Tour Locations | Cellar Audio Guide: From Berry to Barrel to Bottle
LOCATION 2 | Cellar Audio Guide: From Berry to Barrel to Bottle
2. Grand Constance and Global Trade
NARRATOR: Fill the sails of your imagination, for a moment, with the trade winds of the 17 and 18 hundreds.
At Cape Town harbour, wooden ships with tall masts creak at their moorings. Below them, dock workers load and offload products from ports across Europe and Asia. In some shade nearby, self-important buyers look on, making sure that no damage is done to cargo they have purchased on behalf of a French, British, or Prussian king – cargo that probably includes a large consignment of Groot Constantia wine.
This is the world you see on the map in front of you, criss-crossed by the lines of a busy global trade – a global trade that extended as far as the Constantia Valley because of the sweet wine of Constantia, the wine you see in the other illustration on this sign.
To tell the story of these wines, we need to return the estate’s most celebrated owner – the owner I mentioned downstairs. His name was Hendrik Cloete, and he bought Groot Constantia in 1778.
Cloete’s predecessors had delegated the job of making its wine, but he took personal control, developing it into a tradition that continued through numerous generations of his own family and on to the present day.
In the 1800s, Constantia wine became the toast of Europe. Charles Dickens celebrated it in his novels and Jane Austen' recommended it as a cure for a broken heart.
Sense and Sensibility Excerpt: I have just recollected that I have some of the finest old Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted, so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! how fond he was of it ! Whenever he had a touch of his old colicky gout, he said it did him more good than anything else in the world.
NARRATOR: The French poet Charles Baudelaire compared Constantia wine to his lover‘s lips, and Napoleon Bonaparte ordered 30 bottles a month to ease his exile on St Helena. Frederick the Great was a customer, as was the French King Louis Phillipe, who bought the estate’s entire vintage in 1833.
Today, the Muscat grapes that are used to make Grand Constance grow in exactly the same fields as they did more than 300 years ago. According to the estate’s CEO, Jean Naude, it’s this remarkable continuity of tradition that defines Groot Constantia.
JEAN: It’s 330 years of heritage. During that time it produced wines that captured the imagination of people in Europe; kings and queens across the globe wanted wines from this estate. That’s the depth of this trademark…It captured the minds of all those important people 2, 3 centuries ago, and we still want to do that today.
NARRATOR: Now walk to your left, through the doorway and into the maturation cellar, filled with rows of perfectly stacked barrels. You’ll hear from me again in a moment.
[5 SECONDS SILENCE]
Look out over the sea of wooden barrels here. Every one of them was crafted out of French oak by French coopers practicing a craft that was formalised in the Middle Ages.
French barrels have been used at Groot Constantia since the very beginning. In South Africa’s warm climate, oak grows too quickly to be used for barrels. It’s too porous to hold liquid and too fragile to be bent into the right shape.
If we return for a moment to that tall ship at Cape Town harbour, with Grand Constance being loaded into its holds, it’s worth imagining barrels being offloaded too, after being tossed on the high seas on the journey over from France.
Can you see it? It’s a picture that gives you some sense of Groot Constantia’s value – and of the complex trade network that connected continents before steam power made the world much smaller.
Carry on along the walkway now. You’ll find a signboard with oak samples at the end of it. That’s our next stop, number 3.