A Vertical Tasting of Vin de Constance


Though relatively unknown today, Vin de Constance has historically been one of the most sought after wines in the world. Heralding from the Cape region of South Africa, this sweet dessert wine is produced from Muscat de Frontignan (also known as Muscat à Petits Grains in Beaumes de Venise) which has been naturally “˜raisined’ on the vines before being macerated, pressed and fermented.

It had been sought after by Kings, was the drink of preference for Napoleon while on St. Helena, recommended by Jane Austen “˜to mend a broken heart’ and was more in demand than Yquem, Tokaji and Madeira. After phylloxera (the terrible louse that devasted vineyards across Europe) struck in the late 19th century, the Constantia vineyards were never replanted and this legendary wine faded into history. Until the 1980s that is.

New owners came and meticulously re-established the original vineyards with the intention of producing the Vin de Constance of yesteryear. Lucky for us, they have been triumphantly successful.

Klein Constantia House
Klein Constantia House

I have been intrigued by Vin de Constance since I first “˜discovered’ it in 2000. I was working at Christie’s wine department in Los Angeles, and an Australian colleague from London came over to help organise a sale. With him came a bottle of 1993 Vin de Constance that he brought just for us to taste. I had never had anything even remotely like it.

Rich and lush, it displayed an incredibly exotic array of flavours including heady notes dried apricots, yellow plums, treacle, fresh almonds and flowers. Unlike other New World “˜stickies’, it also had excellent acidity which gave it loads of lift and an everlasting ethereal finish – not heavy at all. I was gobsmacked and did the only thing I could think of at the time…go out and buy some more! Fortunately for me, a specialist local Burgundy shop carried a few bottles of it, and they all became mine.

An aerial view of Klein Constantia's vineyards
An aerial view of Klein Constantia’s vineyards

Like a lost soul mate, I never really forgot this exotic beauty and thought about it intermittently over the years. A few weeks ago, I had the luck to be invited to a vertical tasting with the current owner, Lowell Jooste, and Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche, who is also an avid fan and suggested food pairings with each.

They showed 8 vintages of this extraordinary wine, including the 1987, Klein Constantia’s first commercial release. I was just blown away at the sheer pleasure these wines delivered. Needless to say, I did not spit (a rarity in my book)! Their tasting notes are below with Michel’s food suggestions (not all of them dessert, mind you!). The recipes can be found in his book Vin de Constance.

Happy drinking…

Vintage 2005 (not yet released) – Primal with Italia grape notes and scents of brown sugar. On the palate, it is silky, round and moderately sweet. Very good richness yet the profoundness of the palate is still reclusive. Finishes on gentle notes of cut straw and peach. Uplifting and fresh with excellent balance.

Michel’s suggestion: Vanilla studded roasted pineapple with white pepper ice cream

Vintage 2004 (current release) – Its discreet nose opens onto a powerful, luxurious palate that is spicy, intense and full of flavour. A touch of smoke adds intrigue to its hedonistic cornucopia of fruit flavours including Mirabelle plum, golden raisins and peach. You can really sink your teeth into this yet its acidity adds a dimension of weightlessness.

Michel’s suggestion: Gratin of lobster with roquefort

Vintage 2002 – Bright yellow gold in colour with a slight green rim. Smells incredibly fresh with a whiff of smoke, orchard stone fruit and lavender. It finishes elegant on salted caramels and minerals.

Michel’s suggestions: Walnut, caramel tart with dried fruit salad; lavender cake with roasted peaches

Vintage 2000 – A bit earthier with notes of pronounced smoke, peat and dried peach and yet almost Madeira-like. It full-throttle palate offers more of a chewy palate than a creamy one. Intense racy acidity is wonderfully cleansing and pure.

Michel’s suggestion: Quince with dried fruit and Roquefort (no stilton – not acidic enough)

Vintage 1998 – Upfront and appealing with orange zest, almonds and walnuts. Not as intense as the 2000, but more elegant. Finishes on notes of salted caramels and dried yellow plums.

Michel’s suggestion: Orange and sultana salad with sweet wine and sponge fingers

Vintage 1995 – Medium amber in colour with deeper earthy notes of peat, cut straw and a plethora of dried fruits. Perhaps slightly more interesting on the palate than the nose. Finishes dry. Feels like it needs something savoury than sweet.

Michel’s suggestion: Spice crusted foie gras with onion marmalade

Vintage 1992 – A good twin for Bual or Malmsey Madeira on the nose, the 1992 offers a wonderfully attractive nose of salted caramels, a touch of cut straw and freshly crushed walnuts. On the palate, it is slightly chewy which leads to a fine, long finish. I could see this going well with cheese, like a good Manchego or artisanal Pecorino.

Michel’s suggestion: Christmas fruit cigars (brick pastry with dried fruits and citrus zest)

Vintage 1987 – Medium-deep amber in colour with almost a minty opening on the nose and a unexpected, pronounced minerality. It opens up on the palate with dried fruit, caramelised pear and finishes on a touch of cocoa. Very fresh, it has aged wonderfully well and offers a slight chewiness on the back palate.

Michel’s suggestion: Milk chocolate mousse, spiced with caramelised pears