Klein Constantia and the Ode to Silence

Such was his respect and reverence for their wines, Napoleon forced his troops to salute the vines of Gevrey-Chambertin as they marched through Burgundy, en route to a bit of strenuous French dictatorial conquering, violent mayhem and flashy blood-letting. Times are more peaceful now, thankfully, but if there are any South African vineyards worthy of a salute, a courteous nod or even a matey “howzit!”-thumbs-up, these are indeed the winelands of Constantia.

For sure, this is where the Cape wine industry began 337 years back when a foresighted Dutch fellow named Simon van der Stel picked Constantia as a pretty good place for planting vines and making wine. And with the sweet and other wines from the region being all the rage in Europe during the 1700s and 1800s – including a desired tipple of aforementioned Napoleon Bonaparte – Constantia has always given good story. Even in the slower, unimaginative days of the South African wine industry and the destructive period of political sanctions on Cape wine, Constantia always stood true, recognised all over the civilized world of wine as a vinous beacon, a point of reference from the African south.

The nod that should be reserved for Constantia, however, is the region’s current position as the Mothership of Cape Wine. For one, the true magnificence of its restored historical buildings blending into mountain-side vineyards creating an aesthetic presence unrivalled by any other wine region in the world. And this, a part of the city of Cape Town, one of the leading brands in international tourism.

Secondly, the ethos of the owners of these wine properties in Constantia should be approached with respect. It is their collective regard for and appreciation of this special part of the wine world that has allowed Constantia to be where it is today, a slice of rural wineland splendour next to a burgeoning metropolis.

Matthew Day

And then, of course, there are the wines. While regional history is splendidly honoured through the sweet wines that made this region famous, mainly through Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance and Grand Constance from Groot Constantia, as an area Constantia is today making some of the finest table wines in the Cape’s diverse quality offering.

There are many examples, from Chardonnay to Shiraz, Pinotage to red Bordeaux-style blends, but it is what Constantia is doing with Sauvignon Blanc that, to my mind, is currently the region’s greatest contribution to Brand South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc is one of the grape varieties that wine consumers world-wide have fallen in love with over the past 30 years. There is a huge international market for it, and at flush price-levels to boot. And with its sterling efforts in producing quality premium Sauvignon Blanc in such a glorious well-known and historical important region of the Cape, Constantia is helping to create a much-needed international awareness of South Africa as a great wine-producing country. For despite the breathless and gushing missives from international wine critics and importers, as far as South Africa’s position in the world’s premium wine market is concerned, we just ain’t there yet. And with 44% of the country’s total production being wine made from Colombar and Chenin Blanc grapes, strangers to the international fine wine market, we ain’t going to get there soon.

Klein Constantia is the name that led the way in Constantia’s Sauvignon Blanc venture, having doggedly stuck to the focus on this wine since first planting the variety on its east to south-east facing slopes 40 years back. Then again, when your patch of earth is so enchantingly suited to Sauvignon Blanc, why mess with a winning formula?

A few weeks back I was – after my clipped salute to the region’s vines – shoved onto an open-deck Land Rover to be driven around the vines of Klein Constantia, an opportunity that reaffirmed my view that this is God’s country for wine and Christ’s land for Sauvignon Blanc.

Being part of the Table Mountain group, the soils are decomposed granite and Table Mountain sandstone, with some patches of granite, visceral shards of sharp. Aspect is steep, climbing to 360m above the level of the sea, which lies visible to the east where the Atlantic Ocean of False Bay shimmers moodily. This is the view the vineyards have. And as any blue-blooded Capetonian knows, the south-easterly breeze blows in various degree of intensity for at least eight months of the year, meaning that the vineyards are exposed to this raw maritime air-flow during various stages of their growth-cycle.

In winter, the north-western gales blow into the mountain behind the vines, building up pools of damp wet air before sending buckets of rain onto the Klein Constantia slopes – over 800mm of precipitation per year. The average used to be over 1 000mm, but such is the climes of the times.

Sauvignon Blanc, loves this and it loves it all. And it pulls through to the wines.

In celebratory mood to introduce the 2021 Estate Sauvignon Blanc, the Klein Constantia team had hauled out a couple of older wines of the same variety. There was a 1997 as well as a wine from the 2010 vintage presented alongside the latest 2021 offering made by current cellarmaster Matthew Day.

I always appreciate the opportunity to taste white wines at levels of maturity, as long as they are still alive and not, as is too often the case, in a mummified state of oddness without the semblance of a heart-beat.

The 1997 Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc, made by the late Ross Gower who pioneered the variety in this region, was still very much strutting its stuff, much like Ross was known to do in his time. Sauvignon Blanc tends to completely change its personality over the years as the aromatic thiol elements that give the variety its engaging youthful character fall by the way-side. As the 1997 Sauvignon Blanc wine shows, fruit and flowers wither, replaced by a stern and brooding seriousness built on chipped rock, meadow grass and wet barnacle, all flowing through the icy veins of a bracing wine that tastes of cold. The one fruity element is the sliver of grape-fruit, an aspect I’ll get back to later.

Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is still a vivacious number with the kind of flirtatiousness that would get one drawn, quartered and hung in the days of Simon van der Stel. The wine has a beautiful length that captivates from attack to finish, a combination of salt-lick, gooseberry, green-fig before they are preserved and a slight note of white asparagus poached in sea-water, as is the custom in Brittany, France. A really solid white wine with presence, this wine is to be sipped and pondered over instead of downing through the hatch as is too often the case with cold Sauvignon Blanc. (This wine was made by Adam Mason.)

Speaking about his Klein Constantia Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2021, it is clear that Matthew Day is one of those winemakers with a fondness for being as much a conductor as winemaker. Ah, that restlessness of youth, with 43 parcels of Sauvignon Blanc vineyard each bearing a fingerprint of individuality that, after being vinified, provide Matthew with a palette of wines from which the final blend is put together.

Tasting each of these Klein Constantia parcels pre-blending must be one of the most riveting and exciting gigs in the South African wine industry after a Shiraz foot-stomping session with Andrea Mullineux, and the final call of what-goes-where into the wine is Matthew’s. And in Klein Constantia Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2021, he has put his heart on his sleeve.

Is there a Klein Constantia thread, something the 1997, 2010 and 2021 share? Otherwise, what’s the use of this story of terroir and legacy and stuff?

Initial perceptions are that these three Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blancs have about as much in common as the just-departed rock-star Meatloaf has with Ed Sheeran. But under further scrutiny, and having the opportunity to taste the three wines alongside and back-to-forth, similarities did pop up. There is, for me, a distinct line of pleasantly bitter and bracing grape-fruit in all three wines. Then one finds presence. An assured hereness and nowness on the palate, formidable and commanding without being noisy or showy. The best wine writer in the world, Terry Theise, talks about him being captivated not by the wines that make the noise, but the ones that stand-out through their silence. Here at Klein Constantia, you can hear it.

Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2021, the new kid on the block, has a disarming purity about it, the kind of simplicity that makes great art-works stand-out. Think the bass-driven introduction to Cream’s epic track “Badge”. Or the sepia landscape photographs of Ansel Adams. This wine, from a 70ha patch of Constantia mountain earth looking east to the ocean, is uncluttered despite the intricate process whereby the different pockets of Sauvignon Blanc are brought together as one. It is wild yeast, grape juice and lees, and that is it. A work of nature, from nature and nature only.

Gracious, muscular entrance to the palate. Distinctively Sauvignon Blanc with ruffled tropical edges of granadilla, loquat and cantaloupe. These notes of paradise are then cut with atmosphere, moodiness and an individual stylistic character bordering on danger – the way Paul Gauguin painted paradise with a wounded heart of genius.

And like find Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that pleases the expectation and lifts the soul with freshness that is wonderful and joyous, and a pleasure to drink.

This is why, we salute you.

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