Constantia

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Constantia, legendary, 18th- and 19th-century dessert wines from the Cape, south africa, then a Dutch colony. Their fame was never matched by any other New World wines and at their height they commanded more prestige, more fabulous prices, and enjoyed more crowned patronage than the most celebrated wines of Europe (with the possible exception of Hungarian tokaji). Constantia was even ordered by Napoleon from his exile on St Helena.

The Cape wines were grown on a subdivision of the 750-ha/1,850-acre Constantia Estate just outside Cape Town, founded in 1685 by an early Dutch governor Simon van der Stel. However, it was Constantia’s subsequent owners who achieved acclaim and prosperity, principally Hendrik Cloete, who purchased and restored one of the subdivisions in 1778. Quality and fame gradually declined in the late 19th century, partly as a result of the Cape’s declining importance to the British wine market, and partly because Constantia’s higher labour costs, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1834, and the lower yields associated with its cool climate, made wine production economically marginal. By 1885 Cloete’s estate was bankrupt and under the name of Groot Constantia has been state-owned ever since. In 1975, management of its activities passed into the hands of a control board and in 1993 into a trust. In recent times Groot Constantia has made sound, increasingly impressive, conventional wines. A neighbouring privately owned estate, Klein (Little) Constantia, an 1823 deduction from Groot Constantia, was the first to take up the challenge of recreating the legend. It replanted vineyards with Muscat of Frontignan (muscat blanc à petits grains) in the early 1980s and now produces a white dessert wine known as Vin de Constance (without botrytis in the manner of the old Constantia) to local and international acclaim.