The greatest dessert wine?

When it comes to dessert wine, most people automatically think of Port, Sauternes, or maybe even Tokaji, but there was another wine that made its’ mark, and is little known: Constantia Wyn (wine).

“From these Elysian fields used to come one of the very greatest wines in the world – the legendary Constantia,” wrote Hugh Johnson, “Constantia was bought by European courts in the 18th and 19th Centuries in preference to Chateau d'Yquem, Tokay, and Madeira”. Even when Napoleon was defeated and exiled, by the British, to the island of St. Helena, his household was supplied with "les vins de Constance" daily, shipping 30 bottles over to the island every month. He reportedly requested a glass on his deathbed, refusing all other food and drink offered to him.

So what was so special about this wine? We need to take a look at the early history of South Africa, one of the oldest, New World, growing regions.

Groot Constantia
Wine growing in South Africa began in 1652, with the way station for the Dutch East India Company. The early grape varieties included numerous versions of Muscat and Palomino. With the arrival of the Huguenots (refugees from France), the introduction of Chenin Blanc (known as “Steen” in South Africa) and other French varieties were also planted.

In 1685, during an annual visit to the Cape, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein granted the grounds of Constantia to Simon van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. A total of 891 morgen (equivalent to 550 acres) was granted. This particular valley was chosen not only for its beauty, but also for the decomposed granite, high clay content, soils and slopes that are gently cooled by the ocean breezes. It is said that Governor van der Stel named his property after Constanza, the little daughter of his benefactor. By 1709, there were 70,000 vines on the farm and Van der Stel produced 5,630 liters of wine.

The Constantia Valley was the cradle, and birthplace, of quality wine-making in South Africa.
Simon van der Stel died in 1712. Then in 1714, Constantia was subdivided and sold by way of auction. The estate was broken up and sold in three parts: Groot (big) Constantia; Klein (little) Constantia; and Bergvliet. Pieter de Meijer bought two parts: Bergvliet and Klein Constantia. Captain Oloff Bergh bought Groot Constantia, on which the Van der Stel buildings were situated. The properties changed hands numerous times, until Hendrik Cloete bought Groot Constantia in 1778. It was Cloete who really made Constantia famous, with a sweet, unfortified wine made from a blend of mostly Muscat de Frontignan (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), Pontac, red and white Muscadel and a little Chenin Blanc. The estate belonged to the Cloete family for more than a hundred years (and five generations), until the devastating phylloxera epidemic in the 1880s forced its sale to the government. Phyloxerra devastated most of the vineyards causing bankruptcy and ruin for many of the old winemaking families.

Between tariffs imposed by the British rule, Phylloxera, and the Boer Wars, wine growing in the region dwindled. Constantia wine survived only in the poetry and prose of the 19th Century and in the cellars of Europe’s greatest wine collectors. Exports eventually declined, and what grapes were grown, contributed to excessive supply. In 1918, the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging (KWV) was established to deal with surplus production, and by the 1940’s had taken complete control of the wine industry. It wasn’t until 1992, that the KWV was dismantled. Also, during the 1980’s, South African products were boycotted, due to Apartheid. This global response isolated South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released in 1993, which led to re-investment in South Africa, but the recovery for the wine business has been slow.

Today, nine producers make up the Constantia wine region: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig, Steenberg, Constantia Glen, Eagles' Nest, Beau Constantia and Silvermist. Of these, three are producing dessert wines which are similar to the original wines that gained so much fame. 

Groot Constantia is South Africa’s oldest wine producing farm. Since its inception, in 1685, the Estate has had a history of uninterrupted wine production, an achievement that cannot be claimed by any other winery in South Africa. This achievement makes Groot Constantia’s trademark one of the oldest surviving trademarks in the world. At Groot Constantia, production of dessert wine was reintroduced in 2003, producing their expression of the world famous “Constantia Wyn”, now known as “Grand Constance”.

In 1980 Duggie Jooste bought Klein Constantia, redeveloped the farm with the help of then winemaker Ross Gower & Professor Chris Orferr of Stellenbosch University. Early records were studied and careful selection made from vines which, in all likelihood, came from the original stock used in Constantia, 300 years earlier. On November 30, 1985, Klein Constantia released its first new vintages for commercial sale in over a century, including "Vin de Constance", made from the Muscat de Frontignan grape, a re-creation of the original Constantia sweet wyn of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Today, Klein Constantia is part of Anwilka Vineyards.

In 1980, Buitenverwachting was purchased by the Mueller family. Buitenverwachting means “Beyond Expectations”. Production resumed in 2007. Buitenverwachting dessert wine is known as '1769'.

Now we know the history, but what is so special about these wines?

First off, the terroir (soil, aspect and weather) plays a part in the quality of the grape. Secondly, the grape berries are left on the vine, and allowed to ripen fully, to the point of raisining. By allowing the grapes to raisinate, the flavors and sugars are concentrated. Harvest takes place in March or April, and the bunches are hand selected. They are allowed to macerate for one to two weeks, and then pressed. Imagine how little juice is produced from a raisin, and you’ll understand the cost associated with these wines. At such high sugar levels, fermentation can take from six months to a year, to be completed. Then they are aged, in barrel, for an additional four to five years, before release.

These luscious, sweet, natural wines have not been affected by botrytis (like Sauternes) or fortified with brandy (like Port). They have an apricot and raisin nose, along with nuts and honey. They are prefect for dessert, but can also be paired nicely with pâté or foie gras.

Today, these three Constantia wineries continue to make some of the world’s best dessert wines; wines that reflect the cool Constantia climate, minerality, balance and elegance, as well as their 300+ year, historic tradition. 

I will admit that these wines are hard to find in the United States. I have been teaching and talking about these wines for the last ten years, and just this week, found a shop in Southern California that had three bottles in stock. When you find them, pay the price, and try them.

The next BIG red wine?

When it comes to red wine from the central coast of California, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel seem to get most of the attention. But lately, I have been seeing more and more winemakers producing single variety Petit Verdot. And I must say, most of these are very good. Could this be the next red wine to gain popularity with wine drinkers?

Petit Verdot is a variety of red wine grape, that originally found its’ place as part of the blend in Bordeaux wines.  But, because it ripens much later than the other varieties in Bordeaux, it fell out of favor. The cool growing conditions don't favor Petit Verdot in region. But,when it does ripen, it is added in small amounts, to add some "spice box" to the blend, along with tannin and color. It also contributes to the mid palate of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The origin of Petit Verdot is not clearly understood. It was first mentioned in 1736, while growing in the Bordeaux region of France, but, as mentioned, this region is really too cold for the grape. In her book, “WineGrapes”, Jancis Robinson states that the grape probably came from the Pyrenees region. It is possible that the Romans may have brought the grape with them, as they traveled from the Mediterranean. The parentage of the grape is unknown, so is probably a domesticated wild grape.

The name, “Petit Verdot” translates into “small green”, which probably reflects on the grape being an early budding, but very late ripener. So late in fact, that it is still green, while others are being harvested. And, in cool weather, the grape will often only produce small, seedless berries. The leaves have 3-5 lobes with a distinctively elongated central lobe. The small, cylindrical bunches are winged, with loosely filled, dark red-to-black, relatively thick-skinned, berries. Petit Verdot also has a peculiar characteristic in that it produces more than two clusters per shoot.

Due to the high levels of anthocyanins in the berry's thick skins, Petit Verdot wines tend to have a dense, inky, violet-black appearance. They also have high tannin levels, thanks to the small berries (high ratio of skin and seeds to juice).  The Petit Verdot flavor profile is of dark red fruit, namely blackberry and black plum, while the most noted aromas include vanilla, smoke, spice, cedar, molasses and even tar. When young its aromas have been likened to banana and pencil shavings. Strong tones of violet and leather will develop as it matures. The wine typically is mid to high in alcohol, and high in acidity.

Petit Verdot is traditionally bottled as part of a blend, and rarely bottled as a stand-alone variety. It was always considered as being too powerful. In fact, it was unusual to see this variety making up more than 6% of the total grape mix in wines produced anywhere outside Bordeaux. 

New world growers have taken a different look at Petit Verdot. Under more favorable growing conditions, it has produced high quality wines made from 100% Petit Verdot. In America, California and Washington State are the most popular areas making wines from 100% Petit Verdot. The extended growing conditions, and warmer climates increased the odds of having ripe grapes at harvest. More and more growers are experimenting with single variety bottlings. The biggest challenge for California growers is the current drought. Petit Verdot is very sensitive to water stress.

Petit Verdot is also being grown in Australia, Argentina (where it is known as “Fer”), Chile, Italy, Portugal, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain

Petit Verdot is a hardy grape with a rigid tannin structure. That makes it perfect for foods with plenty of weight. Rich meat dishes, grilled steak, pork, veal lamb, and all types of wild game and sausage, are your best bets. Consider rich cuts of red meat, well-aged cheese (like Stilton). Spicy foods also pair well with Petit Verdot, and will work with both hard and semi-soft cheeses.

I have written about some of the new single variety Petit Verdot I have found in the central coast of California. Check out: Turiya, Shale Oak, Barr Estate, L’Aventure, and Pahlmeyer (Napa). If you find a favorite, please share it in the comments section of this blog.

Aerate or Decant?

In Aladdin, Robin Williams character, Genie, is quoted as saying, "It's all part and partial, the whole Genie gig. Phenomenal cosmic powers...itty-bitty living space." What does this have to do with wine? Well, just like that genie, it may have been bottled up in a small confined space for a long period of time. All it wants to do is get out, get some air and stretch. Then, it is ready to deliver its’ promise. But sometimes that promise falls short, and we are required to coax the “genie” out. That is where aeration and/or decanting come in to play.

The process of aerating wine is commonly referred to as "letting the wine breathe." Most of us pour the wine into a glass and swirl it around. While this may seem “wine snobbish”, it does allow the wine to expand, and coat the glass, releasing the aromas and complexities of the wine, and enhancing our experience. Exposing wine to oxygen can improve the taste and aroma. The wine has been kept in a relatively oxygen free environment inside its bottle, so the reintroduction of oxygen can greatly alter and enhance it. However, not all wines need to breathe, and in some case, they should not.

The goal of aeration is to maximize the wine's contact with oxygen. For this reason, simply popping the cork, and letting it sit, isn’t enough. The oxygen to wine-surface contact is pretty small in the neck of a wine bottle. Swirling in the glass is the simple way to “open up” a wine, but to really get some oxygen in there, the wine may need to be “aerated”. Handheld aerators like Vinturi or Respirer, for example, expand the surface area of wine, which allows the air to mingle with it. The wine gurgles through the bubbler, and out into the glass or decanter, softening the tannins of young or bold wines. The aerator will easily do the trick in minutes, and is appropriate where time is of the essence.

Vinturi Aerator
So which wines should be aerated? In general, young red wines, with a tannic profile (Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah, for example), are the best candidates, but these aren’t the only ones. Even white wines can benefit from some aeration. Heavier Chardonnays can open up, and even whites that are over-chilled will present themselves better with a little room temperature air being infused. But again, red wines are the main focus, softening the tannins. Remember, that as wines age, tannins soften and are balanced by other flavors and a stronger bouquet. But in young red wines, particularly heavy reds, the tannins can be harsh and overwhelming. Aeration won’t increase the complexity of a young wine, like an older wine gains in the bottle, but it does soften and smooth out the flavor.

Here’s the big trick….determining what wines need to be aerated. Not all wines need to breathe, and sometimes it will do more harm than good to the flavors. Older wines, about 30 years or older, can become completely oxidized and lose their flavors, if exposed to air for too long. For a friend’s 50th birthday, I opened up a bottle of 1976 BV George’s Latour. For the first fifteen minutes, the wine had a wonderful bouquet. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the wine had turned brown in the glass, and lost all aroma. If you are unsure, check a site like, to see tasting notes from others. You will get free advice on how the wine is tasting, and how long it took to open up, or even if the wine isn’t holding well, and is over-the-hill.

What about decanting versus aerating? Many people confuse the two practices. A wine aerator is a rather violent approach to opening up a wine, by adding oxygen into the liquid to improve the taste. Decanting performs a somewhat similar act, but the main purpose is to remove the sediment in older wines, leaving it in the bottle, while the wine is poured into a different vessel. A sommelier will typically set a light (or candle) under the bottle, and gently pour the wine into a glass vessel (or decanter) until he/she starts to see sediment. The sediment is left in the bottle, and the wine in the decanter is then poured into glasses, free of any bitter sediment. Sediment is common in wines of as little as 10 years old, depending on whether they were filtered or fined.

Decanting can also be done to aerate wine. A broad decanter can give the wine maximum contact with the air. Young wines can be poured directly into the decanter. Letting a wine sit in a decanter is a slower way to aerate a wine, and may take many hours. For a dinner party, decanting is a classy way to serve your wine and adds flair to the evening. For younger wines, decant and let sit, checking every half hour, to determine how the wine is evolving. For older vintages, first taste the wine, right out the bottle, before decanting…it may not need decanting (other than to remove sediment), and may in fact oxidize the wine, ruining the entire experience. Also, some wines have something known as “bottle stink”. This is a stale aroma that is noticeable when a wine is first uncorked. This can be caused be over sulfuring a wine or just too much of an anaerobic atmosphere. By transferring the wine to a decanter, the contact with air will often eliminate the odor.

In general, the aeration “rule of thumb” is, the more tannin a wine has, the more time it will need to aerate. Aeration is controversial. Some  insist on aerating tannic reds for two hours, while others say 20 minutes. The practical approach is to tailor the process to the wine itself, and to test it frequently during aeration. When it tastes good to you, drink it.

There you have it. The difference between aeration and decanting is time, and technique. When it comes to your favorite bottle of wine, it's time to put the aerator to use for quick results, but also to use the proper decanting technique when time is on your side, and you are preparing an event for friends and family. Wine can stay in a decanter for hours without spoiling (depending on how much air it needs). Presenting wine in a decanter makes for a more special experience, versus using an aerator. 

Remember that oxygen can be your friend or foe, benefiting or ruining a wine. Old wines will fade fast when exposed to oxygen, and younger wines will open up. The trick is finding the balance. So pick your favorite vintage, relax and enjoy!