Along the timeline of South African wine history there were many milestones but attention is only paid to early Constantia from the 18th century or the Cape wine revolution since 1994, with nothing being said about the period in-between. But the period between the 18th century-Constantia and the era of today saw many ground-breaking advances that would change the course of Cape wine for ever. In my mind perhaps the biggest of these developments was the introduction of natural wine making principles by Baron Carl von Babo. Appointed by the Cape Government in 1884 as viticulturist von Babo fiercely promoted the making of natural wines without the addition of spirits. It was always practice at the Cape to fortify wine with the addition of spirits (I have to emphasise here that the old Constantia was made without fortification – an exception to the rule). In 1910 Prof P.D Hahn at the annual general meeting of the Cape Chemical Society had to following to say about von Babo:
“The making of light natural wines is now firmly rooted in the Western Cape districts of the Colony, where climate and soil are most favourable for growing grapes suitable for making light wines. It is well to remember that it is now a quarter of a century ago since Baron von Babo introduced the method of making light wines at the Cape. Our farming population is very conservative and rather inclined to look with distrust on all innovations. It was therefore natural that only a few wine-farmers adopted the new process, and that there were many who did their utmost to discredit and to decry the making of light wine, or as they put it “von Babo’s wine.” But when the late Mr. De Waal succeeded Baron von Babo as manager of Constantia, and continued to practice and to teach the new method of making light wine, a larger number of wine-farmers and also wine merchants became converted to “von Babo’s principle”. One frequently hears the remark that the late Mr. De Waal was the real reformer of the wine industry of the Cape. No doubt the late Mr. De Waal was an energetic and most intelligent promoter of our viticulture; but it must not be forgotten that Mr. De Waal was a pupil, a most docile pupil, of Baron von Babo and what Mr. De Waal taught and practised as regards to light wine-making was exactly what he had learned from his teacher and friend, Baron von Babo. But Mr. De Waal was an Afrikaner, and had the ear of his countrymen, whereas Baron von Babo was a foreigner, and was always considered and treated as such.”
A biographical note on von Babo can be found here: http://www.s2a3.org.za/bio/Biograph_final.php?serial=3279
A letter recently offered by an eBay vendor sheds some light on the state of the wine trade in 1856. The item consists of a letter that was carried from London to Cape Town per “S S Madagascar”. Written by a Mr Dickson (presumably an agent), addressing JH Vos of Cape Town. The item consists of two letters. The gist of the letters is as follows:
In the first letter dated 5 Nov. 1856 Mr Dickson thanks Vos for a consignment of “35 Pipes Pontac” which he believes he will sell at a very satisfactory price as the “market rules for red wines”. Dickson furthermore writes that he was glad to notice that his previous sale was to the liking of Mr Vos. The letter also acknowledges that Mr Vos are preparing to send out white wine and comments that white sell at 15 pounds and red at 18 pounds and that he (Dickson) may ask for more red.
In the second letter dated 8 Nov. 1856 Dickson writes that he had an offer from Bristol for 19 pounds per pipe for Red and 15 pounds per pipe for White which is “the best sale we have ever made of Pontac in Pipes”.
I posted previously about the GS and Romi van der Merwe citing that there were 3 vintages; namely 62, 66 and 68.
Therese De Beer, a consultant winemaker from Paarl, gave an interesting account of what possibly could be the 1962 George Spies. The bottle was opened for dinner at a Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild tasting at Spier Wine Estate in 2016. The following extract taken from her blog:
“The highlight of the evening was a bottle of very special wine my husband Jakes brought to dinner after the tasting. It was a bottle of 1962 Cabernet Sauvignon (rumoured to have been) made by George Spies for ‘André Simon’s Memorial Dinner’ pictured left. Now this wine is even rarer than the fabled 1966 and 1968 GS Cabernet Sauvignons that Spies made at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery in the late 60’s. I’ve have had the privilege to taste the 1966 GS and I was blown away by the wine’s character at such an old age. But the 1962 we tasted that evening reawakened the myth of George Spies. The wine was still so youthful…even the colour was crimson red with only a faint amber tinge. The nose was quite austere with leather and forest floor aromas masking the fruit initially. In hindsight we needed to let it breath for longer because fragranced red berries only emerged later in the glass. The wine still had excellent structure and such a great length.”
Uitkyk’s Carlonet, first registered in 1957, was one of the top wines during the 50s. Production ceased during the 60s and reintroduced with the 1973 vintage. I have tasted the 73 and it remains one of the best old wines I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink. Subsequently I’ve had the 74 and 76 of which the latter was the better of the two but not on the level of the 73. A 1982 opened recently showed very well indeed. Whereas the 73 has an old-world elegance and sternness, the 82 is more new-world and showing definite Cabernet characteristics. I would rate it a very close 2nd to the 73 perhaps for the only reason that I find the old-world style more appealing.
It was with interest that I read a newspaper article from 1927 referring to Constantia wine being reproduced under wine merchant P. B. Burgoyne. It reminded me of an image in KWV’s book, of a bottle, shown below, which I think closely fits the description given in the article and is likely the same bottle. Burgoyne was the same company that gave Alto its first contract to supply Alto Rouge.
Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), Saturday 15 January 1927, page 4
ORIGIN OF CONSTANTIA
Messrs, P. B. Burgoyne &. Co, Limited, the Empire wine Merchant, of London, have forwarded to the Register Office a bottle of Constantia. It is a clever and artistic copy on one of two old bottles in possession of Messrs. P. B. Burgoyne and Co., Limited. These— containing Constantia of the vintage year 1795 – have rested quietly for some 125 years in the cellars of a famous Norfolk country house. The wine they contain is still in excellent condition, and is perfectly palatable. The antique ”finish” of the bottles, which it the result of many months labour of love by the foremost glass chemist in this country, is perfectly permanent, and will stand ordinary treatment. This bottle has caused immense interest in the English glass industry, and the method of its production remains a mystery. Constantia was famous in England and on the Continent well before the end of the 18th century. It was, in fact, supplied to the Kings of France. It maintained great popularity for many years in England, and was one of the favourite dessert wines Queen Victoria. After 1861, however, the demand for South African wines suffered serious dislocation through the removal of the preferential tariffs into the United Kingdom. Since the war South African wines have been returning rapidly to favour, owing to the efforts made by Messrs. Burgoyne & Co., at the request of the South African wine industry. The Constantia district is centred around the large property of Constantia, behind Table Mountain, and its history dates back to the seventeenth century. Groot Constantia has been from the earliest days of the old Dutch colony connected with wine, and is now the experimental wine farm of the Government of the Union of South Africa. The original name of the vineyards of the Constantia Estate was ‘Constance’ (a family name, dating back to Governor van der Stel, the original owner). This name appears as a seal on the original eighteenth century bottle, and on the reproduction. A pen drawing of the dwelling house on the Groot Constantia Estate appears on the label of the bottle. This building was unhappily damaged by fire recently, but is to be rebuilt in its original state by the South African Government.
Photo taken from KWV: 1918 – 1993, by D.J. van Zyl.
Last night a vertical of the 2010 – 2016 hosted by winemaker Callie Louw.
2010 – showing some tertiary age. slight oxidation. pungent lift. and again those tannins!
2011 – love the nose but cannot explain it…iron. stony. grainy. raised only in concrete. tannins starting to relax… still prominent. My favourite.
2012 – chocolate. lovely. soft fruit. only aged in concrete. tannins.
2013- smoky. detailed, pure, chalky tannins. classic. Callie’s favourite. must agree.
2014 – biggest vintage on account of rain in the growing season. meaty nose but more penetrating than 16. rich. relaxed (for a Porseleinberg!).
2015 – more subdued on nose. elegant. lingering chalky tannins. Callie thinks vintage not very exciting. I disagree.
2016 – meaty olive (opulent) nose. tight palate. liquorice. biggest alcohol. very warm vintage.
1. Porseleinberg vintages get better with age. 10 to 13 showing real interest and personality.
2. Tannins on every vintage a hallmark.
3. 10 and 11 – dry-land farming. 12 onward post-harvest irrigation.
4. Porseleinberg has a characteristic flavour profile showing meat, iron, blood, game, olive..
5. These wines are not “over-extracted” or “worked”, rather they speak of a gentle cellar hand and an approach that aims to let the site speak. Porseleinberg is a singular unique place situated on the top of an unforgiving rugged hill and the wine reflects this. Isn’t that what great wine should do…?
6 June 2018
The line-up (from left to right): Kanonkop 1976, Middelvlei 1982, KWV Roodeberg 1977, Zonnebloem 1970 (the wine in the glass), Nederburg 1973.
Yesterday a tasting of some of the great old names of Cape wine.
Overall the wines showed very well with elegance and purity and that vinous quality that only comes with age. Notes:
Zonnebloem 1970 – Had the richest colour of the lot and showed the most body and flavour. Also slightly less acid than the others. Excellent
Nederburg 1973 – Very elegant with good acidity. Excellent
KWV Roodeberg 1977 – Typical old Cape wine and not unlike old Chateau Libertas. 1977 was said to be a poor vintage but this wine was excellent.
Middelvlei 1982 – Showing more modern profile and Cabernet leafiness. Very good.
Kanonkop 1976 – My first impression was that it was spoiled, but with time becoming better although it showed a foreign-tasting sharpness. Good.
Extract quoted from “Military Reminiscences by Colonel James Welsh”
14 March 1829, Constantia
This garden is well worth going thirteen miles to see. The road, which is generally good, passes through a beautiful country, and by many delightful rural habitations; which are here, as in England, scattered all over the plains ; though I have seen nothing elsewhere to rival Constantia in neatness and picturesque beauty. The house is uncommonly clean, and well furnished; and the gardens are laid out in squares, with walks and myrtle hedges on both sides. It is situated at the fool of a hill, haying a grove of chestnut-trees at the upper extremity; and while we were walking round, admiring the many inviting-trees, covered with apples, peaches, pears, medlars, apricots, &c., and small dwarfish bushes, only three or four feet high, bending with rich clusters of purple grapes; the gentleman of the house had ordered a cold collation to be prepared for us: and leading us into his extensive warehouse, insisted on our tasting in succession the red and White Constantia, Frontignac, Pontac, and Steine ; the latter a very light wine, and only half the value of Constantia. Indeed, so extremely civil and obliging was he to us, that before our departure a few of the Benedicts of the party purchased some twenty pounds worth each, of the first sort, for home consumption. I remarked that the wine was kept in immense butts. I should suppose containing a dozen of pipes each. We then adjourned to the dwelling-house, and having had a long walk in the keen air, enjoyed a delicious repast of the finest fruit, just plucked from the trees, with wine, of the same produce; and when obliged to take our departure, it was with real regret we left this delightful retreat.
Photograph depicting Anreith’s pediment on the Groot Constantia wine cellar