Klein ConstantiaPortrait of a winemaker

Discover the history of Klein Constantia, its wines, passions & tradition. Anna Caidan meets Matt Day, chief winemaker at Klein Constantia
2019-11-01
Wine Story

What could you tell me about the history of Klein Constantia?

‘How much time do you have?! Klein Constantia was founded in 1685 as part of the Constantia Valley by Simon van der Stel. In those days it was the very first commercial vineyard in the New World of winemaking, and no one realises that it was South Africa that started this. Simon van der Stel was the governor of the Cape and wanted to have an experimental vineyard so to do that, he sent out all of his servants to serve the soil and the land, and they went as far back to Europe and had them tested and analysed so he started the vineyards.

This was all before South America, Napa and before Bordeaux is the Bordeaux we know it as today, then you fast forward about 50 years and it was a guy called Johan Gerhard Cloete started making the sweet wine Constantia, so that's what we became known for, the Vin de Constance and the only reason it became famous in the old days, is just because it had so much sugar and the sugar meant that it was a preservative that could last for a very long time, it lasted the voyage back to Europe as opposed to a normal dry wine which would oxidise quite quickly, so immediately we had Kings and Queens and aristocracy! The people that we like to brag about are Napoleon, Charles Dickens wrote about it, Jane Austen, Thomas Edison, George Washington, all these really cool fancy people in those days used to get the sweet wine of Constantia, and you can picture why because it's from the deepest darkest Africa and they're drinking the rarest wine in the world so it was the most sought after wine at the time.

We stopped making wine in 1885 and we only started making it in 1986 again so there was a massive period that we didn't make any wine, we sold the grapes off, and the farm split up and were inherited by two brothers, and the younger brother, got the winery. Most people thought it was because of phylloxera, but it wasn't, it was the English stock that took over the Dutch and they took over the free trade agreement, so they stopped buying Constantia wines and in my opinion that's when the French wines became famous! The other reason is that they abolished slavery, so there wasn't that ability to make wine cheaply anymore, so became very expensive, very sought after, very difficult to do so that they just stop doing it for a long time.

Current day we were founded in 1980 by the Jooste family they were just really happy to get a beautiful site just outside of Cape Town, so we're on the foothills of Table Mountain. They bought the land not knowing the true potential, and there was a guy called Professor Orferr, from the University of Stellenbosch who came up with the idea of recreating the sweet wine Constantia, and that's what they did. They went all out to make the sweet Vin de Constance, as we call it today. The 1986 was their first vintage but they never sold it they just gave it away as gifts to a whole lot of people. Fast forward to today, we are still doing it. We have done a hell of a lot of vintages of it now, and our goal at Klein Constantia is to focus of two things; make Vin de Constance the best sweet wine in the world and make one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world.’

What is your favourite step in the winemaking process?

‘That’s a tough question! So my journey as a winemaker started from being a cellar hand, where you clean the tank, scrub the floors, all the hard work, then I became assistant winemaker, I did all the same things, I clean the tanks, I clean scrub the floor, I did all the hard work, and now I'm the winemaker I still do the same things! So, the best step in the wine making process is actually getting your hands dirty, having fun, doing something that you're passionate about and making a product that's awesome. The actual hard work that goes into harvest is important, I mean 3 months a year you don't see us, we start working at 3:30 in the morning and work until late at night so we become hermits I guess and have fun!’

What is the secret to making Klein Constantia wines?

‘The secret is basically focus, so we are focusing on what we're good at we've got great terroir, the vineyards are perfectly suited to making really good Sauvignon Blanc and if you focus on what you're good at, you can do a great job!’

What is your best memory since working at Klein Constantia?

‘There's a lot! So my job interview at Klein Constantia was quite cool, I had made wine as a student near Stellenbosch, I literally bought a barrel and bought some grapes and made a barrel of Shiraz, I then worked in Australia while it was ageing, got back and I bottled the wine and 2 weeks later I had a job interview at Klein Constantia, and for my job interview I walked in with a Magnum of Shiraz that I'd made and put it on the table and I said “Try my wine if you like it give me the job, if not we can carry on with the interview!” So, I got the job and I've been there ever since! I've been lucky enough to try the 1791 Sweet Wine de Constantia, and 2 years ago we opened two bottles of 1885 and they were incredible! That you can't look past!’

What has been your most challenging moment?

‘My most challenging moment in making wine is that I have to deal with staff on a daily occasion, and you have to become very good with people skills and managing people, and it's not really what I studied to do, and that's not what I'm passionate about, but I still have to do it, so working with people and reprimanding people all those kind of things but we have to do it!’

How would you describe your wines in three words?

‘Pure, balanced and not overly sweet!’

What makes your wines different from others in the region?

‘We have a massive passion to take something along to the next level and we're one of the only producers in Constantia that is doing a big focus on Sauvignon Blanc. The wines works there because we have east facing vineyards and south facing vineyards and we have a slope that is pretty steep, we go from 70 metres right the way to 320 meters above sea level so we have a little pocket of terroir that is completely different to anyone else and it's perfectly suited for making Sauvignon Blanc, whereas the other guys in the region specialise in Shiraz, Viognier, Bordeaux blends, Nebbiolo, so we're all quite different!’

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