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Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2005

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2005

And now, as Monty Python once said, for something completely different.

Before penning this wild diversion from my normal full-on obsession with the wines of the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, I took a moment to reflect on this bottle’s presence in my cellar, and how I was reminded that it lay there. Having completely forgotten when, where and why I bought it, until recently I had also all but forgotten that the bottle even had a place in my cellar. With the passing of the years it had gradually become hidden from view beneath a stack of similarly boxed wines, a stack which included everything from prestige cuvée Champagne to colheita Madeira. It was, perhaps, destined to sink from sight forever, never to feel the point of a corkscrew.

Then, last year, I was reminded of it when a rather younger vintage of Vin de Constance was poured at a dinner I attended in Bordeaux. It was excellent, heady with sweetness and a rich, viscose texture, although within minutes a debate broke out about other essential aspects of its structure, in particular its acidity level and sense of balance. In the blink of an eye the table had divided into two factions, one large group all of whom thought it was the best thing since sliced roosterkoek, and one smaller group – and I was one of their number – who were looking for more acidity, perhaps like that I am used to finding in cooler climate wines, like those from along the banks of the Layon.

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2005

In the end a Muscovite merchant put down his fork for a moment to pronounce that any opinions against the wine were clearly born of jealousy, a statement sufficiently left-field to bring the debate to an abrupt end. The discussion once more returned to the merit of the latest Bordeaux vintage, while various diners (or maybe just me?) seated around the table quietly swore to themselves never to mention acidity in wine ever again.

While my experiences debating acidity and balance in this wine will probably not make it into Hugh Johnson’s next edition of The Story of Wine, Vin de Constance does have a very strong story to tell. It all began with Simon van der Stel, who planted vines on the Cape peninsula and christened his new vineyard Constantia. As every article on this wine ever written will tell you, in the years that followed it was supped and scribbled about by everyone from Napoleon and Bismarck to Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. It all came to an end with phylloxera, only for it to be reborn in the 1980s when the vineyard was re-established. Its reputation quickly grew, and in 2011 it was acquired by Charles Harman, who in 2012 accepted investment from Hubert de Boüard de Laforest and Bruno Prats, of Château Angélus and once of Château Cos d’Estournel respectively. From 2019 they began distributing the wine though three of the leading Bordeaux négociants, which goes some way towards explaining its impromptu appearance at that dinner.

Despite some rain before harvest the 2005 vintage saw the Muscat de Frontignan grapes dried by passerillage, the norm in this warm and dry environment (botrytis likes more damp conditions). After pressing the juice was fermented in a mix of stainless steel and 500-litre oak barrels, with a long élevage lasting four years before the wine was eventually bottled. The end result has a quite remarkable residual sugar of 157 g/l (although other vintages go much higher). In the glass the 2005 Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia, freshly released from its characteristically asymmetrical bottle where it rested behind a curiously short cork for a wine of such international standing, shows a bronzed orange gold hue with a shimmering tinges of rich cherry red. The aromatics are intensely sweet, with baked orange macaroons dusted with black pepper, along with oatmeal, confit orange and lemons. Sweet, rich, polished and velvety on the palate, it is fairly intense with strident concentration, and it maintains this voluptuous presence through the middle, blended here with piles of sharp structure and grip. It is certainly distinctive, certainly intensely sweet, bordering on oxidative in style (it calls to mind some vintages of Eddy Oosterlinck’s wines, which lean the same way), and while it leans more on its pithy grip and bitterness for structure than it does its acidity, it does still possess some sense of a gentle, warm climate balance. All in all it is a fascinating wine, although for me it misses the acid and mineral prominence you find in the Loire Valley. And that’s not jealousy speaking, by the way. 94/100 (7/12/20)

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