HIGH CONSTANTIA WINE CELLAR
Thursday 2 February 2017
I sipped a glass of red wine in an unmarked glass whilst sat on the shady stoep overlooking the pond. Across the manicured lawn, there was a grand nunnery beyond. I could easily have been staying with my oupa. Washing fluttered in the light sunny breeze. Wooden furniture was neatly tucked away against the back of the house, and adorned with matching blue shwe shwe cushions.
Sannaline sat relaxed on the low wall in polite conversation. To my left, I spotted a vibrant purple and orange bird of paradise flower out of the corner of my eye. This was easy living in the heart of the Constantia Valley.
The only clue that I was wine-tasting was the four glasses of red wine on the small wooden table in front of me. This was High Constantia and so easy to overlook. Blink and you will miss it as you dash past en route to or from Groot Constantia. It was the final vineyard for me to visit – number 13 of 14 (Ambeloui is currently closed and has no wine to taste or buy until the 2017 MCC production) – on my tour of the Constantia Valley.
High Constantia has all the history of the adjacent, bigger name vineyards. The origins of this boutique estate can be traced back to 1693 when the farm was part of the Dutch East India Company. It was then known as ‘Wittebomen’ because of the silvertrees on the land.
The current owner, David van Niekerk has restored the small part of the original land (10 hectares) to its former glory, nestled in the heart of the lush Constantia Valley. Reds make up over half of the wine produced with a mix of MCC, white and rosé making up the remainder. They are sold under the High Constantia and the Silverhurst labels.
The red wines only were available for tasting (R50). Sanneline, my tasting host, had thoughtfully numbered each glass from 1 to 4 with a blue felt pen, something so obvious for blind tasting but I had not seen before.
I assessed the red wines in turn. The colour for each, then the nose, and last the palate, making notes for each one. They were certainly of similar red, progressively deepening from dark red cherry to red-black cherry in colour. Their body too showed a similar progression – medium- to medium-full to full-bodied – from my left to right.
Greater differences were soon highlighted by their nose. I liked the plummy fruitiness that each showed – reminiscent of Hout Bay Vineyards – as if this was all part of the house style. Each had their own characteristic though: 1, sweeter red to dark-berry; 2, mulberry and currant with an earthiness; 3, toasty and more oaked; and, 4, dark cherry with a light spiciness of vanilla and aniseed.
These were complex, full-bodied in the mouth wines to savour. The complexity, smoothness of the tannins, oakiness and length of the finish increased as I sampled glasses 1 to 4. I was to find out afterwards that Sannaline had served me the youngest (2011) first in increasing age until the oldest (2006). The last was most likely a blend in the Bordeaux style.
Sannaline got the balance between attentive watching over me and leaving me alone to perfection as I assessed each wine. She didn’t let me off easily as she asked me to explain what I picked up from the colour, nose and palate from each glass. I needed that interaction and I learned from her.
The first, a Cabernet Franc, surprised. It was my favourite too. It wasn’t on my tasting radar but I picked out the red-berry and black-fruit components that make it lie between these two flavour families.
I picked out the earthiness and barky component of the second, a Cabernet Sauvignon, mixed with dark berries. The third was more complex, perhaps Bordeaux style, but was a Merlot. The final glass was my second favourite, smooth, full and elegant. This was 10 years old and a true Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
High Constantia was definitely worth stopping by to visit. There is a special place in my heart for the smaller vineyards that seem more expressive in their wines. Next time, avoid the hustle and bustle of Groot Constantia and sit on the stoep and let the wines speak for themselves.
The approach from the road is worth it in itself. It leads down to the working cellar, stacked high with oak barrels and wine-making equipment. One almost feels one is intruding such is the intimacy of the experience.
The wines are not cheap and all above R220. The price more than matches their age and maturity, the oldest by some 5-10 years of those you will taste in the Constantia Valley. The bottles are classy and unstated. There’s none of the cartoon or elaborate labels here. I didn’t buy today. This was not because I didn’t like any – I most certainly did – but because I shall bring my partner to taste too. I shall return and hope to sample the other styles in the range.
High Constantia is high on my list of estates for a return visit.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2011 Cabernet Franc – R275 FAVOURITE WINE
2008 Cabernet Sauvignon – R220
2008 Merlot – R220
2006 Sebastiaan (45% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec) – R320