By the late 1700s, Constantia had become internationally famous thanks to vin de Constance, made from a blend mostly of Muscat de Frontignan (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), Pontac, red and white Muscadel and Chenin Blanc (known locally as Steen). In addition to becoming a popular drink among European kings and emperors – including Napoleon Bonaparte who reportedly lived on the drink during his forced exile on St Helena – Vin de Constance was immortalised by authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austin.
In Jane Austin's Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings recommends Vin de Constance as the “cure for a broken heart”. More recently in the novel 50 Shades Darker, the follow-up to 50 Shades of Grey, the famous Klein Constantia dessert wine is served at an extravagant masked ball, along with a third course of sugar-crusted walnut chiffon candied figs.
From its origins in Constantia, South African grape cultivation and winemaking spread inland while the wine industry periodically benefited from exports to international markets. During the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763) and the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783) shipping to and around the Cape increased substantially. This contributed to rising demand for Cape wines. Strong demand for Cape wines developed in Britain after 1825 when Napoleon blockaded ports on the European mainland. These boom periods helped make South African wine farmers wealthy, enabling them to increase their land and build the impressive Dutch homesteads which are common throughout the Cape winelands. However, the nineteenth century saw the industry face new threats, including economic depression in the 1860s, the loss of the vital British export market and the devastating Phylloxera outbreak of the 1880s.
Since the 1990s however, South Africa’s wine industry has experienced a rennaisance, having benefited from both investment and access to international markets. The industry has become characterised by considerable innovation and widespread experimentation in both winemaking processes and styles. South African winemakers have also sought to establish “points of difference” in international markets, capitalising on the production and marketing of signature grape varieties such as Chenin Blanc (South Africa’s most widely-planted white grape) and Pinotage, a red grape which was first created in South Africa in 1925.
A South African national invention, Pinotage was born out of a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault grapes (the latter being known in South Africa at the time as Hermitage). Although global Pinotage production remains largely confined to South Africa, although there have been some plantings of the grape outside the country, notably in Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, the US and Zimbabwe.
South Africa produces a wide diversity of wines of varied styles. Of these, only a small fraction makes it into international markets. In addition to dry still wines, South Africa has a well-established tradition for making fortified and sparkling wines, as well as sweet wines and brandy (see Making section of the website for more information).
In addition to exploring the grapes, wines and wine-producing regions of South Africa, this week’s update of the Drake Vine introduces the main characteristics of two grapes, Pinotage and Muscat. While Pinotage has gained a reputation as the red wine to bring to a barbeque, the latter grape Muscat is responsible for a wide range of dessert wines, including Vin de Constance (see the Drinking and Pairing sections of the website for more info).
I hope you enjoy this week's update. Remember to scroll up to the very top of the page and click on the Growing, Making, Drinking and Pairing tabs to visit the other sections of this website - they contain a lot more information about South African wine and the other countries already covered by the Drake Vine. Next week we're staying within the southern hemisphere and off to another "new world" wine country.