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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The South Africa Diary: Klein Constantia

Klein Constantia, one of the Cape's most storied estates, is no stranger to change
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Klein Constantia, the vineyards are being restructured, including a shift to bush vines on the steep slopes.

Posted: Feb 21, 2013 3:00pm ET

Klein Constantia is one of the Cape's most historical wine estates. But it may be seeing more change now than it has in its entire history, which dates to its founding in 1685 (you can reference additional background from my 2007 visit here.

The Jooste family, which resurrected the estate in the 1980s, sold in 2011 to a pair of international businessmen, as well as a pair of Bordelais, Hubert de Boüard de Laforest and Bruno Prats, who folded their Anwilka joint venture into the new ownership structure.

Located in the verdant Cape Town suburb of Constantia, which gets considerable rainfall (63 inches annually) and has a lush appearance thanks in part to its many stately homes, Klein Constantia is a 370-acre estate with 200 acres currently under vine. The property produces primarily white wine and production now stands at 33,000 cases, with plans to eventually reach 60,000.

Formerly with The Hess Collection, Hans Astrom, 52, was hired as general director. Staying on through the ownership change is a very young team of viticulturist Stiaan Cloete, 31, who has been in the vineyards since 2007, and winemaker Matt Day, 27, who worked as assistant winemaker with Adam Mason prior to Mason's departure to Mulderbosch in 2012. It's a good thing Cloete and Day are young: The to-do list at Klein Constantia is long.

Among the changes include continuing a conversion to organic farming which began in 2010 as well as a complete restructuring of the vineyards, some of which reach up to a steep part of the property at 1,125 feet of elevation.

"The original plantings on the hillsides didn't plan for erosion, and when it rains here, it rains hard," said Astrom. "We also had to put in a new drainage system in the vineyard, with tractor access spots. As we replant the vineyards, we'll realign the rows slightly to allow for better water flow through the vineyards."

"Also, the winery was state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. But unfortunately, it's still a mid-'80s winery," continued Astrom. "We're getting rid of the roto-fermentors and the wood planking, among other things. There's a lot to do, but there's also a lot that isn't broke and, as they say …. So, we have to move quickly but carefully."

As we drove up the steep slope to the top of the property, Cloete explained the unique climate of Constantia, just 6 miles from the coast and closer to Cape Point than Stellenbosch.

"Usually, there's a 1° C change in temperature for every 100 meters of elevation. But here we have 4 degrees difference from bottom to top in 200 meters. That's significant," said Cloete. "In addition, the average temperature here runs 10 degrees cooler than Stellenbosch, which in many ways can be considered a relatively cool area for South Africa. So we are really cool."

The bottom of the property features fine, sandy soils on top of a clay base. Moving further up the slope, you come across more decomposed Table Mountain sandstone with granite and quartz mixed in. At the very top, it's just sandstone.

"And typically sandstone gives a bigger wine, but with the elevation and cooler temperatures we have, we also get minerality. And that is a unique combination," said Cloete.

As Cloete has overseen the restructuring of the vineyards, Day is performing smaller parcel vinification back in the winery.

"By eliminating weaker lots we have already made better wines," said Astrom. "But more than just the winemaking, we're working the parcels on a small scale, viticulturally, to work with the diversity we have within the site."

Among the changes in the vineyards are a conversion to bush vines in the upper parcels. Prior, the vines were on standard VSP (vertical shoot positioning) trellissing, which yields a larger canopy and thus needs more fertilizer to maintain.

"But bush vines are in better balance naturally and we can go to higher density too, so less need for fertilizer and lower yields per vine for better quality," said Cloete. Watch the accompanying video as Cloete explains the conversion from VSP to bush vines.

Klein Constantia currently has plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sémillon, Muscat de Frontignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. While the restructuring continues, that makeup won't shift much, and Astrom and his team will proceed with caution.

"We'd rather wait a year to plant and make sure we get good vine material. That's a change in the Cape in recent years. Historically you just took what the nurseries gave you because the economic pressure was on to get the vineyards into production. But it makes no sense to start with a half-sick vine," said Astrom, alluding to the propensity for leaf roll virus in the Cape's vineyards, propagated through infected vine material.

The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Constantia is the main bottling here. It contains 17 percent Sémillon and shows piercing white peach, yellow tarragon and brisk stony, peach pit notes with an echo of sea salt on the finish. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Constantia (which contains 11 percent Sémillon, as Day wants to slowly reduce the percentage) is even stonier from the start, with bitter almond, fleur de sel and jicama flavors and a bracing, chalky finish.

The single-vineyard selection 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Constantia Perdeblokke is fermented in stainless steel to start but moved to old oak barrels during the ferment and then spends four months on its lees. It opens slowly but steadily in the glass, showing lime, white asparagus and kiwi pulp notes. It's very steely but not overly bony or taut, with impressive length on the finish.

Klein Constantia is known best for its Vin de Constance bottling, a dessert wine made from shriveled Muscat de Frontignan grapes. The wine, with historical precedence that dates to Napoleon's era, was brought back to life by the Jooste family and winemaker Ross Gower, before being refined and taken to new levels under Adam Mason's stewardship. While Gower went for a more opulent style, Mason brought restraint and clarity to the wine. Now, Day and the current team seem poised to improve it yet again, adding a new level of finesse and precision.

The 2002 Vin de Constance Constantia is hitting its stride, with creamed peach, apricot and nectarine notes lined with green tea and a hint of maple, before finishing with a creamy, lush finish. The 2006 Vin de Constance Constantia, from a warm year with quite raisined fruit, has intense dried apricot, peach cobbler, golden raisin and date notes with a bright streak of lemon shortbread through the finish. The 2007 Vin de Constance Constantia is ablaze with creamed peach, orange zest and nectarine fruit aromas and flavors, along with floral notes, ginger and mineral hints. It has power but terrific focus and looks to be the best release yet, potentially topping the classic-rated 2006.

The 2012 Vin de Constance Constantia, tasted from barrel, shows a broad range of enticing apricot, nectarine, tangerine and orange peel notes that are youthfully raw and untamed. The mouthfeel is viscous, but there's cut, with a nervy spine of acidity and loads of spice on the finish. Typically aged for four years in 500-liter barrels, the wine is set for tweaks as well, mirroring the shifts at the estate in general. Better oak will be brought in and the aging period might be shortened. A stricter berry selection will be made too, proving once again that there is always room to improve.

"The challenge is to change the mindset around here," said Astrom. "Things had gotten comfortable. It's time to push ahead."

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

David Sean Muttillo
Port Orchard, WA USA —  February 25, 2013 12:37am ET
Any idea where Klein Constantia is moving for their US distribution? They were with Cape Classics, but I noticed that CC posted your Ken Forrester piece and your Buitenverwachting piece but not your Klein Constantia blog, which implies a change in importer is at hand.
Elizabeth Mathews
Ashland, VA, USA —  July 3, 2013 9:48pm ET
07/03/2013 The wines are now imported by Craft and Estate. www.craftandestate.com We just received inventory on all of the wines. If you have interest in any of the wines please email orders@craftandestate.com and we can point you in the right direction.

Thanks for your interest.

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