SA wine history: The value of old Constantia wine (and some delicious imitations)
By Joanne Gibson, 30 June 2021
The single bottle of Grand Constance 1821 that I wrote about last month fetched an astonishing R420,000 at the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction. The price surpassed all expectations, including my own. After all, the bottle of 1821 that Groot Constantia brought home with much fanfare in 2016 had been snapped up on auction for a mere €1,550 (about R25,000 at the time). What a bargain!
However, extremely high prices for Constantia wines are nothing new. When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) put 36 leaguers of Constantia on the Amsterdam market in 1762, the White sold for up to £190 per leaguer while the Red fetched over £333 per leaguer – a massive profit for the VOC, given that it was only paying the two Constantia producers £12 per leaguer of white and £16 per leaguer of red (a leaguer having been equivalent to about 575 litres; Red Constantia having been made from the ripest red Muscadel grapes blended or at least coloured with Pontac).
Another indication of how valued Constantia wines were in Europe comes from the wine list of Restaurant Véry in Paris, where in 1790 the Vin de Constance was listed at 40 francs for a half-bottle compared to a mere 10 francs for the Vin de Chably (full bottle) and 25 francs for the Vin de Sauterne.
Perhaps even more than famous literary mentions and palace cellar records, these prices prove how highly sought after Constantia was during the 1700s. It’s hardly surprising, then, that fake Constantia soon started cropping up on the market…
In 1751, French astronomer Nicolas Louis de La Caille arrived at the Cape to spend two years during which he would catalogue almost 10,000 southern stars – including the constellation he named Mons Mensae in honour of Table Mountain. He observed: ‘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 [sic] of red wine and 80 or 90 of white.’
In 1772, Swedish naturalist and physician Anders Sparrman stopped at the Cape while sailing around the world with Captain James Cook. ‘Constantia is a district consisting of two farms, which produce the well-known wine so much prized in Europe and known by the name of Cape, or Constantia-wine,’ he wrote. Similarly observing that production was too limited to account for the vast quantities of so-called Constantia sold in Europe, Sparrman said this was ‘the production of avarice, which, goaded on by the desire of gain, will always hit upon some method of falsifying the demands of luxury and sensuality. The votaries of these, accustomed to be put off with empty sounds, frequently drink with the highest relish, an imaginary exquisite “Constantia” which, however, has nothing in common with the genuine wine so called, besides the mere name.’
After Australia’s First Fleet called at the Cape in October 1787, David Collins, the future judge-advocate of New South Wales, wrote: ‘Constantia, so much famed, has a very fine, rich, and pleasant flavour, and is an excellent cordial. [But] much of the wine that is sold under that name was never made of the grape of the Constantia; for the vineyard is but small, and has credit for a much greater produce that it could possibly yield: this reminds us of those eminent masters in the art of painting, to whom more originals are ascribed than the labour of the longest life of man could produce.’
So much for visitors to Constantia; it’s also noteworthy that early advertisers of (genuine) Constantia wine were at pains to emphasise its authenticity. London’s Daily Advertiser of 16 May 1767, for example, carried an advertisement for six dozen bottles of Constantia at £6 and 6 shillings per dozen. ‘It is warranted genuine and free from any Mixtures, being still in the Possession of the Person who brought it out of the Cellar at the Constantia Vineyard, where only it is to be had.’
Given that there was clearly a lot of non-genuine Constantia going around, do we know what it was?
When that famous scholar, adventurer, author, gambler and seducer of women, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, visited Amsterdam in 1764, he recorded a meeting with a Dutch stock exchange agent named Mr Pels: ‘He asked me to dinner, and, on my admiring his Cape wine, he told me with a laugh that he had made it himself by mixing Bordeaux and Malaga.’
(The sweet wines that originated in the Spanish city of Málaga, made from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes, were extremely popular in their own right at the time – and far more easily obtainable than Constantia.)
If that’s a reasonably plausible ‘recipe’ for Constantia, consider the recipe for blackcurrant wine that was included in The British Wine-maker, and Domestic Brewer, the second edition of which was published in 1835 by William Henry Roberts, who wrote: ‘When this wine is properly made, it may very well be passed off for Constantia; and, in fact, it has been.’
He described how two measures of lightly squeezed blackcurrants should be boiled with one measure of water for 10 minutes, then drawn off, strained and again pressed. The wine’s other ingredients included lump sugar, crude tartar and brewer’s yeast, with Roberts concluding: ‘The longer the wine is kept in the cask, before bottling, the better.’
He then described how ‘a very respectable friend, who lived much in the world, and who was in the habit of entertaining his friends with a variety of continental wines’ had sent him two empty pint bottles, asking him to fill them with ‘some very old blackcurrant wine, made in a particular way’ to be served to a party of important guests.
‘It is not my intention here to name the individuals of that party; suffice it to say, that, amongst others, there were two present whose judgement in wines was reckoned unexceptionable,’ wrote Roberts. ‘The glasses were filled and handed round; one smacked his lips, another pronounced it delicious, and so on. No one, however, dared to give it a name. All eyes were now fixed upon the judges, first on one, then on the other. One of them confidently asserted that it was the very best Constantia he had ever tasted.’
If the anonymous buyer of the Grand Constance 1821 ever opens the wine, let’s hope he/she enjoys it at least as much as those two experts enjoyed William Roberts’ blackcurrant wine.
Casanova, Giacomo: The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, Volume III, ‘The Eternal Quest’, translated by Arthur Machen, London, 1894
Collins, David: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, second edition, T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1804
De La Caille, Nicholas Louis: Journal historique du voyage fait au Cap de Bonne-Esperance, 1751-53, Paris, 1763
Roberts, WH: The British Wine-maker, and Domestic Brewer: A Complete, Practical, and Easy Treatise on the Art and Management of British Wines, and Liqueurs, and Domestic Brewing (second edition), Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1835
- 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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