CONSTANTIA, SOUTH AFRICA
Smoke hung over the Constantia Valley on a calm and unusually crisp early-March morning. A real feeling of autumn filled the air, but the fire burning 175 kilometres away in the Overberg was a reminder that it was, in fact, still summer. I was at Groot Constantia Wine Estate where the 2019 harvest was in full swing, and today the teams were busy picking Sémillon.
Walking between the tall vines I second guessed whether I was at the right location or not as there was a quiet eeriness in the air. My footsteps crunched over the leaf littered soil in the estates’ low lying vineyard block which is nestled deep in the Constantia suburbs. Finally I heard soft sounds of clippers snipping intermittently and then caught sight of feet shuffling in the adjacent row where the harvest team worked diligently at putting the best grapes in the buckets. I’d tagged along previously during harvesting of red varietals, Merlot more specifically, and that was a frenzied high-speed affair to my untrained eye. Within a short while those Merlot grapes had been harvested, tractor load after tractor load carted off to the cellar, and I walked away with a proper introduction to a wine harvest. What I witnessed here in this Sémillon vineyard block was calm efficiency, removing any inadequate grapes from every bunch to ensure that the quality of grape arriving at the cellar would be the standard that winemaker Boela Gerber desired for his award winning wines.
We all moved from one of the lowest vineyard blocks at Groot Constantia to one of the higher blocks as business with the Sémillon was complete. Sauvignon Blanc on the upper southeast facing slopes of Vlakkenberg was next in line to be harvested and by this time the sun was shining brightly with the cool air now warming and bone dry. Muizenberg Peak stood tall in the distance where the smoky haze obscured the turquoise waters of False Bay and my beloved Table Mountain was just over our shoulders.
After a brief pep talk the full team moved out and harvesting of this relatively small block was over in a flash…well, within a mere hour, and for me trying to photograph the process time appeared to fly by. The skill and efficiency that the harvest team possesses is certainly impressive to watch. More than 60 individuals play a hands-on role in the vineyard and this allows the sorting of grapes to be done in the field, not the cellar, another process aimed at maintaining high quality standards in the wine production at Groot Constantia. Harvesting white varietals require greater care in that the bunches often contain more ‘bad’ grapes when compared to red varietals such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon – where, as mentioned earlier, the harvesting speed is incredibly fast.
By late morning all the activity had moved to the heart of the estate where the crown jewel of Constantia lies…the Muscat de Frontignan vines. If I’d been impressed by the calm, measured harvesting of the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, I was in for a surprise! I had been told previously about just how involved the harvest process of the Muscat is…but witnessing it put into perspective just a glimpse of the hard work required to produce the Grand Constance natural sweet.
Daniel Thana walked off into the vineyard coming back a few minutes later gently carrying a handful of ripe, perfectly matured and shrivelled-up muscat grapes. Daniel, who had allowed me to mingle among the harvesting activities all morning, is part of the viticulture team under estate manager Floricius Beukes, and a regular face whenever I visit Groot Constantia.
The harvest team all hurriedly gathered to listen to Daniel brief them on the task at hand. These sugar loaded ‘raisins‘ need to be picked at just the right time and everyone looked closely at the picked examples, handling them to get a feel for just what was needed to land up in their little buckets. On any given bunch you’ll find unripened grapes, a few perfectly matured muscat raisins, and then those which have sadly passed their prime or succumbed to natural elements. I followed individuals of the harvesting team around the vineyard block adjacent to the historic old Groot Constantia gates, observing just how delicately they handled each bunch…looking for the perfect specimens. Colour, firmness (especially so) and texture are important cues for picking at the right stage of development for the natural sweet wine it will become. The sun was now baking as late morning approached midday and a gentle sea breeze longed-for by all. The breeze didn’t come but lunch under the oaks did, indicating my time to depart for the day. After nearly two hours of hard work the team has just one crate full of Muscat de Frontignan destined for the cellar…
The grapes I saw going from vine to cellar may end up in the 2019 vintage of the following superb Groot Constantia wines:
- Grand Constance – Driven by white Muscat de Frontignan grapes this natural sweet has a gorgeous amber colour with toffee and caramel on both the nose and palate. It makes a memorable gift or keep a bottle for a post-dinner glass when hosting a special family gathering.
- Sauvignon Blanc – A classic wine varietal from the Constantia region, Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc bursts with exquisite flavours, ripe summer fruit on the nose and a soft acidity.
- Gouverneurs Reserve White – This is a personal favourite in the Groot Constantia white wine range. The Sémillon driven Bordeaux-style white blend is so elegant and smooth with amazing herbal character.
*This is a personal account of my experience photographing the annual harvest in early March 2019.
By Justin Hawthorne