Standing rather forlornly in the photo below are the still-upright skeletons of bluegum trees (look – apologies, needs a magnifying glass – towards the apex of vineyards just right of centre). This was taken from the entrance to Klein Constantia just last week; if I had taken the photo in 1980, there would have been far more bluegums in that area.
I well remember at the time, walking down the hillside with my husband, past a thick regiment of these aliens. A short while later, we were intrigued to find the trees being cleared and learn vineyards were being planted on that property (we were on Groot Constantia), purchased by Duggie Jooste in 1980. Klein Constantia’s renaissance was realised in its first wine, the legendary 1986 Sauvignon Blanc. The year before, 1985, neighbour Buitenverwachting, crushed its maiden vintage of the modern era after undergoing a makeover of the vineyards, manor house and completion of a cellar. It also became synonymous with sauvignon blanc, though arguably, Christine, the cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blend, is the flagship.
Sauvignon blanc and Constantia WO have grown and evolved over the past 30-plus years. Each of the 11 wineries along the valley vinifies the variety, though a few choose to blend it with semillon and sell under a proprietary name. It took a visit to remind me what excellent sauvignon can be produced in the right place and in the right hands.
Sauvignon remains the ‘go-to’ white among winelovers, is grown all over the winelands and accounts for just under 10% of vineyard area. Among many media though, it has fallen out of favour (I admit to drinking a lot more chenin these days). Part of the problem lies with those producers who want to be first out of the vintage starting blocks, releasing sauvignons snatched from the womb, tasting yeasty, raw and little of the fruit from the vine. Sure, sauvignon has an edge, as its name suggests, but an edge that lights up its flavours and stimulates the palate rather than acting like paint stripper.
I was to remind myself on last week’s visit that with patience it can offer sophisticated loveliness and deliciousness.
Buitenverwachting produces two sauvignons; one simply labelled Sauvignon Blanc, the other, from a specific, more elevated part of the farm, labelled Hussey’s Vlei. Both 2016s, like previous vintages, are as different as chalk and cheese. The former is a fruity extrovert, unusually tropical, as invigorating as one would want, with prolonged flavour. It will reward with a little more time. Hussey’s Vlei, on the other hand, is all restraint, bone dry with flinty austerity accentuating its zest; just a final hint of richness suggests how it’ll be even better in four or five years (I might be erring on the conservative side here). A classic style, that’s more about texture than overt fruit, Hussey’s Vlei is one of the Cape’s best and most consistent of sauvignons.
Next door, Klein Constantia, of course, also has its fair share of star sauvignons; seven according to Platter, many under single block labels. The Sauvignon Blanc represents what the farm as a whole offers from the variety; 2015 delivers a stunning result. Like its neighbour’s Hussey’s Vlei, texture and concentration without overt fruit, guide this wine. With the benefit of an extra year, it has engaging breadth anchored by seven months’ enrichment on the lees but also energy. Metis, a collaboration with Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre, comes from vineyards higher on the farm, yielding a natural high acid. Youthfully taut, 2015 has a veil I associate with natural ferments, subduing its already quiet blackcurrant aromatic undertones. Currently more savoury than fruity, I’d expect it to blossom over three to five years, especially with 12 months on the lees.
Up and down the valley there are other sauvignons of similar quality and distinction. Constantia is rightly heralded as sauvignon country.
Reds? With the exception of the northern trio of Constantia Glen, Beau Constantia, Eagles’ Nest and Buitenverwachting’s Christine (but I don’t care for the current 2011) mentioned above, reds are patchily good rather than great.
Sauvignon blanc is the main armory in brand Constantia; the producers need to ensure things stay that way.
All those years ago, when bluegums were a familiar sight on our walks, the drive from our home was through populated suburbs until the start of Spaanschemat River Road, where the terrain turned far more rural, with fewer houses and bouncy country roads with just a green verge either side.
This time, as I drove past the always-busy Constantia Village shopping centre, roadworks were underway, with a more formal edge being built up. Houses too have leapt and are still leaping up everywhere; Constantia’s landscape is slowly but surely changing; its bucolic air still there, but taking longer to reach.
The changes remind one that the wineries are part of Cape Town, paying rates and taxes like the rest of us – probably much more than the rest of us.
After the recent uproar about sand mining in the Paardeberg and the damage it would cause to the wineries in the area, it’s as well to remember other areas have their own problems to contend with. Constantia has pressures of its dues to the City but also the pressure of land. Every winery needs to be on top of its quality game both in its wine and tourism offerings.