High Constantia – wines that bring one a little closer to heaven
I feel like one of the privileged few when a friend of mine mentions he knows a wine maker. And not just any wine maker. We’re talking High Constantia here.
“Where is High Constantia?” I ask, losing any kudos as a wine connoisseur, whilst mentally following the Constantia wine route down the hill from Constantia Nek – Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Steenberg – but I soon realise, on closer examination, that the route has acquired a couple of ‘newer’ farms – well, ‘new’ in the sense that they’re newly on the route.
High Constantia is anything but a new farm. Groot Constantia, way back in the year 1693 when High Constantia first came into existence, had to pass between the very gate posts that still stand down at High Constantia Village (people know it more commonly as the village where Green’s restaurant is) in order to reach their farm. Anyone travelling out here, had to bypass High Constantia in order to reach Groot Constantia.
In those days, High Constantia started as an outpost, growing supplies for those using it as a halfway mark between Simon’s Town and Cape Town. Then it was known as Wittebomen, and it was only when Sebastiaan van Renen bought the land in 1813 that High Constantia began to grow vines.
Karin van Niekerk describes to me, on a subsequent visit, how the original vines were planted in similar fashion to the way it was done in France, in straight rows down the hillside. They promptly washed away in the first Cape deluge, and van Renen had to start again.
Things are pretty much the same today (not the grape vines, the road). High Constantia’s gates lie just outside those of Groot Constantia. High Constantia now occupies only a small portion of the original farmland, and is a pretty laidback affair. So laidback that some visitors mistake the farm gate for a private residence (despite the obvious wine vats in the cellar at the bottom of the drive) and turn around.
Those who do venture down past the house meet Dave and Karin van Niekerk and get to sip some of the most succulent wines in the Constantia Valley (and a notable vintage Method Cap Classique – Clos Andre) on an informal veranda, surrounded by dipping sun birds, a gorgeous garden, wooden wine vats, and some of the most enviable views of the mountain in Constantia.
But I get ahead of myself, as the first time I visit the wine farm, it is bucketing down. This time there is a crowd of us huddled in amongst the wine vats on an evening, listening to Dave speak about his wines.
Dave is exceptionally personable. There are no airs and graces about the man who studied industrial psychology, then worked in the world of finance and finally followed his dream to make wine on the farm his father acquired during the 1960s, when the road leading to Groot Constantia was sand, and wine tourism was something still very much of the future.
Back then High Constantia was no longer making wine. It was just a beautiful farm of about a hectare alongside Groot Constantia. That it was called High Constantia was the stuff of archives.
Dave expounds on his Clos Andre 2008, a Cap Classique (we don’t call them Champagne as you know, as the name has been trademarked). A lot of what he says is beyond me – stablising tartaric acid and the way he allows the wine to settle in a riddling rack and riddles it at quarter turn every day until it eventually releases the residue that has gradually built up in the neck of the bottle.
But he is very good at telling a story, and I am caught up in the story of wine making before I know it. “The pre-requisites of a good champagne,” Dave continues, “is that it is not too yellow, not too clear, with fine bubbles rising.” We all duly sip. Some of us a little more than others, and within a very short period the room is humming with laughter and commentary (not many of us have had dinner).
The Clos Andre is followed by a Sauvignon Blanc, which we all sip with abandon. In between sips we learn that the Constantia Valley does not spray their grapes. High Constantia uses wasps and ladybirds as their major biological control.
“South Africans,” mutters Dave darkly, “like their Sauvignon Blanc preferably as we pick the grapes, whilst Europeans like it aged.” He continues to explain how the wine is pale straw colour and that it lies in a tank for a whole year. For it to age, it rests for five to seven years.
Someone asks a question about sulphur in wines. Dave explains that if you’re concerned about sulphur, buy wines with a screw top as these naturally have lower sulphur content. He then goes on at some length to explain that the better the wine, the lower sulphur content. Those wines with a poor grape quality need to add more sulphur to lower the ph balance of the wine.
“The bottom line,” says Dave, “ – is not to use unhealthy grapes in the wine making process”.
By now we’ve moved on to the Malbec 2006 and I’m really getting into this wine tasting session. The High Constantia Malbec must be one of the most wonderful wines ever to pass my palate (which isn’t saying much, but I do know a bad wine when it burns my throat).
The wine, which has 4 stars, tastes of ‘spiced pears, peppery blackberries and dark cherries…’. It is matured in French oak, new and second fill barrels for 12 months and I can personally vouch for it, as I can for the Cabernet Franc that followed. It is exceptional. It also has 4 stars and is described beautifully as ‘sun ripe, lush, mouth-coating wine, earthy sweet red berries.”
I return to High Constantia a couple of weekends later to take in the views from the veranda. Just across the pond from the veranda is the former manor house of High Constantia. Today it’s the Schoenstadt nunnery, part of the Catholic Church.
Karin explains to me that Dave is both the viticulturist and viniculturist. So he prepares the soil, plants and grows the vines and makes the wine. He uses 14.5 hectares around the Constantia Valley, one of which we can see extends its way up the side of the valley in the distance.
The wine estate has a real hands-on feel to it. Nothing is rushed here. All is done in a perfect way at the right moment. What it lacks for in size, High Constantia makes up for in quality. I’m encouraging everyone I know to visit this tucked away Constantia Valley wine farm, and get a taste of heaven.
Useful Constantia Links:
Where to Find Them:
Address: Groot Constantia Road, Constantia, Cape Town
Telephone: +27 (021) 794-7171