Tag Archives | dessert wines

Vin de Constance

Historic dessert wine from Constantia in South Africa. Brilliant!

Wine Description

Muscat highlights in a nose balanced between floral and ripe white peach. Yellow green color with no browning whatsoever. Dense flavors with refreshing acid finish. Perfect for a lemon custard cake. Tasted in Fine Wines of the Southern Hemisphere class at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Southern Hemisphere class will next be offered as a Weekender in August 2011.

Wine Education

Even with the attention lavished on South Africa by the World Cup soccer matches, few people realize how accomplished the South African wine producers are. Founded at a time when New York City was still called New Amsterdam, the wine industry at the Cape of Good Hope flourished while Californios were still fermenting in cowhide bags. Sweet wines from Constantia were the toast of the Russian court during the late 1800’s, where they competed quite favorably with France’s Ch. d’Yquem and with the best Rieslings of Germany. Burgundy? At the time it was considered a backwater. Its wines couldn’t command one-twentieth the price of Vin de Constance, the luxurious dessert wine from South Africa’s premier winery, Groot Constantia, which had been founded on the estate of the Capes’ first Dutch governor, Simon Van der Stel.
     After Van der Stel’s death in the early 1800’s, Groot Constantia was split into three parcels and sold. Hendrik Cloete bought the homestead piece, and with his offspring raised the quality and recognition of Vin de Constance to worldwide acclaim. Cloete called his winery Klein Constantia. In Afrikaans groot means ‘great,’ while klein means ‘small.’ Phylloxera dealt a crushing blow to the South African wine industry, and by the end of the 1800’s Klein Constantia was in the hands of Abraham de Villiers and his American heiress wife Clara. They created an elegant party venue out of the estate, and even sent their nephew to U.C. Berkeley to study viticulture, but they did not resurrect the extraordinary reputation of Vin de Constance. That was left to the Jooste family, which purchased the property in 1980. Their U.C. Davis-experienced winemaker, Ross Gower, began the wine’s resurgence with his first release in 1986. Today son Lowell Jooste is in charge of the property, and Adam Mason has taken over as winemaker. Vin de Constance is reaching new heights every year.

Regional Description

As a wine producing district Constantia has three distinct characteristics, two of them related: (1) It is basically a suburb of Capetown, with correspondingly fine exposure to the marketplace (both domestic and international); (2) it is a very up-market piece of real estate, with sumptuous houses and beautiful landscaping; and (3) it is perhaps South Africa’s coolest (using the temperature sense of the word) growing region, no small factor when the tip of the continent is at 33º of latitude. Constantia is on the eastern side of a ridge running 20 miles south from Capetown along the peninsula which comprises the Cape of Good Hope. Constantia looks out to the east across False Bay (where the English landed to begin the Boer War). Technically I suppose Cape Agulhas (the southern tip of Africa) is the terminous of the Indian Ocean, but one could certainly argue (after swimming in it) that False Bay is the westernmost vestige of the warm Indian Ocean. The cold Bengula Current runs up the western side of the Good Hope peninsula, i.e. the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic side is not only colder, it carries much less moisture (cf: the Kalahari desert in Namibia further north). Constantia stands astride this divide, protected by its western ridge tops.

Food and Wine Pairing

Klein Constantia makes Vin de Constance from Muscat de Frontignan grapes (cf: Liqueur Muscat from Australia). They are picked very ripe, but not excessively dehydrated. Then they are matured over a four-year period in changing combinations of stainless steel and 120-gallon oak puncheons. The wine has more the 15% residual sugar, but also has very high acid for balance. In the 2005 vintage the pH is 3.45 with 8.75 g/l of total acid. Alcohol is less than Sauternes at a little over 12%, but considerably more than botrytized German Rieslings.
     On a one-dimensional scale of dessert wines, Vin de Constance falls somewhere between Canadian Icewine and Sauternes. It is not as honeyed, nor as volatile, as Sauternes. Which means milk chocolate and nut tarts are probably not going to be preferred matches. At the other extreme, fruit aromatics are a feature of Vin de Constance, but they are far from the only arrow in its quiver. Moreover the aromatics have a distinctly floral component. In the mouth the wine is an extraordinary balance of Vin Santo-like, dried fruit concentration, and refreshingly acidic length. A simple fruit dish, such as peaches with crème fraiche, would not do justice to this complexity.
     I believe the right answer is a custard cake. Decorate each plate with jasmine flowers. Buy or make a pound cake. Slice it horizontally into three levels. On top of level one put a layer of Meyer lemon custard. If you don’t want to make it yourself, you can buy a packaged product from the Jello Company, and tart it up with a real Meyer lemon or two. Include some zest from the lemon. On top of layer two put a layer of light caramel custard. Again, if you don’t want to make your own, use crème fraiche with some brown sugar stirred in. Layer three of the pound cake goes on top. I’d be delighted to eat the dessert this way, but purists will probably want to frost the cake. Once more, packaged frosting will suffice. Vanilla or butter crème would be my choice, but apply it sparingly. You don’t want any wine to have to fight its way through legions of butter and sugar. This dessert should be 75% cake, no less. And serve it in small portions. Things always work out better if the wine is slightly sweeter than the dessert.

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Inniskillin 05 Vidal Icewine

Niagara Peninsula. Class taste. Very intense mango-citrus nose. Sweet but focused. Refreshing. Superb.

Made from grapes frozen on the vine, Canadians have carved a very successful niche for themselves with Icewine because they know they are going to get the appropriate climatic conditions if they just wait patiently. Several of these Canadian Icewines have ruthlessly bitch-slapped top Sauternes in head-to-head competition.

Canadian Icewine

2005 Inniskillin Vidal from the Niagara Peninsula. Tasted at Fundamentals of Taste & Smell class in Palo Alto. Retail store wine cost is around US$20 for 187 ml (a quarter-bottle). This size bottle works well for such a focused dessert wine, because you don’t need much, and it is expensive. Even the little bottles are heavy. They look and feel like a round of artillery ammunition. Very popular for gift giving in Japan.

Background wine education

     Canadians use a voluntary marketing incentive to severely regulate the production of Icewine. In Italy such a mechanism is called a consorzio. In order to get a little neck indicia, producers agree to comply with certain standards. In Canada this group is called VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance). The regulations state grapes can’t be picked if the air temperature is above 17ºF. That means the grapes have frozen and thawed many times before they’re finally picked. Pressed immediately, a large amount of water remains behind in the press trapped as ice. The resultant wine not only has 10-12% residual sugar, but it has elevated acid to balance that sugar.
     Theoretically the mechanics of this process can be duplicated in the winery – chill the juice; filter out the ice. This cryogenic technique is used in the US, much to the Canadians’ chagrin, and the result is often labeled ‘Icewine.’ Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon has the decency to label his example “vin de glacier” (wine of the refrigerator). Tasted separately on successive nights, a VQA Icewine and a cryogenic example can both be quite pleasant. Tasted side-by-side, the VQA wine is clearly superior, albeit four or five times more expensive.

What does Icewine taste like?

Intense, concentrated, tropical fruit. The intensity is the most startling initial impression. One picks it up while the glass is still ten inches away. The second impression is sugar::acid balance. The wine is very sweet, but it also has a long, clean, refreshing aftertaste. That’s rare, and no one misses it.
     Many VQA Icewines are made from Riesling grapes. This one was made with Vidal grapes. Vidal is a French-American hybrid with good winter hardiness and a strong citral aroma. The nose of this wine takes on a soft sweetness which might be illustrated by that which distinguishes a Meyer lemon from a Genoa or Lisbon lemon. Now imagine a slice of Meyer lemon placed on a hot skillet.


Canadian Icewine is a fine illustration, particularly when compared to Sauternes, of how important it is to pair wines to desserts carefully. Crème brulee is the place where VQA Icewine and Sauternes intersect. Sauternes is not very good with fresh fruit; Icewine is. Sauternes is okay with milk chocolate; Icewine is not. So, for this Icewine I might try a crème brulee with a slice of perfectly ripe peach on top. But the best indication of how powerfully this Vidal Icewine comes across would be to serve it with a lemon tart. Believe me, it will pass the test.

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