Klein Constantia Restores African Wines Fit for Napoleon

Klein Constantia is overhauling its winery as the South African estate with roots reaching back to 1685 bids to emulate the style and success of wines of its halcyon days when aficionados included Napoleon.

Charles Harman, a former head of U.K. investment banking at JPMorgan Chase & Co, and Zdenek Bakala, co-founder of investment firm BXR, bought the estate in May 2011. “By the time the date of five years from our ownership comes, we will have really substantially changed Klein Constantia,” Harman said in an interview in London this month after the estate put the 2009 vintage of its flagship Vin de Constance on sale.

Klein Constantia is midway through an investment program that began in the Cape vineyards and is now focusing on the winery, replacing tanks and renewing some of the building, a process that will take about two years, Harman said. It aims to emulate Constantia wines of the original larger estate whose customers included the courts of Prussia’s Frederick the Great in the 18th century and France’s Louis Philippe in the 19th.

“The number one thing I’m looking for is freshness and elegance,” Matthew Day, the estate’s winemaker, said in an interview in London. “I’m just trying to lift those aromatics.”

Jane Austen

Klein Constantia, which harvested the 2009 vintage between January and late April in 25 separate batches, only makes Vin de Constance when quality is acceptable and has said it won’t produce a 2010 vintage. The wine is naturally sweet and has been made in its present form since 1986. It is created from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains grapes, which are left to dry on the vine before being hand-selected.

Two leading Bordeaux winemakers, Hubert de Bouard de Laforest and Bruno Prats, became co-investors in 2012, merging their Stellenbosch property Anwilka with the estate.

While Constantia has a storied past, its wines cited in the writings of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Charles Baudelaire, the estate was split up over the centuries and went through periods of neglect.

Winemaker Day said Vin de Constance has a unique style and doesn’t compete directly with sweet wines from producers such as Bordeaux’s Chateau d’Yquem. Still, the comparison is made.

“This is a startling, world-class wine that gives Yquem a run for its money,” wine critic Neal Martin wrote in a review of the 2007 vintage on Wine Advocate founder Robert Parker’s eRobertParker.com website, published in October last year.

Martin described that vintage as “probably the finest Vin de Constance to date,” with “an explosive bouquet,” Sauternes-like aromatics and “a bewitching sense of poise.”

Bordeaux Links

Of the owners, while Harman’s background is in banking, Bakala made his fortune in coal-mining and also ventured into media. De Bouard’s family owns Chateau Angelus in the Saint-Emilion region of Bordeaux, while Prats ran his family’s Saint-Estephe estate Chateau Cos D’Estournel for more than two decades.

A half-liter bottle of the 2008 Vin de Constance was retailing for $64.95 at Sherry-Lehmann in New York this month, according to www.wine-searcher.com, while a similar bottle of the 1995 vintage was on sale at Bibendum Fine Wine in London for 70 pounds ($114).

Klein Constantia also produces a range of wines from grapes including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

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