Viognier – the Constantia factor

Constantia has all of 4.5 hectares of viognier; 2.7 are shared between Beau Constantia (.9ha) and neighbour, Eagles’ Nest. As much as Constantia is recognised for sauvignon blanc, these two producers have shown the area’s reputation needn’t rest on that one white variety.

It was Eagles’ Nest second consecutive double gold on this year’s Six Nations competition that prompted a deeper inspection into what makes viognier from this northern end of the Constantia Valley special.

The oldest block of viognier on Beau Constantia, planted 2003
The oldest block of viognier on Beau Constantia, planted 2003

My first visit was to Beau Constantia, the newer farm of the pair, and like its neighbour, a phoenix which rose from the ashes of the devastating 2000 fires. Justin van Wyk’s wine has also received acclaim from both Neal Martin and Tim Atkin MW; as their Platter taster, I’ve also long been an admirer.

The first of Beau Constantia’s three blocks was planted in 2003. All are on high, north-east facing slopes with stark exposure to the south easter, one determinant when it comes to yield. ‘Viognier is anyway a shy bearer,’ van Wyk advises; ‘A vintage will deliver anything between three and five tons per hectare, or an average of 2500 bottles.’

Full ripeness occurs early to mid March at around 24 to 25° Balling, when the berries are orangey gold, with floral, white peach and orange blossom notes and concentrated flavours. ‘Apricot and oiliness due to low acid,’ he says, ‘are associated with warmer climates, which is where it should be grown for production rather than quality, or so we were told at University. I pick with a pH of 3.5 and acid of 6.5, that’ll give 5.5 in the wine.’

Just planted - tiny viognier 'stokkies' on Beau Constantia
Just planted – tiny viognier ‘stokkies’ on Beau Constantia

Canopy management plays an important part in achieving van Wyk’s ripeness goals. Once the berries have reach pea berry size, leaves on the morning sun side are stripped to expose the grapes. In spots where there’s more vigorous growth, leaves are stripped on the afternoon sun side as well. Answering my concern about sunburn, van Wyk assures that the skins are thick and get used to the sun when exposed at such an early stage.

Thick skins means a lot of unwanted phenolics, something Van Wyk avoids by whole-bunch pressing. Fermentation ensues from a cold start, in barrel, lasting around two weeks until the wine is bone dry. Of the normal 10 barrel production, two will be new (light-toasted Taransaud and Francois Frères barriques), the balance back to fourth fill. ‘I like to age the wine on its lees for five to six months,’ says van Wyk, ‘it keeps the wine healthy.’ Battonage is applied once a week for four weeks, then once a month. Sulphur is added to inhibit malo-lactic after the first month.

Prior to bottling, under screwcap, the wine is racked, fined and cold stabilised.
So much attention to detail, now to take the taste test on the newly-bottled 2014. ‘Yes, it was a challenging vintage with lots of botrytis,’ admits van Wyk, ‘even thick-skinned viognier got some. I was hoping to make a Noble Late Harvest, but it turned sour.’
Taking into account the Beau Constantia 2014 Cecily (named for the farm’s owner) still needs to settle and lose youthful estery notes, there is already enticement in its blossom, orange peel aromas. With age too it will gain a lees-enriched dimension to balance the alcohol. ‘Here’s another old idea,’ van Wyk sighs, ‘that viognier needs to be drunk within three years. Our first vintage was 2010, so there’s not that much history, but I’ve had a superb 2006 from Eagles’ Nest.’

Viognier & proteas at Beau Constantia
Viognier & proteas at Beau Constantia

It’s to Eagles’ Nest I go. Winemaker, Stuart Botha, drives me around the farm, pointing out the two blocks planted in 2001 and 2002, the latter on a higher, more exposed site. A third, recently planted vineyard brings up their 1.7 hectares of viognier. Yields are eight or nine tons per hectare, translating to an average 8000 to 9000 bottles, ‘But it depends on wind during flowering,’ Botha admits. That said, he views the wind as a massive pro, cutting the crop but keeping the vines cool. Both winemakers suggest the best viognier vintages are cool years with lots of sunshine.

(Foreground) The higher of the two bearing blocks of viognier on Eagles' Nest.
(Foreground) The higher of the two bearing blocks of viognier on Eagles’ Nest.

Like his neighbour, Botha breaks out leaves on the morning sun side of the row at pea size, and the afternoon sun side a few days prior to harvesting; this provides his desired ‘rosy cheeks’ colour. ‘There is a three-day window when the acid/flavour profile is as I want it,’ he explains. ‘Managing the acid is half the battle.’

Viognier is the first variety to be harvested on Eagles’ Nest around mid-March. The portion of the lower block under permanent cover crop is picked early, at 22° Balling and tank fermented ‘for backbone’. The balance will come in between 23.5 and 24° Balling.

Lower block of viognier on Eagles' Nest. Vines closest to the camera provide the tank-fermented portion.
Lower block of viognier on Eagles’ Nest. Vines closest to the camera provide the tank-fermented portion.

The chilled grapes are whole bunch pressed, the juice taken to tank, inoculated and allowed to ferment a couple of degrees to ensure homogeneity before being transferred to barrel. Botha’s choice is a mix of blonde or light toasted French and Hungarian barriques, between 15% and 25% new. Once dry, the barrels are filled, sulphured after a month and then battonaged every two weeks. The decision whether to leave the wine on its gross or fine lees and for how long is dependent on vintage, structure especially ‘the development of palate weight’. The two components are blended and may be returned to oak before fining, cold stabilisation a coarse filtration and bottling, also under screwcap.

Botha, like van Wyk, is enthusiastic about viognier’s ageing potential, offering the 2008 is super now. He believes its popularity is due to the wine’s integrity; using wood for effect not flavour, lower alcohols (around 13% on Eagles’ Nest), fruit and freshness. A style which does well both with and without food.

Neither of these viogniers is blowsy, oily or oaky, negatives which have turned off many from this Northern Rhône variety. Rather they show freshness and subtlety, positives which sees both rapidly sell out to enthusiastic fans.

Eagles' Nest viognier 2015 in embryo!
Eagles’ Nest viognier 2015 in embryo!

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