History of SA wine: The value of old Constantia wine (and some delicious imitations)
The only bottle of Grand Constance 1821 I mentioned last month fetched an astonishing R420,000 at the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction. The price exceeded all expectations including mine. After all, the 1821 bottle that Groot Constantia brought home with great fanfare in 2016 had been bought at auction for just â¬ 1,550 (around R25,000 at the time). What a great deal!
However, the extremely high prices of Constantia wines are nothing new. When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) put 36 Constantia leaguers on the Amsterdam market in 1762, the White sold for up to Â£ 190 per league while the Red brought in over Â£ 333 per league. – a huge profit for the VOC, given that it only paid the two Constantia producers Â£ 12 per white ligeur and Â£ 16 per red ligeur (one leaguer having been equivalent to around 575 liters; the red Constantia having been made from the ripest red Muscadel grapes mixed or at least colored with Pontac).
Another indication of the value of Constantia wines in Europe comes from the wine list of the restaurant VÃ©ry in Paris, where in 1790 the Constance wine was quoted at 40 francs per half-bottle compared to barely 10 francs for the Chably wine (full bottle) and 25 francs for the Sauterne wine.
Perhaps even more than famous literary mentions and the palace cellar archives, these awards prove just how much sought after Constantia was in the 1700s. So it’s no surprise that fake Constantia quickly appeared. on the marketâ¦
In 1751, the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de La Caille arrived in Cape Town to spend two years there during which he listed nearly 10,000 southern stars – including the constellation he named Mons Mensae in honor of Table Mountain. He observed: “The wine that is sold in Europe as”by ConstanceâIn such large quantities must be heavily adulterated. There are only two properties adjacent to Constantia where real wine grows, and in the best years these two properties together cannot produce more than 60 leggers. [sic] of red wine and 80 or 90 of white. ‘
In 1772, Swedish naturalist and physician Anders Sparrman stopped in Cape Town while sailing around the world with Captain James Cook. âConstantia is a district made up of two farms that produce the well-known wine, so prized in Europe and known as Cap, or wine of Constantia,â he writes. Likewise, observing that production was too limited to account for the large quantities of so-called Constantia sold in Europe, Sparrman said it was “the production of greed, which, spurred on by the desire for gain , will always find a method of falsifying the demands of luxury and sensuality. The faithful of these, accustomed to being put off by empty sounds, frequently drink with the greatest pleasure, an imaginary exquisite “Constantia” which, however, has nothing in common with the real wine so called, apart from the simple name. ‘
After the stopover of the First Australian Fleet at Cape Town in October 1787, David Collins, the future judge advocate of New South Wales, wrote: “Constantia, so famous, has a very fine, rich and pleasant flavor, and is an excellent cordial. [But] much of the wine that is sold under this name has never been made from the Constantia grape; because the vineyard is only small, and has the merit of a much larger product than it could produce: this reminds us of those eminent masters in the art of painting, to whom more originals are attributed than the longest life man’s work could produce. ‘
Too bad for visitors to Constantia; It should also be noted that the first advertisers of (real) Constantia wine made a point of emphasizing its authenticity. that of London Daily Advertiser of May 16, 1767, for example, contained an advertisement for six dozen bottles of Constantia at Â£ 6 and 6 shillings per dozen. “It is guaranteed to be authentic and free from any mixture, being always in the possession of the person who took it out of the cellar of the Constantia vineyard, where only he can have it.”
Since there were clearly a lot of inauthentic Constantia, do we know what it was?
When this famous scholar, adventurer, author, player and seducer of women, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, visited Amsterdam in 1764, he recorded an encounter with a Dutch stockbroker named Mr. Pels: “He invited me to dinner, and , out of my admiration for his Cape wine, he told me with a laugh that he had made it himself by mixing Bordeaux and Malaga.
(Sweet wines originating in the Spanish city of Malaga, made from Pedro XimÃ©nez and Moscatel grapes, were extremely popular at the time – and much easier to obtain than Constantia.)
If this is a reasonably plausible “recipe” for Constantia, consider the recipe for blackcurrant wine that was included in British winemaker and home brewer, the second edition of which was published in 1835 by William Henry Roberts, who wrote: âWhen this wine is properly made, it may very well pass for Constantia; and, in fact, it was.
He described how two measures of lightly squeezed blackcurrant should be boiled with one measure of water for 10 minutes, then removed, drained and again squeezed. Other ingredients in the wine included lump sugar, raw tartar, and brewer’s yeast, with Roberts concluding, “The longer the wine is kept in the barrel, before bottling, the better.” “
He then described how “a very respectable friend, who lived a lot in the world and used to entertain his friends with a variety of continental wines” sent him two empty pint bottles, asking him to fill them with ” some very old blackcurrant wine, made in a special way ‘to be served to a group of important guests.
âIt is not my intention here to name the individuals of this party; suffice to say that, among other things, there were two people present whose judgment on the wines was considered to be beyond reproach, âRoberts wrote. âThe glasses were filled and distributed; one smacked his lips, another said it was delicious, and so on. No one, however, dared to give it a name. All eyes were now fixed on the judges, first on one, then on the other. One of them confidently said it was the best Constantia he had ever tasted.
If the anonymous Grand Constance 1821 buyer ever opens the wine, let’s hope he appreciates it at least as much as these two experts enjoyed William Roberts’ blackcurrant wine.
Casanova, Giacomo: The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, Volume III, ‘The Eternal Quest’, translated by Arthur Machen, London, 1894
Collins, David: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, second edition, T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1804
From La Caille, Nicolas Louis: Historical Journal of the trip to the Cape of Good Hope, 1751-53, Paris, 1763
Roberts, WH: The British Winemaker and Home Brewer: a comprehensive, practical and easy-to-read treatise on the art and management of British wines and liquors, and home brewing (second edition), Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1835
- Joanne Gibson has been a wine journalist for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. . As a sought-after freelance writer and editor, her passion is to unearth nuggets of SA wine history.
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