In 1685, the Dutch governor Simon van der Stel (1639-1712) acquired a plot of land of about 750 hectares southeast of Cape Town in today's South Africa. He named it "Constantia" (perseverance) after the virtue he valued (not after his wife - as one often reads - because her name was Johanna). He was not the first, however, because three years earlier a winery was founded there, which still exists today under the name of Steenberg. Stel developed the property into a princely estate and was engaged in fruit growing and especially in viticulture. He attached great importance to hygiene. He experimented with different grape varieties like Palomino (which he called Fransdruif), Sémillon (which he called Wyndruif), Chenin Blanc (called Steen in South Africa) and Pontac(Teinturier du Cher). From the white variety Muscat de Frontignan (in South Africa for Muscat Blanc) a partly fortified sweet wine was produced, which gained a legendary reputation worldwide and was delivered to all ruling houses in Europe. At that time there were white, amber and red varieties.
A tasting by the British wine author Hugh Johnson proves how long-lasting this wine is. In 1970, he was able to enjoy a glass of the 1830 vintage (140 years old at the time of tasting) from a bottle whose cork was sealed with wax. He described this crescendo as amber, sweet, full-bodied and extraordinarily harmonious. Stel retired in 1699, and after his death in 1712, the large estate was divided into the three parts or estates that still exist today: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Bergvliet (now Buitenverwachting). The new owner of Klein Constantia Johann Colijn reunited the two parts Klein and Groot in 1733. However, the quality and reputation of the wine had suffered greatly during this period. In 1778 the rich landowner Hendrik Cloete, incidentally a descendant of a gardener of the first governor Jan van Riebeeck (1619-1677), bought the Groot Constantia estate. The latter succeeded in restoring the estate and also the wine to its former glory and even greater fame.
He was an absolute perfectionist, for example he had every insect in the vineyards chased away from the grapes by 100 slaves. The first pressing process was done by slaves who stamped the grapes with their bare feet to the sound of music. His son Hendrik took over the estate in 1794, continued the tradition of excellent wine and even expanded it. The European rulers preferred Constantia to other sweet wines such as even Château d'Yquem, Tokaj or Madeira. It was one of the favourite wines of Napoleon (1769-1821), who had it delivered in large quantities to his exile on St. Helena until his death. The French bourgeois king Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) even bought the entire 1833 vintage, but unfortunately the decline began in the 1860s. First the mildew and then the phylloxera came to South Africa, and the customs barriers for French wine lifted by the new ruler England in 1861 did the rest. Towards the end of the 19th century, wine production ceased, Groot Constantia was sold to the state for only 10,000 rand in 1885 and all vines were replaced by resistant varieties. Groot and Klein Constantia then stopped producing wine at the beginning of the 20th century.
Both wineries were only revived from the 1970s onwards. Today, the Constantia wine-growing area only covers around 400 hectares of vineyards between Hout Bay in the west and False Bay in the east - south of Cape Town at the foot of the 600-metre-high Constantia Mountain. It is a Ward (not belonging to any district) and belongs to the Coastal Region. The vineyards are situated on deep red earth with granite ledges and weathered sandstone. The climate is relatively cool due to the nearby sea and the humidity is very high. The annual rainfall is abundant with 800 to 1,000 millimetres, so that no artificial irrigation is necessary as in many other South African wine-growing areas. The red wine varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage and Shiraz(Syrah), as well as the white wine varieties Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc (Steen), Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are cultivated. Today, the vineyards on Constantia are shared by the five wineries Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig, Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Steenberg.
Picture: © Wine Destinations