A moment with Constantia Glen’s Alexander Waibel

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Fine wine specialist Adam Holden catches up with Constantia Glen’s Alexander Waibel to get a taste for their wines, and their winemaking philosophy. 

It’s nine years since I made my first visit to Constantia Glen in South Africa’s Western Cape. They were quite new at the time. They made their first white in 2005, with the reds arriving in 2007. I was already in love with the wines which possessed an elegance I rarely found in South African reds. Now that they have grown up a bit I caught up with owner (Dr) Alexander Waibel to see what they’ve been up to.

Alex, your family bought the farm which is now Constantia Glen in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 2000 that you decided to start plant planting vines: what made you do it?

I grew up in a wine-loving family in Austria. It seems crazy to say it now – we used to have Ch. Lynch-Bages as a house wine! But, that was back when you could buy it for about 20 Shillings. Of course, this built an enduring love of Bordeaux. Constantia is South Africa’s oldest wine-producing region. It was a logical step to plant here and, as we looked in detail at the estate, we were more and more convinced that we had a unique opportunity here in the Cape. We wanted to produce elegant wines in the Bordeaux style. If we had thought that all we could succeed with was Shiraz, we wouldn’t have done it; I have European taste, and I wanted a wine to match.

Why is Constantia Glen so special?

All of Constantia benefits from its position between two oceans, which moderate the climate. The unique thing about our estate is that it sits in saddle between Constantiaberg and Table Mountain. This break in the hillside provides us with late afternoon sun. It gives perfect conditions for a long slow ripening of our black grapes. When the rest of the valley is in shadow, we get another hour of sun here. The fact that we have this unique position reinforces our philosophy that the wines are made in the vineyard, not the winery.

How would you define your two reds ‘Three’ and ‘Five’?

They represent our interpretation of Right and Left Bank Bordeaux. We make changes for the vintage conditions, so we don’t follow an exact recipe. The Three is always Merlot dominated with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Five, on the other hand, has all of five of the classic Bordeaux varietals but with Cabernet Sauvignon in top spot. Both wines have a significant proportion of Cabernet Franc in the blend, which is a variety I love. Luckily, our winemaker Justin [van Wyk] shares my enthusiasm! The Cab Franc brings a lot of the earthy complexity to the wines, as well as a floral note, and is a bit of a calling card for CG. The Five is built to age for 10-15 years; the Three will mature nicely for five or more years, but is very much ready to enjoy on release.

What’s changed since we first met in 2012?

Justin took over as head winemaker in 2011, so that would have been his first vintage in charge. At the time we were still finding our style and there was not such a big difference between the Three and the Five. Justin set us on the course to create two distinct personalities for the reds. He has been meticulously adjusting our oak programme over the years to get the right balance for each grape and each wine. Every year, we’re trying something different to bring out the best. We want the oak to complement the wines but never dominate; we want to taste the place, not the wood. The Cabernets in the Five can handle – and benefit more – from new oak than the Three. For the Three, we use a higher proportion of second-fill casks.

The last year has thrown up some real challenges. How have you been affected by the pandemic?

The first lockdown came towards the end of harvest last year, so we were suddenly without our seasonal workforce with 20 tonnes left to harvest. Everyone on the estate, from the Chef to the MD had to roll up their sleeves to bring it in. Since then, we’ve had to close our tasting room for much of the time. A a lot of our sales are cellar-door, so we’ve had a big drop. But, actually, there is a silver lining to this; we’ve had demand outstripping supply for years now. We’re taking the opportunity to get to a place where we were taking more control of the way we time releases.

What’s next?

We don’t have any grand plans, just continuously refining and improving what we do. I get approached about buying other wine estates in the Cape quite regularly. But we’re very happy with our perfect 60 hectares in Constantia. As I speak to you, it’s 23 degrees. I’m watching the sun set over False Bay enjoying a glass of 2017 Three.

At this point, with the image of a quite perfect evening in the Cape emblazoned on my mind, Alex’s wi-fi dropped, leaving me looking at the blank Zoom screen. Thankfully, a corkscrew and a bottle of CG’s finest have the magical ability to bring that South African sunshine just a little bit closer. 

You can find out more about Constantia Glen’s wines here.

Category: New World

The story behind our No.3 London Dry Gin

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A photo of our No.3 London Dry Gin, alongside a gin cocktail, slices of orange, juniper berries and cardamom, which are a few of the key ingredients in our spirit

Ross Bryant, Brand Ambassador of our No.3 London Dry Gin, speaks to us about the story behind one of our flagship spirits, and why it captures the essence of gin “just as it should be”.

Crafted from juniper berries, citrus and spice, our No.3 London Dry Gin is today one of our flagship spirits. Its life began in 2008, when Simon Berry – our former Chairman – challenged the Spirits team to create “the world’s best gin” – one which would blend beautifully in cocktails.

“It was no easy task, as you can imagine,” says Ross Bryant, Brand Ambassador of No.3 Gin, “but that was the start of a two-year journey to create the perfect gin.”

The ingredients of gin

The first recorded gin recipe dates to 1495, documented in a Dutch cookbook now belonging to the British Library. The recipe lists a “botanical spirit distilled from wine”, with copious amounts of spices which, at the time, would have arrived in the Netherlands via the Silk Road: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, amongst many others.

Lists of ingredients have changed throughout the centuries, however the inclusion of one key ingredient is undisputable: juniper. This is the botanical which gives gin its name, shortened from the Dutch jenever, from the Latin juniperus.

In later centuries, the establishment of the East India Trading Company meant that spices from afar became easier to procure. “Fast forward to 18th century London, and exotic botanicals were now more widely available,” says Ross. “Citrus, not historically available on our shores, became a mainstay in many gin recipes.”

As production methods became more sophisticated in the 19th century, a new style evolved, leading to the category of London Dry Gin. Juniper became the leading ingredient, balanced with citrus and root spice. Our No.3 London Dry Gin remains true to this style.

As Ross puts it, “No.3 is created with three flavour profiles: juniper, citrus and spice. It’s about simplicity, balance and quality.” Our gin is distilled from Italian juniper berries, Uruguayan grapefruit peel, Spanish orange peel, Guatemalan cardamom, Bulgarian coriander and Polish angelica root.

Gin at Berry Bros. & Rudd

“To create our No.3 London Dry Gin, we partnered with Royal De Kuyper Distillers in Schiedam,” says Ross. “As Holland is the birthplace of gin, it seemed like the right place to begin. Like us, they’re a family-owned company with a rich heritage; the still we use is over 100 years old, and it’s used solely for the production of No.3.”

We originally started selling gin in the late 1940s, when we first introduced what was then known as Berry’s Own Gin. “This was something like the Good Ordinary Claret of gin: a great product at an attractive price point,” explains Ross. “It fell out of production in the 1950s, leaving only one bottle behind. From this remaining example, we reconstructed the recipe to create the Berry Bros. & Rudd London Dry Gin which we now sell as part of our Classic range.

What’s different about our No.3 Gin is the painstaking work that went into refining it. We collaborated with Dr David Clutton – the only person with a PhD in gin – and top bartenders such as Alessandro Palazzi from Duke’s Bar in Mayfair.

Today, we’re proud to have been awarded the World’s Best Gin four times at the International Spirits Challenge.

The design of No.3 London Dry Gin

The bottle of our No.3 London Dry Gin is striking in its design: tall, bold and aquamarine, embossed with a silver key.

“The key on the bottle is modelled on the key to the Parlour, one of the rooms at the back of the No.3 building. Many important decisions were taken in this room, including the one to create this gin.”

One of the factors which marks us apart is our collaboration with artist and photographer Justin Zoll. The artwork features rich, kaleidoscopic colours which are derived from the magnified crystals of our No.3 Gin.

Ross says, “Justin took a sample of our No.3 Gin, froze it, then placed it under a microscope. The result is a beautifully abstract world: a dramatic landscape of colour within the finer details… We like to champion artists in other fields who share our ethos of precision and perfection.”

It’s now been over a decade since we first released our No.3 London Dry Gin. Crisp, refreshing and refined, we think our timeless gin encapsulates everything the spirit should stand for.

Category: Spirits

What to drink in 2021: Bordeaux

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Bordeaux 2021
Photograph: Jason Lowe

Our Cellar Plan Manager, Tom Cave, offers his thoughts on the best Claret for drinking this year.

I hope 2020 provided you with some fine drinking and that Bordeaux featured prominently. It was certainly reassuring to see so many customers withdrawing treasured cases, perhaps earlier than they might have. After all, “‘tis the cask, not the coffer, that holds the true wealth” as Vintners sing after every dinner.

Bordeaux vintages to drink now

Starting with ’00, this once mildly derided millennium vintage has firmly seen off its detractors. It shines as a seriously good year to drink now, and many have a rich future ahead. That is, as any mentioned here, for those châteaux making wines of the calibre to age.

The rewarding ’01s filled in more than competently while ’00 slumbered. These wines remain in a good place, but it’s a year to be getting on with. It’s the same for the ’02s, which in many cases have proved more successful than first mooted.

The writer remains no admirer of ’03, a torrid year of relentless heat. There are always exceptions and some – mostly from St Estèphe where the soil held more hydration – have fared better. Nevertheless, don’t hold on for any longer.

The ’04s were high-yielding. Their lack of ripeness peaks through a little too prominently in many cases; the initial fruit has taken on more savoury notes. There’s no tearing urgency, but you’d best be well into any you might have.

Bordeaux 2005 and beyond

There’s more cheer, thankfully, from ’05. For many of my generation of the trade, this was our first “great” vintage to taste from cask. It will always be close to our hearts. Fifth growths are well into a most agreeable drinking window, as indeed are many classified higher. These aren’t aggressively tannic wines, and many at this grade are crying out for deserved attention and subsequent fulfilment.

The ’06 vintage is more inconsistent. The wines are often plump, if sometimes a little on the rustic side. Best to drink up those other than the higher-grade wines where a little more time is required. The weak ’07s are behind us.

With ’08, there are highs and lows – and generally more highs to be found on the Right Bank, notably St Emilion and Pomerol. A vintage surrounded by more well-regarded years – ’05, ’09 and ’10 – will always throw up challengers. But again, as time rolls on it’ll likely go deeper into the shade compared to its peers. It’s no harm at all to be making a start on most of these.

An excellent duet: 2009 and 2010

That excellent duet, ’09 and ’10, prevail as two of the “greats”. The ’09s are the more approachable, up to second growth level. The sturdier ’10s can be broached up to classified growth standard, but hold any higher than that for now.

Comparing ’09 and ’10 will be an ongoing pleasure. What follows are four less easy-to-assess years. Though, again, it’s worth remembering while less notable vintages will reveal stars, they on the whole make better drinking sooner than later.

Less than ideal: 2011, 2012, 2013

The ’11 vintage saw a return to less-than-ideal conditions. The wines have shown more tannic structure than some care for; more time will tell on those that succeeded. It’s not an easy vintage to judge; these wines can hark back to a time when grippy, gritty vintages like this were more frequent.

Likewise, ’12 suffered from poor weather conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon – the Médoc’s backbone – was hit the hardest. Vintages like this have less of an effect on the châteaux that can afford rigorous selection. Those that couldn’t – those at the more modest end of the scale – will reveal any charm early.

Simply put, ’13 was a poor year. Drink them up while they retain charm; dependable properties will have made attractive wines to be drunk now.

Onwards and upwards

This run of mediocrity finished with ’14. These are shaping up well; you can rest assured of many good bottles to come.

Vintages ’15 and ’16 see us return to two fine years that’ll provide much debate as to which is the preferred. It’s somewhat akin to ’09 and ’10. The ’16s revel in wonderful balance and a mass of deep, dark fruit. This is shaping up to be a genuinely classical Bordeaux vintage – and one I tip with the most confidence of all recent years. Most ’15s are not far behind in quality. Both need more time to evolve.

From a weaker year, the ’17s are ideal candidates for early drinking. In fact, some are downright delicious: go to them.

Heat is the governing issue with ’18, yet winemakers are learning fast to cope with this – and not just in Bordeaux. The wines are on the showy side, their alcohol-by-volume creeping ever higher. They are perhaps more akin to the New rather than Old World, but that’s not to put them down in any way. Time will tell.

The well-priced ’19s are ripe without being too ripe. These are amiable wines, sold En Primeur during lockdown last year to an eager market short on cheer. We can be assured they will provide for us as we look ahead a decade or two.

Earlier this year, Tom offered his recommendations on the best Vintage Port to drink now.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Our neighbours: John Lobb

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John Lobb, our neighbour in St James's
In the last article of our series for the autumn/winter issue of No.3 magazine, we follow in the footsteps of St James’s most well-heeled gentlemen to speak to Jonathan Lobb, of the eponymous shoemaker.

For many in St James’s, doing business is very much a family affair. “I’m trained as a last maker and master craftsman at John Lobb,” says Jonathan Lobb, “but I’m also a director along with my two brothers, and my father is currently chairman.”

Carrying on the esteemed Lobb name – personally, as well as in business terms – must bring its own pressures, but Jonathan looks at it simply. “Obviously, the whole climate has changed around us. But we’ve carried on doing what we do in essentially the same way it was done when he founded the company.”

On doing business in St James’s…

“Our company has been in existence since 1849, which is when John Lobb became master craftsman. He went on to open up a shop in Australia, made his reputation over there, and off the back of that he came back to London and set up shop in about 1866 in Regent Street, and we’ve kept the business going in the family ever since.”

On the area’s unique atmosphere…

“I’d put the Palaces at the heart of St James’s, but then you have all these nooks and crannies. I generally tell people to take a step back and look at the actual buildings, and there are certain buildings that have been standing for such a long time. I’ve worked here for the best part of 30 years. I suppose when you’re younger you don’t think about it so much, but as you get older you actually appreciate the history and the way things change. And the fact that certain things haven’t changed and have continued gives you a certain feeling of responsibility.”

On the St James’s community…

“When you’re established for a long time it gives you a sense of pride, and it’s something you want to maintain and continue, so you’re very much part of the fabric of St James’s. We all run very independently, but the businesses here are all conscious of the fact we exist and the fact that we’re together – that certainly creates a sense of community. We have the Royal Warrants, and the connection with the Palaces and the Royal Household, so we’re very much connected to that sort of community.”

How is the area changing and adapting?

“As an independent business, you won’t survive if you don’t give your customers what they want, so you have to be flexible and adaptable. Although our craft is an old one, which stretches back centuries, what we produce is very relevant and very contemporary.”

You can read more about our neighbours in St James’s here.

Category: Miscellaneous