Changing perceptions

What’s the first wine that comes to mind from Klein Constantia? Surely Vin de Constance, the one South African wine recognised worldwide. Winemaker, Matt Day wouldn’t be surprised, he admits this celebrated dessert wine has been the focus of attention until recently.

Yet, the first wine to make this Constantia farm’s modern-day name was the 1986 Sauvignon Blanc; the maiden commercialized vintage* from three-year-old vines that audaciously capped its peers by winning the Trophy for White Wine of the Year at that year’s Young Wine Show.  Precocious it might have been but it also proved a remarkable stayer. I noted ‘will age’ at the first media showing; when last tried around nine years ago, it was still very much alive, no botox needed!

(*Although it was the first sauvignon sold, there was a 1985 was made and a 1983 Rhine Riesling, both of which we tasted at that media event.)

Nearing the top of Klein Constantia's vineyards.
Nearing the top of Klein Constantia’s vineyards

It took until 2004 for then winemaker, Adam Mason to increase the sauvignon blanc range: Perdeblokke (named for the Percherons which were used in the vineyards), a specific site higher up the slope, was the first, then another break until 2012, when Matt Day, Adam’s assistant since 2009, took over the reins from him. That year, the wonderful Block 382 was introduced, followed in 2013 by Métis, the Pascal Jolivet joint venture and Block 381 in 2014.

As I chart the arrival of these new sauvignons, it strikes me how under the radar they are. Block 382 blew me away at Tim Atkin’s presentation of his South Africa 2019 Report 95+ wines. This is a sauvignon distancing itself by a long way from commercial offerings of full-force fruit & easy sweetness.

It took until last week to visit the farm and learn from Matt more about this and the other amazing sauvignons. So much has changed at Klein Constantia, including Matt who has positively grown in confidence and focus; now Hans Astrom lives in Switzerland, he is happy to have taken on extra responsibilities.

Altitude and aspects abound on Klein Constantia

A climb, even in a landrover, up to the top of these Constantiaberg slopes, is always a breathtaking – and breath-holding – experience. But an experience that brings home altitude is but one measurement; so many aspects, dips and curves. ‘See the chardonnay vineyard in the hollow below, it’s much cooler than this exposed sauvignon block next to us.’ Counter-intuitive, but thanks to his 11 years on the farm, Matt has an enviable memory-bank of the vines’ performance.

The view of and from Block 382 is as exhilarating as the wine, but Matt first pours the Estate’s Cap Classique from chardonnay, a palate primer if ever there was for the 2019 sauvignon from this wall of granite. Layers of texture, a granite-like firmness is the first impression with flavour, rather than fruit, following. Fynbos, fragrant but of dried herbs rather than floral, permeate the aromas and provide that sauvage character. As linear and bone-dry as it is, the underlying lees-giving weight brings balance and the goosebumps I’d experienced at Tim’s tasting a year back – except this was in the actual vineyard. More intense goosebumps!

Matt Day, Block 382 and the wine

Back in the cellar, it’s time to explore the other sauvignons, starting with the Rolls Royce Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2019, a wine of absolute integrity, uncompromising and great value at R150. Integrity means it ages well too: a recent bottle of 2015 maintained the classic fig, flinty notes, mouthwatering fruity acids and totally dry. It is now also vegan friendly, protein-stabilised with potato proteins.

Métis 2017 (R280), the current release, after vinification, spends two years in bottle before release. Skin contact provides a bit of tannin on the tail which contrasts with the quite silky texture. Spice, flint and savoury flavours are distinguishing features.

Perdeblokke 2018 is a youngster brimming with cheeky energy. Its linearity chases vigorously mouthwatering riot of tropical, fumé, blackcurrant and wild herb flavours across the palate. So moreish.

Clara 2019 is a newcomer to the range. Named for one of the stylish owners of Klein Constantia, Clara Hussey, it’s a blend of some or each of Blocks 382, 381, 372, 361 and Perdeblokke. All components are spontaneously fermented separately in barrel and aged for nine months, whereafter a decision is taken on the blend. Clara lives up to the sauvage in sauvignon with wild herb, dried fynbos and just a whisper of tropical fruit delivered in a clean, crisp manner and some subtlety.

These are fabulous, individual wines, the trouble is as soon as people see Sauvignon Blanc on a label, prejudices come into play. For those who don’t like the variety, they won’t bother trying them and for those who do, it’s likely the wines do not fit the normal sauvignon parameters. How to change perceptions?

Why don’t you remove Sauvignon Blanc from the label, I suggest to Matt. At least of the single block wines. It’s an idea he’s not averse to.

It’s also an idea that could get consumers to change perceptions about any number of varieties on which they hold fixed ideas. I remember Pieter Walser telling me one of his first customers said she didn’t like shiraz; he then poured her a red wine from an unlabeled bottle, sure enough she liked the wine – a shiraz! With winemakers’ attention focused on reflecting site rather than variety, this could be a bold but effective way to go.

Driving down from Block 382, Matt points out a newly planted vineyard of furmint, ‘For Vin de Constance,’ he confirms. ‘We’ve also planted petit manseng with the same purpose in mind but Muscat de frontignan will always be there.’ If, for many Vin de Constance is Klein Constantia, without the need of a varietal label, even she will evolve, rather like the new label adorning 2017.

Vin de Constance 2017 with its new label

Changing perceptions takes time but eventually leads to rewards all round.

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