Wine Club: Sweet dream on the Cape

Christine Austin gets her just desserts – and more – on a visit to one of South Africa’s oldest wine estates.

A vineyard in Constantia, in Table Mountains shadow
A vineyard in Constantia, in Table Mountains shadow

YOU might have to look carefully if you fancy a glass of Vin de Constance. “I think there is a place for it on a menu in a restaurant, as well on the wine list. It doesn’t really need a dessert to accompany it, this wine is a delicious way to end a meal, all on its own.” So says Matt Day, the remarkably youthful winemaker in charge of making this legendary sweet wine of the Cape. I am sitting under the trees at Klein Constantia, just south of Cape Town on one of the oldest wine estates in South Africa, as Matt gives me his opinion of the 2011 Vin de Constance.

The wine is poured from a distinctive, curvy, dark green bottle, modelled on one from the 18th century, which gives a hint of the long illustrious history of this wine and the estate. But the wine is not lost in another era. It is a re-creation of the famous wine that Napoleon drank during his exile on St Helena and was even referred to in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for its “healing powers on a disappointed heart”. In its heyday it was hugely expensive and highly sought after, but it disappeared for over a century after phylloxera wiped out the vines. Now production of this wine has started again, after careful investigation into old clones of the grape variety Muscat de Frontignan and Matt is working to isolate particular yeasts to find the one that is native to this vineyard and this wine.

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Making any sweet wine requires time and patience but Vin de Constance is extraordinarily labour intensive. As the grapes ripen, teams of pickers go through the vineyards, selecting grapes at just the right degree of ripeness. Last year they went through 25 times, sometimes selecting just individual grapes, as they mature from crisp and ripe to shrivelled and raisiny. This is not a botrytis wine, its flavours come from the pure sweetness and natural acidity of the grapes.

Tasting the 2011 vintage, it danced across my tastebuds, vibrant with flavour, with clear peach, apricot and chunky marmalade notes, a light dusting of toasted hazelnuts, crystallized ginger and honey with delicious sweetness balanced by juicy freshness. It could go with a tarte tatin, an apricot tart or even a crème brulée. It could even partner a creamy Yorkshire Blue cheese, but I’m with Matt when he suggests it could act as its own dessert. A glass of this wine to sip and savour at the end of a meal would keep conversation flowing for hours.

Older vintages of Vin de Constance are currently on the shelves. Find the 2008 at Bon Coeur, Field & Fawcett and Halifax Wine Co at around £39 and the 2007 vintage at Harrogate Fine Wine at £39.99. This is a wine that gathers complexity and depth as it ages, so don’t be worried if you don’t drink it immediately. In the right conditions it will keep magnificently well for decades.

Klein Constantia is part of the grand estate given to Simon van de Stel who was Governor of the new colony of the Cape in 1685. On his death it was divided into smaller parcels of land and now there are a string of properties along the valley that claim heritage back to the original land-holding. But despite its long history, the region of Constantia is forward-looking. Perhaps because of its easy access to Cape Town this is a desirable place to live and Sunday lunchtimes bring locals and tourists out in droves for wine tastings and lunch at the wineries.

A particular feature of Constantia is its cooler temperature. It lies south of Cape Town on a promontory that juts out into the ocean and is swept by cooling sea breezes. It is also in the shadow of Table Mountain and in the afternoon the sun retreats behind the peak and its tablecloth of cloud, relieving the intensity of the heat of the day.

This makes this region particularly good for Sauvignon Blanc, and Matt is working on developing the quality of his Sauvignon. “We have pulled out 15 hectares of vines and are now replanting using different clones, and matching each site to the style of wine we want to produce.” He is also working closely with Pascal Jolivet in the Loire to develop a more minerally style of Sauvignon. Certainly that showed in the wines poured at the tasting. The 2014 Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and bright with layers of stone, peach and citrus flavours, with a long, silky elegance. The 2012 vintage is still available at Majestic at £14.99, often at just £9.99 on multi-buy.

We drove to the top of the vineyard and looked out over the cluster of wine estates and I could quite see why Simon van de Stel had particularly wanted this area for his own. It is green, beautiful and just the right place to grow grapes.

Right next door to Klein Constantia is a vineyard I have always avoided because I couldn’t work out how to pronounce it. Buitenverwachting (Bay-ten-ver-vach-ting) translates as “beyond expectations”, and I can see why. Once again there is investment going into the vineyards as some red grape sites have been replaced with whites and the Sauvignon Blanc wines shine with quince, peach and greengage notes. These wines are difficult to find in our area but Wine Array in Boroughbridge does have the flagship red blend called Christine (£18.50). I found that I liked this Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blend a lot, not just for the name and I came home with a bottle in my suitcase.

If you manage to head to South Africa, this winter or in future years, it is all too easy to ignore the wineries of Constantia in favour of Stellenbosch, but that would mean you miss out. Both regions are very much worth a visit, in particular lunch at Steenberg, which comes with jazz on Sundays, and maybe a round of golf to follow.