WineThe Collection

Vin de Constance: the world’s greatest sweet wine

Vin de Constance is a seductive delight, as Adam Lechmere discovered at a rare vertical tasting

Words by Adam Lechmere

Vin de Constance
The Collection

Uniqueness is an overused term, but there is no other wine like Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance. Produced from Muscat de Frontignan grapes on the cool lower slopes of Constantiaberg on the Cape Peninsula, it has an ancient history. Early records show how the 10th commander of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, planted the first vines at the estate he called Constantia in 1685; how by 1702 his wines were lauded as ‘divine and enticing in taste’; how the estate was divided up; and how by 1718 it was in the care of the grandson of a freed slave, Johannes Colijn, whose descendants made Constantia’s wines up to the 1850s.

Constantia was famed throughout the world for its sweet wines. George Washington ordered it; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were fans. Jane Austen mentions Constantia, as does Baudelaire, and Dickens; and it was a solace to Napoleon in exile.

But it wasn’t to last. The economic upheavals of the second half of the 19th century, vine disease and a shift in the market’s taste from sweet to dry sent Constantia into decline. It was to languish for more than a century, until the Cape Town businessman Duggie Jooste bought the estate ‘for next to nothing’ in 1980 and set about returning it to its former glory. The 1986 was the inaugural vintage of the new era.

Uniqueness is an overused term, but there is no other wine like Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance

Matt Day, head winemaker at Klein Constantia since 2012, presented four decades of the estate’s wine at the Institute of Masters of Wine in September 2019. Day’s intention was to demonstrate his philosophy of balance and his mission to increase the freshness of the wine. Achieving balance is the goal of every winemaker, and Day discussed this holy grail in the simplest terms. ‘You need to make a sweet wine that almost tastes dry, so that you can drink it at different parts of a meal.’

Vin de Constance is a naturally sweet wine, made with unbotrytised raisined grapes. It’s matured in oak barrels and is unfortified. Attention to detail is meticulous. The grapes are brought in in several passes, with low-sugar, higher-acid grapes first, then the super-sweet raisined berries. Barrel ageing has been reduced to three years on average.

This was an MW tasting, and it was peppered with technicalities. We discussed residual sugar and total acidity, alcohol levels, percentages of new versus used barrels, racking regimes and bottle age. But nothing could detract from the loveliness of the liquid in the glass. While all great wines have an element of the ineffable, great sweet wines have you wrestling more than usual with the words to describe them. We were presented with a perfumed concoction of sweetness and earth that called to mind acacia, toffee, fine old wood and honeysuckle amid the other (not very satisfactory) descriptors I came up with. My note to the 2012 begins simply, ‘Wow.’