including those in the ‘esoteric, age-worthy’ Bloemcool range, which embraces the farm’s heritage).

If Golovnin did visit, I suspect the closest he might get to his sweet, fairly strong, pink ‘Diamond’ wine would come from Fairview’s La Capra range – the fortified Red Muscadel sourced from the upper slopes of Paarl Mountain, with the 2017 described as follows: ‘Peach pink colour in the glass. Litchi, rose and honey aromas with well-balanced sweetness and candied orange peel flavours on the finish.’

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Jullien, Andre: Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus (Paris, 1816)

Golovnin, VM: Detained in Simon’s Bay: The Story of the Detention of the Imperial Russian Sloop Diana from April 1808 to May 1809 (Friends of the South African Library, Cape Town, 1964)

Las Cases, Emmanuel Auguste Dieudonne, comte de: My residence at the Cape, being an extract from volume IV of Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the private life and conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, with introduction and notes by OH Spohr (AA Balkema, Cape Town, 1970)

Le Vaillant, Francois: Voyage de M. Le Vaillant dans l’Intérieur de l’Afrique par Le Cap de Bonne Espérance, dans Les années 1783, 84 & 85 (Paris Leroy, 1790)

  • Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.

Comments

8 comment(s)

  • Michael Fridjhon19 March 2019

    A thought about Rota, Joanne: it may have been a misspelling of “roter” meaning red – which wouldn’t on its own be very helpful. However, given the known presence in the Cape of pontac (teinturier) which is an unusual red-fleshed grape, it may very well have been just that, good old-fashioned pontac – the last bottlings of which, to my knowledge, came from Hartenberg/Montagne

    • Joanne Gibson20 March 2019

      Thanks, Michael, I’ve now scrutinised the original (Le Vaillant) description more closely, and what he actually said was this: “They make a wine here likewise which is very like Rota, and which is frequently called by that name, and I have drunk some which has equalled the real.”
      So the Cape wine was not CALLED Rota (as Jullien put it), it was LIKE Rota, which must have been the Andalusian Tinto di Rota or Tintilla from Rota near Cadiz, Spain. It was made from a local clone of Graciano (of Rioja fame) and was fashionably sweet. In England, it became known as “Tent”!
      I imagine a sweet Stellenbosch “roode” wine made from Pontac could have drawn very favourable comparisons indeed…

  • Joanne Gibson12 March 2019

    Thank you, Kwispedoor, how interesting! I’ve just dug out some of my old Platter guides, and sure enough, Diamant appears in the 1994 guide: ‘A farm on Paarl mountain, next to Fairview, Diamant has been in Niel Malan’s family for more than a century: wine was made here until 1947, and resumed in 1992 when the Malans personally tramped the grapes for the dry red below.’
    This Dry Red 1992 scored 2.5 Stars and had 12.8% alcohol, while the Soetwyn 1993, a fortified pinotage, scored 3 Stars. ‘Charles Back has been a convenient source of neighbourly advice.’
    In the 1995 guide, the Dry Red 1993 and a barrel sample of the 1994 scored 3.5 Stars, with the Platters commenting: ‘Some of the most promising reds we’ve tasted for this edition.’
    In the 1996 guide, the renamed Diamant Rouge 1994 had notched up 4 Stars (‘a crushed-by-feet, no-filtration dream of a wine… There’s untrammelled joy here: plums, nutmeg, nuts, marzipan. Honest juiciness and a bit of untamed tannin. 13% alc; 60% cabernet with 40% merlot. Bush vines’).
    Diamant itself was described as is described as ‘one of those story book wine places, the whole family piling in, no formalities, the results as raw and beautiful as nature can make them’.
    According to the 1997 guide, no 1995 Rouge was made, but the Pinotage Port was described as ‘rather pleasant’ with hints of raisins, chocolate, some chalkiness’. The Malans, meanwhile, were not only handcrafting down-to-earth wines, but also mohair blankets and yarn!
    Less excitement was shown in the 1998 guide, which merely said that the Dry Red 1995 (50% cab, 40% merlot, 10% cab franc) again showed ‘honest juiciness’. The 1999 guide reported that an uncertified Pinotage, aged a year in barrel, had joined the micro-range, but there was only disappointment in 2000: ‘The Malans made no wines for their own-label in 1999 – grape produce from their rustic farm, Diamant, below Paarl mountain was sold in bulk (regular buyers include neighbours Fairview and Simonsvlei).’
    And that, it seems, was that!
    Hmm, I can’t help thinking that there’s an opportunity for Charles Back and team here…

    • Kwispedoor12 March 2019

      Ah, thanks Joanne. So they did make more than two vintages. That 1994 Rouge was the one we got. A nice wine memory!

    • Enno19 March 2019

      Hi both,

      Some more infos on Diamant….My sister got married at Diamant a few weeks ago and they still have some wines made with the Diamant Label on it. I asked them about their cellar and apparently all of these wines come from Fairview and then get the Diamant Label. The bushvines growing on the Diamant farm apparently also go to Fairview.

      • Kwispedoor19 March 2019

        Thanks, Enno. With the apparent demise of their own label (commercially, at least) we all assumed that the fruit would probably go to Fairview or that Fairview even might have bought the farm. I’m not sure if they ever had a cellar, per se, but after visiting there in the nineties, the family told us that they trod the grapes themselves in plastic bins, etc. I hope the road was more negotiable for you guys than when I bruised a rental up there. That road had more holes than an ANC election manifesto.

      • Enno19 March 2019

        Great comparison Kwispedoor, had a good laugh. The Road, thankfully is now tarred up to the Estate.

  • Kwispedoor12 March 2019

    Hi, Joanne. I remember as a student in the nineties, mainly forsaking studies and instead embarking on as many as possible exploits with the Tuks Wynkultuurvereniging, noticing a new producer in the Platter guide, called Diamant. Their wine received four stars and carried an enthusiastic value alert – a student-friendly R10 per bottle. With it not being available anywhere else, I got a couple of other members to buy in on an explorative case directly from the farm. The wine was really cool, with dense sediment even in its youth (1994 and 1995 vintages, mainly a Bordeaux-style red wine, if my memory serves me right). Unfiltered wine wasn’t very common those days and neither were foot-trodden ones, as this was, in plastic containers. It was probably, for that era, some of the least interventionist wines that one could find in SA. It really was quite exciting stuff for us at that stage and it was a pity when they stopped producing wine under their own brand after only two vintages. They also made a heavily-sedimented 1995 “Port” from Pinotage, of all things. I think I still have an empty bottle somewhere.

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