The Power and the Glory of Constantia Glen


“Come on, man, I ‘ve never seen a horse win a race without a jockey!” enthused Duimpie Bayly, owner of more South African wine industry positions than you’d find in the first 35 pages of the Kama Sutra.

Duimpie was responding to Dominique Hebrard, former owner of Bordeaux icon Cheval Blanc, who was discussing his involvement with Cape winery Constantia Glen by accentuating the role of terroir and vineyard. “All this stuff about wine being made in the vineyard is bullshit ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ you need ‘n bloody good winemaker as well.”

This forthright interaction is what happens when things get going at the Wine Swines, arguably South Africa’s most established wine club. Hoffie Hoffman (what else?), a former technical head at Distillers Corporation, joined the Swines in 1968, giving one an idea of the kind of history attached to this organisation.

Duimpie’s ascerbic reaction to Dominique’s philosophy, I think, began when Duimpie introduced himself to the Frenchman earlier on by asking Dominique to translate “Small Thumb” (Duimpie) into French. The reply was something sounding like “petit poes“, which obviously ruffled a few Bayly feathers, despite those who may have differed with Dominique by deploying “grand” instead.

In any event, Monsieur Hebrard was adament that he was not bringing a French flair to Constantia Glen, but rather here to assist the winery to make South African wines to the best of the site’s ability.

This making is in the obviously very capable hands of Karl Lambour, a fellow swine who offered to host last Friday’s tasting to coincide with the visit of Dominique.

We kicked off with a tasting of three vintages of The Constantia Saddle, Constantia Glen’s three-variety Bordeaux blend. First up was the 2007, which is currently on the market, followed by the unlabelled 2008 and 2009.

So why are we not talking about just another red blend here?

First of all, South Africa’s oldest winemaking region has been really impressive in its red wine offerings over the past six, seven years. Groot Constantia Shiraz and Pinotage, Eagle’s Nest Shiraz, Buitenverwachting Cabernet Franc and Klein Constantia Marlbrook consistently rock-up in my annual top 20 list. I love the pure, bright and more-ish fleshy flavours of Constantia red wines. No heat, fynbos or mint, and wood is used judiciously in most cases ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ a fact proven even in the young wines.

Constantia Glen has made no bones about its lofty ambitions, which is good. I dig the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” philosophy. There’s obviously a bit of tom behind the venture, everyone working there has clean crispy shirts, pricey haircuts and friendly white smiles, and Lambour is a winemaker of the convincingly opinionated variety.

Karl Lambour
Karl Lambour

Throw in a Bordeaux consultant whose family happened to own Cheval Blanc, and the expectations are lofty.

Well, it comes together in the wines. We are in talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk territory.

Constantia Glen’s 2007 The Constantia Saddle is a truly unctuous wine, and drinking it is like kissing one of Dominique’s (female) cellar-hands after she has returned from a trip to an exotic destination. A decadent glow of winey fruit has surprising whiffs of spice and perfume, Bordeaux-style beauty one tends to have forgotten about in a current Shiraz-Tanat-Carignan-Mourv?+¦???+¦?+¦-+?+¦+ëdre obsessed industry.

The make-up is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. New wood for nine months. Then blended. Back into the barrel for two-and-something months.

Getting back to the vineyard, Karl explains how vines are opened up, leaving a few paltry leaves per vine to ensure shade-free ripeness, thus booting green, minty flavours back to where they came from.

I loved this wine, but the 2008 was even better. Here there was a bit of a perky peppery grip which made the finish longer, although it may even out with bottle-aging.

The other three wines were three vintages of the premium Constantia Glen Red Blend, with all five Bordeaux varieties now deployed. The 2007 is currently on the market – 32 % Merlot, 27 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 % Malbec, 11.5 % Cabernet Franc and 11.5 % Petit Verdot. And with the hefty addition of Malbec and Petit Verdot, one need not ask how this wine differs to the Saddle.

While “big” and “full” are tags hastily deployed to pile New World wines into one bag, there is still a very Old World respect for power.

Power having a religiously positive connotation, and in my French meanderings it is employed when great wines are described.

With its first red vintage only being the recent 2007, it is obviously not yet possoble to ascertain whether Constantia Glen’s Red Blend is going to show its current power in the long run. But at this stage, the red blend is showing signs of greatness.

The red fruit heart from the Merlot and Cabernet Franc spurts unadulterated clean, fresh flavours. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec brood like a hulking rugby front row, adding a beautiful strength.

It is a terrific wine, a harmony of grace and power ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ like a Steinway piano being pushed around by a bunch of female ice-hockey players.

The 2008 still showed a hint of rugged tannins, but everything else was there. But the 2009 is going to be the big one, with a greater accent on Petit Verdot and a brooding darkness in the colour.

History continues to be made in an historical wine region.

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