SA wine history: Humble beginnings for unicorn wine

By , 20 May 2021

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Grand Constance 1821.

The Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction (CFRWA) takes place this coming Saturday and there’s a bottle of Grand Constance 1821 up for grabs.

‘A treasure of this calibre presents itself perhaps once in a lifetime, and anyone lucky enough to secure this wine at auction will be rewarded with an unbelievably valuable piece of wine history,’ says Nederburg MD and CFRWA director Niël Groenewald.

‘The chance to acquire and drink a bottle of wine 200 years after its birth is sensational,’ says Charlie Foley, the Christie’s auctioneer who will be wielding the gavel on Saturday, describing the Grand Constance 1821 as ‘a true unicorn wine’.

It is hoped that this bottle – one of perhaps only a dozen still in existence worldwide – will reach a price of at least R80,000 (and you, too, can place a bid if you register here).

The bottle’s more recent history (disclaimer: I researched this on behalf of the CFRWA) is that it was part of an auction lot sold in London in the early 1980s. The head of the wine department at Sotheby’s, Patrick Grubb MW, was asked to place a bid on behalf of his South African friends at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (Distell today), and three bottles of Grand Constance 1821 (including this one) have been stored in the Tabernacle at Distell’s Adam Tas production facility ever since.

The hand-blown black glass bottles had their only outing in 2019 when they were expertly recorked by sommelier Jean-Vincent Ridon, overseen by Amorim Cork CEO Joaquim Sá and wine authority Michael Fridjhon, who were able to confirm that the wines still appeared to be in pristine condition. The recorking should preserve them for years to come, with alphanumeric identification on their new closures and seals to ensure their traceability going forward.

Where, exactly, these 1821s spent more than a century and a half before coming up for auction in London remains a bit of a mystery. It seems noteworthy that all three of them, as well as the bottle acquired by Groot Constantia via Catawiki in 2016, bear a label stating ‘décanté en 1883’. The use of French suggests that their decanting (from different bottles? from cask?) might have taken place in France – and certainly the Catawiki bottle was said to be ‘from a French private collection’.

That there have been notable French collectors of Constantia over the centuries shouldn’t come as a surprise. The cellar book at Versailles records that in November 1782, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had more Constantia in their cellar than Burgundy: 1,794 bottles of ‘Vin du cap de Constance (rouge)’ and 840 bottles of ‘Vin du cap de Constance (blanc)’, to be precise.

That puts the ill-fated royals in the same league as Napoleon, who famously drank up to a bottle of Constantia daily while in exile on St Helena, reportedly even requesting a glass on his deathbed. And although his death on 5 May 1821 meant there was suddenly quite a bit more Constantia available, it would easily have found a market – in France, as elsewhere. In his Physiologie du Goût, published in 1825, the famous gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin included Constantia among the wines to be expected at a top-notch French restaurant: ‘The fortunate gastronomer has thirty kinds of wine to select from, passing over the whole scale from Burgundy to Tokay and Constance,’ he wrote.

Genuine ‘Constance’ only ever came from two producers, namely Groot Constantia and Hoop op Constantia (in fact, the latter was the larger producer of the two in 1821, according to merchant and philanthropist William Wilberforce Bird in his State of the Cape of Good Hope in 1822). At Groot Constantia, Jacob Pieter Cloete had taken the reins following the death of his father, Hendrik Junior, in 1818 (in 1823 his mother would sub-divide the property, with the 134-hectare portion we know as Klein Constantia going to his younger brother, Johan Gerhard).

It’s impossible to imagine what young JP Cloete was thinking while bringing in the 1821 harvest at Groot Constantia, but thanks to Professor DJ van Zyl’s doctoral thesis, entitled Die Geskiedenis van Wynbou en Wynhandel in die Kaapkolonie, 1795-1860, we at least know the winemaking techniques he shared 20 years later with a German botanist named Ferdinand Krauss, who visited Groot Constantia in February 1841.

To paraphrase Van Zyl’s summary and translation of Krauss’s report Über die Constantia-Weinberge:

Cloete’s sweet wines had to be prepared with utmost care and perfect timing, as fermentation took place very quickly due to the hot climate and high sugar content. After the grapes had been pressed, the juice and skins were thrown together in a large barrel and stirred thoroughly every day until fermentation began (within two to ten days, depending on weather conditions). After a day or two of fermentation, the must was separated from the skins, drained into a barrel that had been dried out and sulphured beforehand. When the ‘stormagtige’ fermentation had subsided, after eight or ten days, the wine was poured into fresh, clean, sulphured barrels.

To prevent further fermentation taking place in these barrels, Cloete first poured in only six to eight gallons of wine, then threw in a piece of burning sulphur (about a foot long and a hand-width wide). The barrels were then plugged and rolled and shaken until all sulphuric acid odours had disappeared. After that, they were topped up and checked daily to make sure fermentation didn’t resume (in which case the wine was poured into fresh barrels). To fine the wine, it was racked into clean, dry, sulphured barrels six weeks later. This was repeated every three months during the first year in which the wine was aged.

‘According to Cloete, his sweet wine treated in this way could already be sold after the second year, but the wine was best when it was from three to six years old,’ records Van Zyl. ‘According to him, it was not advisable to let Constantia wine get older than six years old because it then became thick and sticky.’

From ‘thick and sticky’ at six to ‘one of the most precious, scarce and coveted wines in the world’ at 200, the Grand Constance 1821 has been on quite a journey so far. It’s next destination? We’ll find out on Saturday.

  • 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.

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  • David Pons24 May 2021

    Lovely read JG! Keep us posted.

  • Tim James20 May 2021

    Joanne – I’m wondering about your statement that “Genuine ‘Constance’ only ever came from two producers, namely Groot Constantia and Hoop op Constantia”. (I presume you use the French word for Constantia because that’s the name affixed to the French-bottled wine on auction?) Why do you omit High Constantia? It was well established as a producer of Constantia wine after the 1820s, even if it was possibly not so by 1821, so it seems misleading to exclude it. José Burman in his book on Constantia even says that “By 1841 the competition had settled down to a direct confrontation between Groot Constantia and High Constantia” – that is, the “competition” for making “genuine Constance/Constantia”. (Was there a non-genuine kind?)

    • Joanne Gibson20 May 2021

      Hi Tim, yes, I used ‘Constance’ (including quotation marks) because it’s how Brillat-Savarin referred to it in the preceding paragraph and also because the French labelling of the 1821 wine going on auction led me to try and look at Constantia from a more French perspective generally.
      And yes, definitely, High Constantia did emerge as a third contender in the 1820s. Arriving on the scene a good century after the Colyns of Hoop op Constantia and four decades after the Cloetes of Groot Constantia, High Constantia proprietor Sebastian van Reenen seems to have been a very shrewd businessman and marketer, e.g. putting up a large ‘Constantia’ sign at his gate and offering discounts on large orders. As he wasn’t bound by the historic obligation to supply the government with Constantia wine at a fixed price, as the Colyns and Cloetes still were in the 1820s, he could afford to undersell them…
      For what it’s worth, when British naval officer James Holman (the Blind Traveller) visited the Cape in 1829, he noted that there were now three Constantia vineyards: ‘Two of these […] have been long renowned for the superiority of the wines produced upon them. The third, which is named Sebastian’s Hoeg Constantia, is also famed, but not so widely as the others.’
      By 1843, the competition so irked JP Cloete that he took out an advertisement stating: ‘In consequence of several Constantias having latterly sprung up, it has been thought useful by the undersigned to publish the following travelling directions for the information of strangers, by which disappointment may be prevented… It being the chief object of the Proprietor to maintain unimpaired the just celebrity of the genuine Constantia, he never sacrifices the quality of his wines to produce a large quantity and he can now confidently offer to the public his unrivalled stock of Genuine Constantia wines…’
      Cloete’s rather narrow definition of ‘genuine Constantia’ aside, until the early 1820s there really were only two producers of the famous wine. Was there a non-genuine kind? Yes, absolutely! It’s pretty well documented that there was always plenty of fake Constantia going around, at least since 1751 when French astronomer Nicolas Louis de La Caille wrote: ‘The wine which is sold in Europe as “de Constance” in such large quantities must be heavily adulterated. There are only two adjacent properties at Constantia where the true wine grows, and in the best years these two properties together cannot yield more than 60 leggers of red wine and 80 or 90 of white.’ Perhaps that’s a column for another time!

  • Melvyn Minnaar20 May 2021

    Always good to read JG’s well-researched back stories. (Great picture of the bottle.) But my question is: why is Distell selling this treasure? Another sign of the end of wine culture at that once pioneering company?

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