Qvevri and Klein Constantia 30 October 2019

The line-up of wines on my tasting bench appeared almost a coincidence: they had arrived from the producers’ cellars a couple of days earlier, and because they were not destined for blind tasting they were put out alongside each other. Three were from Fairview, the final one from Klein Constantia. The Fairview wines were all part of a new passion of the ever-creative Charles Back: vinification in the most ancient of all winemaking vessels, Georgian qvevri (or kvevri). The Klein Constantia was the latest release (the 2016) of the estate’s most famous wine, the Vin de Constance.

The juxtaposition was thought-provoking. Wine has been made and buried in qvevri for at least 2600 years. Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance is certainly South Africa’s oldest wine brand from our earliest area of origin – it’s as original as any post-medieval wine. Before qvevri – and perhaps leading to the idea of qvevri – grapes would have been left to decay in clay vessels, and the resulting juice extracted before the flies and oxygen had turned all of it to vinegar. Before Vin de Constance became the most famous wine on the planet – fetching more on auction than even the best known French examples – origin and authenticity counted for little in the world of wine.

I first encountered fermentation in terracotta amphorae at Quinta do Carmo in Alentejo in Portugal almost 30 years ago. In the days before temperature-controlled vinifications the insulating properties of the clay played an important role in warmer climate regions.  Unlike the Georgians, the Portuguese didn’t bury their terracotta vessels and they chose to leave the top of the pot open to allow the carbon dioxide gas to escape. They also transferred the wine to barrel as soon as the fermentation was complete.

The Georgians didn’t have barrels, and archaeological evidence suggests that the original winemakers were migrants. Presumably they returned many months later, exhumed their qvevri, separated the wine from the pomace of skins, pips and stalks, and then consumed it. Some modern day Georgians still persist in using this original “Kakhetian” production method; others have chosen to make less tannic and less chewy wines.

You may ask what would possess any 21st century winemaker to revert to a style which was last fashionable when Nebuchadnezzar ruled over Babylon. The answer is that skin-contact white wine is now very much a la mode and careful qvevri vinification achieves an extraordinary purity. Charles Back traveled to Georgia to know more about how the wines were made, and to source a container-load of qvevri for his Paarl winery. All of the current release Fairview Obscura wines are now made in the Georgian style.

There are two whites (a semillon and a blend) and one red. The semillon’s cut-hay aromas have clearly been magnified by the vinification method. The white blend is richer and less edgy, delivering a faintly sherry-like bouquet and a fuller mouthfeel. The red is surprisingly fresh, with crushed berry notes and a Beaujolais-like zestiness. All three are intriguing: they are certainly not intended for everyday quaffing (the R180 – R280 price-point should make clear) but if you are in a wine-geeky mood, you’ll find them aesthetically engaging.

And so to the latest (2016) Vin de Constance – the 5th vintage since the estate came under new ownership. It may be the best of the modern era. The muscat notes are subdued, but very present, the fruit quality is hauntingly precise, the sweetness so well contained in the tensioned freshness that at times it seems almost evanescent. It’s perfectly delicious – which poses something of a problem: Vin de Constance is pretty much immortal. I’ve sampled several 18th century bottles and I was also recently part of the team which recorked three relatively modern (1821) ones.

If you really want to drink the 2016 at its peak, perhaps you should begin harvesting your stem cells: you’ll need all the elixirs of modern medicine to keep going till the latter part of the 22nd century.

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