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Tuesday, June 15

Jane Austen and Wine: The Sweet Wines of Constantia

The English have been major consumers of wine since medieval times, like the wines from Bordeaux at the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Falstaff, the Shakespeare buffoon, consumed Madeira from Portugal and Jerez from Spain. During 1660/70 the English dominated the wine trade in Portugal. In 1795 they conquered the Cape Dutch and discovered sweet Constantia! To gain an idea of the importance of wine to Britain in the 1760s, Robert Dodsley, Londoner bookseller and responsible for Samuel Johnson's Great Dictionary, believed it was worthwhile to publish a record book of wineries: The Cellar-Book.

In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings, like every good soul, believes that is possible to cure all illness with a drop of any beverage - from water with sugar to wine. After Marianne's unfortunate encounter with Willoughby in London, she has a conversation with Elinor:

“My dear,” said she, entering, “I have just recollected that I have some of the finest old Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted, so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! how fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of his old colicky gout, he said it did him more good than any thing else in the world. Do take it to your sister.”

As Marianne was already asleep, Elinor, even amused at the vaunted efficiency of that wine for so many problems, decided to drink herself the wine, since she's also had her heart broken too!
Old bottle of Vin de Constance Image © Stiaan
The label states 1883 and 1821.

Short history of Constantia Wine

In 1659, two Dutchmen named Jan van Riebeeck and Hendrik Boom planted the first grapes in the Cape, South Africa. These vineyards were later acquired by Governor Simon van der Stel, who gave that name to the wine, probably in honor of the officer's granddaughter Company Dutch West Indies, Constantia van Goans, who granted him the farm - which is to say, almost the entire valley. When he died in 1712 the heirs divided the farm into lots to be sold.

Image from Cape Spirit

In 1778, Hendrik Cloete, the new owner began its effort to revive the plantations that were much neglected. The years 1800 to 1818 were the pinnacle of fame of the wine of Constantia. His sons inherited the property: Jacob Pieter got the party appointed Groot Constantia and Johan Gerhard Cloete got Klein Constantia, where he built the manor of the same name. Johan produced the wine until 1840 when he sold the property.

After this division, which remains to this day the estates were sold to various owners. The Groot Constantia has several wines using the words "Constantia" and "Constance" and Klein Constantia has a wine called "Vin de Constance," sweet wine that is a re-creation of old Constantia. These wines are now a days knowed as "cult wines".

During this period, the late 18th and early 19th, therefore the Jane Asuten Era, the vineyards and particularly the Old Constantia, or Vin de Constance was at the height of its fame. Here we can see that the Austen used to consume that finest wine.

Vin de Constance
Image: Cape Classics Picture Blog

Posted by Raquel Sallaberry, Jane Austen em Português

Published as "O bom e velho Constância" at Lendo Jane Austen

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Southerner said...

Raquel, what a wonderful post. I wonder how much a bottle would cost? I am sure a bottle from the time of Jane Austen would cost a small fortune.

One day, Vic, yourself and I, will have to sit down and drink a bottle of Constantia together, perhaps at Chawton.

Kelly said...

Thank you so much for this post -- and for so many others on your fascinating blog! My husband and I are going to a Jane Austen picnic in August and were trying to think of a wine to bring to have with dessert. Constantia will be perfect!

~ Kelly

Raquel said...


I think the new Vin de Constance it is not cheap but not too expensive.

A bottle? Oh, you remember me the young Lucas saying to Mrs. Bennet:

"If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy,[...] I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine every day."

I would love the ideia, Vic, you and me at Chawton!

Raquel said...


a Jane Austen picnic? With a glass of Vin de Constance. You are right. Perfect!

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