The famous Vin de Constance is certainly a deeply contemplative wine. While I was tasting the fabulous new Vin de Constance 2017 release, deep in thought, I realised that my friendship with current winemaker Matt Day makes up the tail end of over 30+ years of my own relationship with this great estate and its winemakers after getting to know both Ross Gower and Adam Mason very well over the years. The journey of vinous evolution has been an exciting one for Vin de Constance which now proudly ranks, once again, among the most admired fine wine brands in the world.
With more than 320 years of history, Vin de Constance is without a doubt THE greatest sweet wine of the South hemisphere, being a unique style based on freshness, complexity, balance and deliciously hedonistic aromas. The vines of Muscat de Frontignan, the only variety used for Vin de Constance, stretch more than 16,5 hectares together with the estate’s other varieties on the slopes of the Constantiaberg mountain. The terroir of the Constantiaberg is 600 millions years old and has a high clay content which ensures good irrigation and favourable water retention, keeping the vines happy during the dry and hot summers. Located between 70m and 100m above sea level, the South-East oriented Muscat plantings on the estate’s lower slopes benefit from the constant cooling sea breezes of the Cape Doctor, a wind formed by the Benguela current coming up to the Cape from the Antarctic.
In the vineyard, a first harvest is made to create a basic base wine with a 12.5% to 13% alcohol content and a good acidity. In all, there are up to 20 separate pickings which are all vinified separately, 50% from bush vines planted in 2011 and 50% from older trellised vines planted in 1983. The consequential elaboration of Vin de Constance means that it does not require any “noble rot” or botrytis but merely the raisining of the grapes in a natural sweet wine style. After an extended fermentation period, the wine is normally aged for 3 years in a combination of 50% new French oak and acacia barrels, as well as some large format foudres before further blending and bottling.
Vin de Constance was previously enjoyed by…
• Napoléon 1st who had some bottles delivered weekly at Saint-Hélène during his exile. On his death bed, he wanted to drink only Vin de Constance and nothing else.
• Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
• King George IV, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II
• Prussian Emperor Frédéric Le Grand.
• George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
• The Indonesian Prince Dipanagara who was a Muslim but still drank Vin de Constance.
• Baudelaire (« I prefer Constance to opium »), Lord Byron, Jane Austen (a remedy to a heartbreak ) and Charles Dickens.
• John Adams, Casanova, Alexandre Dumas
• Nelson Mandela and more latterly, Xi Jinping
The build up to the 2017 harvest of Muscat de Frontignan was text book according to Matt Day. The autumn months were hot and dry – resulting in early leaf fall and moderate reserves in the vines. Winter came late with mild conditions. The rainfall, although better than 2015, was below average. Spring’s warm weather initiated budburst, however a cold September resulted in the budburst being slightly uneven. The summer months were near perfect for flowering and berry set. The exemplary growing season was characterised by cold nights, moderately warm days, cooling winds and just the right amount of rainfall perfecting the process of berry development and the ever so important maturation process. Despite the drought, they were able to isolate their individual pickings into 20 different batches of Muscat de Frontignan. The first picking showed fine acidity from the Bush vines – at just over 18 balling or 7.5-8% Abv., a 3.3pH and a total acid of 9 TA. These pickings spanned over two months, allowing numerous possibilities when making up the final blend of Vin de Constance 2017. The most time consuming of these batches was of course the essencia, the heart and soul of the Vin de Constance, which is made from raisins harvested individually by a specialised team.
The first experimental recreation by Ross Gower in 1986 was made up of around 1,000 bottles from grapes from two to three blocks with the 1987 vintage forming the first official commercial release. The 1988 vintage made 13,000 litres and was at first rejected for certification before later being passed. To this day, Vin de Constance still has no accurate official certification category, meaning that the wine is still certified as a Noble Late Harvest, despite having no botrytis, and is then declassified to a natural sweet wine with a volatile acidity level around 1.2. Recent production has now reached between 30 and 40,000 bottles annually.
Vin de Constance 2017 Natural Sweet Wine, WO Constantia, 13.97% Abv.
165 g/l RS, 3.7pH, 6.6 TA.
When comparing the technical stats of the 2017 with those of the 2016 Vin de Constance, they appear almost identical with a very similar alcohol level, residual sugar and total acidity. The aromatics are wonderfully cool, crystalline and fragrant with delicious notes of white peach, honey on white toast, spicy orange peel, apricot, passion fruit hints and pineapple pastille. Where this wine really departs from the 2016 is with its incredibly harmonious, utterly seamless, creamy mouthfeel that boasts a soft, suave glycerol mouth coating concentration, plush fleshy layers of dried apricots, honey and grapefruit marmalade. On the finish, the wine tightens up once again revealing such a fabulous balance where its multiple textural layers become almost inseparable before ending with a long, persistent phenolic length that lends an illusion of dryness. A truly outstanding benchmark Vin de Constance yet again. Drink now or over the next 25+ years.
(Wine Safari Score: 97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Vin de Constance 2016 Natural Sweet Wine, WO Constantia, 14.04% Abv.
164 g/l RS, 3.73pH, 6.5 TA.
Winemaker Matt Day is always effusive about how much he loves the 2016 Vin de Constance expression for its unique and characterful style that is just slightly more exotic and out of the ordinary. The aromatics are intricate and overt showing deliciously complex notes of ripe yellow grapefruit and dried apricots, pithy marmalade and spicy nectarine peel together with fabulously edgy notes of stem ginger and herbal cinnamon spice. This fabulous 2016 earned a lot of followers and was highly lauded across the world with drinkers seduced by the wine’s lush dense palate, its impressive concentration and glycerol breadth and a textural depth kept beautifully vibrant and bright by the wines superb sweet and sour tangy acidity. The finish is long and precise with tantalising hints of zesty tinned pineapple slices in syrup, fresh honey and more ginger and apricot nuances. A very special wine that shows plenty of individuality. Drink now and over the next 20 to 30+ years.
(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)