Tasting Time and Place in Formidable Constantia Reds

10 Sep 2021 | Constantia Wine Route

The Constantia Wine Valley is that woman everybody looks at and thinks damn, she’s got it all!

Few wine regions are engaging the world like the Constantia Wine Route, partly steeped in history surpassing three centuries, but primarily for its beauteous location and world-class wines. The green-blue quilt draped over its slopes at the foot of Table Mountain remains a dreamy sight to anyone flying into South Africa for the first time. Locals, meandering into the heart of the valley for some wine tasting, remain to be astounded.

Therefore, it is no surprise that these undulating vistas, with the ocean nudging its shores, harness more than their sought after white and dessert wines.

The unique location & microclimate of the Constantia Valley creates a foundation for stately yet delicious red wines, with its plantings of red varieties focussed on north- and north-eastern aspects, where the vines soak up the sunlight whilst remaining cool in this maritime climate on the Cape Peninsula. Underpinned with a cool climate luminosity, detailed nuances in the red wines are preserved through natural and defined acidities and judicious use of oak. Recognised for their individuality, gentle yet crucial variances have bestowed their unique quintessence to each of the eight producers.

No wonder a conversation with Megan van der Merwe, winemaker at Beau Constantia, sends you soil searching when she speaks of its ancient soils and the unique somewhereness of the valley, making it conducive to red wine cultivars.

“The route consists of Hutton, Avalon, Tukulu, Oakleaf and Glenrosa soil types, all but the latter (Glenrosa, derived from shale) red-to-yellow soils derived from granite with excellent quality water-water retention properties. Changing altitudes, of course, leads to changes in solar radiation interception, temperature and wind exposure.”

Marketing Manager of the wine route, Carryn Wiltshire, believes that the valley boasts a complex palate for awe-inspiring reds. With this inspiring landscape, winemakers have been painting a picture of great red wines, celebrated for their fruit purity buoyed by a mineral quality for extra longevity.

“The cool climate has shaped the reputation of white wines in the valley, but we also need to showcase the impressive red wines produced here. So, we are blessed with the best of both worlds.”

All these nuances gauge classic red wines to be produced in the valley, and red wine lovers often proclaim that tasting different vintages of the same wine allows you to “taste time”.

Megan illustrates this with the 2012 Lucca from Beau Constantia, a product of a long, dry growing season resulting in concentrated fruit and polished tannins. The 2017 vintage followed in its footsteps bearing fruit from older vines anchored against the whims of nature.

“When it comes to drinking Bordeaux blends, there is simply no substitute for time,” she explains, the 2012 Lucca nearing eight years in bottle and all its complexities now manifesting. Yet, in context, it paves a better understanding of a younger Constantia red like the Lucca 2017 with its fresh, upfront fruit and primary aromatics.”

The Constantia Glen FIVE 2015 stole the limelight at the 2019 IWSC international wine competition, winning the trophy for the best red blend in the world. Being the most northerly-situated property in the Constantia Valley, they focus on red varieties. The winemaker, Justin van Wyk, believes their location, coupled with altitude, plays a vital role in creating a terroir conducive to farming with the Bordeaux-red cultivars, because the grapes achieve significant hang-time on the vines.

“Our north-facing location just beside Constantia Nek benefits from exposure to late afternoon sunlight – crucial for flavour development and tannins to ripen. On the other hand, the cool ocean breezes and south-easterly winds off False Bay have a cooling effect helping preserve acidity in the grapes and allowing for slow, even ripening.”

It is the valley of plenty with 1000 – 1100mm of rain per annum. In addition, decomposed granite and sandstone soils boast a rich sublayer of clay retaining moisture, making a farm like Constantia Glen suitable for dryland viticulture. On rocky sandstone, a cultivar like Petit Verdot comes to life with a lovely perfume and the Constantia Glen Five 2018 and its predeceasing 2015 showcases that.

“This is a classic blend of all five Bordeaux varietals of which Cabernet Franc seems to be the shining star communicating the cool climate through its freshness and restraint. But we arrive at the final blend through rigorous blending, tasting as many as 60 different components to make the decisions about the blend each year. ”

Buitenverwachting’s Brad Paton has witnessed the upwelling of interest in red wines during his 18-year career as a winemaker, which prompted him to do things a little differently.

“The 2006 vintage was a big year for reds: voluptuous but with lots of structure and good ripening throughout the five Bordeaux varietals used in the Buitenverwachting Christine 2006.”

Led by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, spending 30 months in 100%, this wine is defined by a meticulous barrel selection process and two-year maturation “bringing aspects of each varietal together”.

Their 2017 Rough Diamond is only the third vintage of this Petit Verdot and Malbec blend and speaks of his experience and ingenuity.

“It is an unusual blend of two Bordeaux varietals that usually constitute less than 10% of such a blend because of their strong varietal characteristics. Still, together it provokes a sensorial experience of spice and opulence.”

Matthew Day from Klein Constantia concurs that the cool terroir of the Constantia Valley harnesses a treasure trove of Bordeaux varieties, as demonstrated with a wetter 2018 versus a much warmer and drier season for the 2013 vintage of their Estate Red.

“The percentage of each cultivar is the same for both vintages, something that doesn’t often happen when dealing with red blends: Cabernet Sauvignon 64%, Petit Verdot 19% and Malbec 17%. Most other vintages from Klein Constantia also includes Shiraz in the blend.”

With two Bordeaux legends and astute wine business pioneers Bruno Prats and Hubert de Bouard involved in the winemaking, one can expect a dynamic team unafraid to explore new avenues. Still honouring the old-world ethos of terroir, Klein Constantia reds are seamless and classic.

“Our red wines are made in Reverse Tronconic tanks, a concept different to the rest of the world. The shape of the tank promotes less extraction from the skins and thus makes a much lighter, more elegant style of wine.”

Constantia Shiraz is also no stranger to the winning podium and Eagles Nest’s winemaker, Douglas Mylrea, believes cool climate Shiraz should be a calling card for the valley.

“Eagles’ Nest has been strongly associated with Shiraz ever since its first commercial release of the 2006 vintage that won the trophy for best Shiraz and Best Red Wine at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show in 2008. Steep mountain vineyards planted on rocky terraces in cool climatic conditions ushers a unique expression of Shiraz” shares Mylrea.

While the Eagles Nest Shiraz 2016 is the current vintage in the market, receiving much praise, 2012 ruled the roost, earning many rewards. Tasting them next to each other paints a picture of the unrepeatable expression a singular vintage can deliver.

With only 12 hectares, 80% is planted to red varietals on some of the steepest slopes running up to 400m above sea level.

“Planted on terraces chiselled into the Constantia mountains with varying altitudes and undulations, necessitated the practice of small, individually handled batches.”

Needing no introduction, the flagship wine of Groot Constantia, the Gouverneurs Reserve, has become a hallmark for this historic estate. With 65% planted to red varietals, the winemaker Boela Gerber has a deep understanding of the vineyards here and believes 2011 and 2017 encapsulate their style trajectory best.

Bearing mid to late budding red varietals, Groot Constantia, like its neighbours, bathes in the gift of slow and long ripening season guiding the development of concentrated fruit flavours and silky tannins and 2017 was crowned one of the best vintages in recent years.

“Elegance remains the lineament of Constantia reds,” shares Boela, “and while we get great fruit expression, the wines are always restrained with a good integration and approachability even in their youth.”

Concluding the examples of stellar reds in the valley, named after their 17th-century founder, Catharina Ras, Steenberg’s Bordeaux-style red is consistently entrancing wine lovers, scoring 91 points at the 2020 International Wine & Spirit Competition. Led by Merlot, the blend had been the object of affection since its maiden vintage in 1997. And, both Shiraz and Nebbiolo made a bow along the way. Starring only Bordeaux varietals, 2007 took a classic direction going forward, honouring their terroir by calling it a Cape Bordeaux-style blend.

“Our Bordeaux varietal plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec have now matured, showing serious potential to create elegant, cool climate blends,” says Cellarmaster Elunda Basson.

Corseted with concentrated fruit, the Catherina is hemmed with bright herbal notes, announcing its origin with a fresh and elegant lift.

On the lips of storytellers and wine lovers alike, this Grande Dame of the South African wine industry remains contemporary, brimming with winemaking talent adding to the red wine story. These wines are the epitome of class: whether sporting Cabernet Franc’s Provencal floral and herbaceous qualities, Merlot’s succulent fruit, studious examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, or adorning a blend with Shiraz pepper and potpourri; the valley offers a melange of choices to assert their undeniably Constantia-esque character.