From Vin de Constance
by Michel Roux Jr.
‘Vin de Constance: … a name, an appellation and a style of wine that has survived and transcended time, despite the vagaries of history and the affairs of men’. – Michael Fridjhon
Favoured by kings and emperors, preferred by the aristocracy, and acquired by generals, the ‘sweet, luscious and excellent’ wine from Constantia rivalled the appeal of Tokay in the European courts of the 18th and 19th centuries.
This sought-after status was no small achievement by a Dutch settlement at the tip of Africa, which had planted vines in order to supply wine to the Dutch East India Company ships plying the spice trade.
The first wine was made at the Cape of Good Hope in 1659. But the story of the legendary Constantia wine began in 1685 with Governor Simon van der Stel, who saw the small colony not as a half-way house to India, but as a gateway to Europe.
Although Dutch East India Compny servants were forbidden to own private property, wine-loving Van der Stel secured for himself a grant of land the size of Amsterdam at the time, which he named Constantia. The land was not randomly chosen, but carefully selected in a valley between two great oceans – the Atlantic and the Indian – cooled by moisture-laden winds, with soil that suited his purposes. In this piece of paradise, he set out to make the best wine that the Cape could produce.
Anders Sparman, the Swedish botanist who sailed around the world with Captain Cook, visited Constantia several times in 1772 and expressed his astonishment at the degree of demand from Europe for ‘the racy, very delicate dessert wine which has something peculiarly agreeable in the aroma of it’.
Almost all the crowned heads tasted and ordered it. A register of wines from 1777 records that King Frederick the Great of Prussia had 52 bottles of ‘Cap S. Constantia’ in his cellar at Schloss Sanssouci, the castle he built at Potsdam and now a World Cultural Heritage site. In an imaginative restoration project, the cellar has been preserved as a museum and restocked with the modern equivalents of the wines the king enjoyed. Vin de Constance stands proudly in their company.
While Van der Stel established Constantia’s reputation for excellent wine, it was Hendrik Cloete who fulfilled the governor’s dream fifty years after his death. Though not a direct successor through family ties, Hendrik was Van der Stel’s spiritual heir, sharing both his intense love of the soil and his determination to make and market the best wine in the country.
Constantia wine began to fetch high prices at well-attended auctions in cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Delft, its popularity borne out by a letter sent home to England by one of the many tourists who enjoyed Hendrik’s hospitality: ‘The fame of Constantia wine has spread throughout Europe … it is curious to hear an obscure African farmer talk of the monarchs of Europe as his eager customers’.
So alluring was his ‘sweet as honey’ wine, that Constantia was said to be the cause of the British occupation of the Cape. French artist and traveller Milbert, who visited Constantia in 1804 and tasted the nectar, repeated the rumour that the British, as the only great maritime power in the world without their own wines, and with a vast and thirsty fleet, had captured the Cape for its vineyards alone.
While this is undoubtedly Gallic exaggeration, they certainly targeted Constantia. A battalion of British broke into Hendrik’s cellar, breaking casks and quaffing his priceless wines in the aftermath of the Battle of Blouberg.
But it was sound policy to keep the conquerors sweet. A vast quantity of Constantia was shipped to England ‘to soften the temper of Ministers and to sweeten the lips of Royalty itself’, according to William Wilberforce Bird. Letters sent to and from Downing Street organised the delivery of sixty casks of Constantia ‘for the use of His Majesty’. Apart from George IV’s kingly share, the British Prime Minister was allocated a hundred half-aums, the Colonial Secretary’s portion was fifty, and astute governors, admirals, judges and paymasters down the line acquired a cask or two.
Colonel Arthur Wellesley of the 33rd regiment, later to achieve fame as the Duke of Wellington, also found Mr Cloete’s wine to his liking. Quartered at the officers’ mess in Wynberg during his sojourn in the Cape, he rarely accepted invitations, but made an exception for weekly dinners at the home of a Mr Walker, whose major domo was an emancipated slave and connoisseur of Cape wine. However, the colonel was judicious in his intake, and was always able to ride home.
Wellington’s taste was shared by his French foe. Napoleon, during his five-year exile on the island of St. Helena, found solace in a bottle of Constantia a day. (A ‘General Statement of the Wines supplied for General Bonaparte’s Establishment’, dated October 1816 through to 30 June 1817, shows that the three-monthly tally varied between 90 to 92 bottles.) The emperor kept this cache for his exclusive enjoyment, and is believed to have asked for a glass shortly before he died.
Gastronomes like Brillat-Savarin and the Marquis de Béchamel savoured the wine’s sweet sensuousness. Novelists of the day praised its supportive qualities. Ever practical, Jane Austen recommends that Elinore Dashwood, heroine of Sense and Sensibility, try a glass of Constantia for its ‘healing powers on a disappointed heart’. In Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens, in similar vein, describes ‘the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit’.
In 1986 the first vintage of Vin de Constance was released to critical acclaim. A golden, aromatic wine, with an intense and lingering sweetness, it was made from vines planted on the lower slopes of Klein Constantia, once part of Van der Stel’s original farm.
The ‘sweet, luscious and excellent’ wine of Constantia was once more on the market, reflecting its historic tradition in every bottle.