Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Groot Constantia

The menu called it “the wine that seduced the crowned heads of Europe, consoled Napoleon in exile, and was featured in the novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Baudelaire [sic]. Produced from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, this is a bold, rich, honeyed wine without the botrytis usually found in this style...Former President Nelson Mandela has been known to enjoy this wine.” I copied it down in the dining car somewhere near Beaufort West, ordered a second glass, and made a mental note to go to Groot Constantia when at length I returned to Cape Town—and upon my return to New Haven, Connecticut, to check up on those wonderful but slightly improbable claims.

How delightful to discover that it is all quite true. Frederick the Great definitely drank it. So did King Louis-Philippe, the Prince Regent, King William IV, and Queen Victoria also. The order books have survived. Such was its fame, Constantia made it into successive editions of The Child’s Book of Knowledge (1828). On St. Helena Count de Las Cases supplied Bonaparte with “vin de Constance,” something that so irritated the Governor that the count was eventually ordered off the island. This cannot have led Jane Austen (in Sense and Sensibility, 1811) to make Mrs. Jennings recommend to the lovelorn Marianne Dashwood a glass of the finest old Constantia wine for “its healing powers on a disappointed heart.” (“My poor husband! how fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of his old cholicky gout, he said it did him more good than anything else in the world.” Elinor Dashwood drinks it instead.) I do wonder, though, if just conceivably De Las Cases actually got his bright idea from Mrs. Jennings, a suitably romantic twist in the otherwise hard-nosed commercial environment of the Cape.

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), “whenever the Reverend Septimus fell a-musing, his good mother took it to be an infallible sign that he ‘wanted support,’ the blooming old lady made all haste to the dining-room closet, to produce from it the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit,” definitely not a marie. In Les fleurs du mal, meanwhile (XXVI “Sed non satiata,” 1857), Baudelaire says he prefers the mouth of his lover over the fine vintages of Constantia, Nuits St. Georges, and opium: “Je prefere au constance, a l’opium, aux nuits, / L’elixir de ta bouche ou l’amour se pavane.” Too creepy.

The whole question is academic. The Klein Constantia that Frederick, Napoleon, Prinny, Louis-Philippe, Austen, Queen Victoria, Baudelaire, and Dickens knew, or thought they knew, was obliterated at the end of the nineteenth century by the scourges of, first, oïdium, swiftly followed by phylloxera. The wine we drink today is a reconstruction, though certainly a delicious one.

Alas, this great house of neighboring Groot Constantia burned to the ground in the 1920s, so it too is a reconstruction, but very effective and moving nonetheless. But for a grumpy alpha male baboon, I was quite alone there.

The well-proportioned rooms are kitted out with mostly Cape Dutch furnishings in yellowwood, beefwood, satinwood, Burmese teak, amboina, ebony, elmwood, mahogany, and stinkwood (I am not kidding), as well as various early colonial pictures that come from elsewhere, above all from the collection of Alfred de Pass.

And it is through the pictures that one question above all swims into vivid focus: How was it possible that a setting as physically spectacular as that of the Cape of Good Hope, and the incomparable profiles of Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, and the Twelve Apostles, consistently failed to lift the local landscape painters to more and better results? It seems almost perverse, but more often than not eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century views across Table Bay reduce these sublime features to the character of a lumpy hillock, or a small gravel quarry in Derbyshire. Even William Hodges seems to have had considerable trouble capturing the effect. Maybe that is the answer: Some places simply defy representation, unless you are Albert Bierstadt.

On the other hand, look at the glorious proportions and sculptural vigor of Groot Constantia. Not bad for a colonial farmhouse at the farthest edge of the globe. It is in places such as this that you discover what is surprisingly scarce in the Cape, namely an adequate receptacle of any sort of aesthetic excitement among the earliest colonists. Held in check by such austere forms of Protestantism as they brought with them from Holland, those industrious East India Company people seem to have channeled everything into built forms, mostly gables, perfectly-proportioned windows and shutters; Cape silver, and successive vintages of sweet Klein Constantia, thank goodness.

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