Saturday, December 8, 2018

On the Origins of Constantia

From WineMag:
It’s time to introduce Constantia, the vast farm awarded to Cape commander Simon van der Stel on 13 July 1685, the sub-divisions of which go on to produce (historically) the southern hemisphere’s most famous wine, legendary sweet Constantia, as sought after by the Who’s Who of the 18th and 19th centuries, from Prussian king Frederick the Great to American founding father George Washington, from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to Napoleon. 
Back in 1685, the Deed of Grant for Constantia read as follows: 
‘Having taken into consideration the good and faithful services evinced by Simon van der Stel, Commander here under the Honourable Company, respecting agriculture, and in order to encourage more and more his so salutary zeal thereto, we hereby allow, grant and give to him in free and full property a certain piece of ground situated behind the Table Mountain at or near the Steenbergen.’ 
The grant was for 891 morgen (763 hectares), where ‘morgen’ referred to the amount of land that could be ploughed in a ‘morning’. Encompassing virtually the entire valley, it was about 15 times larger than the land typically granted to vrijburghers, whom it seems Van der Stel was determined to teach by example on his new model farm (even as he continued conducting winegrowing experiments and indeed living at Rustenburg in Rondebosch for a number of years). 
Before long he had planted 10,000 vines on the slopes of the Steenbergen (today called the Vlakkenberg), by all accounts including Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Semillon (‘groendruif’), Chenin Blanc (‘steen’), Palomino (‘white French’) and Pontac (the ‘blood red grape’ or Teinturier Male with its unusually dark flesh). In 1691, the year of his promotion to the rank of Governor, he built a fine house surrounded by gardens and orchards, and by 1692 his wine was attracting positive feedback from VOC headquarters in Batavia: ‘The wine from Constantia is of a much higher quality than any sent out so far, but obviously only obtainable in small quantities.’ 
In 1699, aged 60, Van der Stel retired to his farm as a ‘simple burgher’. Having been honoured with the VOC’s courtesy title of Councillor-Extraordinary, however, he continued to host important visitors at Constantia. In 1705, for example, Dutch minister and naturalist Francois Valentijn visited this ‘loveliest and largest estate of all the freemen at the Cape’ which (he said) produced ‘the choicest wine’. 
In his Description of the Cape of Good Hope with the Matters Concerning It (Amsterdam, 1726) Valentijn wrote: ‘It is certain that the old Heer van der Stel brought to his outstanding country estate many sorts of vine sticks from Germany and elsewhere, previously unknown here; also that until now there is no wine to be compared to the red Constantia wine… Here alone is found the choice blue grape which produces the lovely red Constantia wine (which need not yield place in strength and charm to the best red Persian wine or to the Italian Lachryma Christi), and in addition this estate also has an exceptionally good, in fact the best, Steenwyn and Kristalwyn, so divine and enticing in taste, that only a truly fine palate would distinguish it from the best Tosca wine.’ (Read more.)

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