From American shipwrecks to European Castles: The search that shaped the Grand Constance bottle

In Sometimes it takes science to make magic I shared the story of how Groot Constantia’s winemaker, Boela Gerber, settled on the formula for making the Grand Constance wine of today.

To honour the ‘Constantia Wyn’ legacy, the Grand Constance would be presented in a bottle that was as historically accurate as possible. “Jean [Naudé, CEO of the Groot Constantia] and I were both curious and hands on,” explained Boela. “It took us quite a few years… at least five years.” As he related their journey to find the right size and shape, I realised that this chapter of the Grand Constance story was a puzzle with pieces scattered all over the world.

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The first clue was a seal stamped with the words ‘Constantia Wyn’ and a photograph of a bottle with a similar seal from a Maritime Museum in Delaware on the East Coast of the United States. The second clue was shards of glass that the museum traced to the cargo of the Severn which was stranded on the beach at Lewis in the Delaware Bay in 1774. After scouring the internet, Boela discovered an intact bottle with the same seal in Paris but was unable to secure any further information from the owner.

From this one photograph, an engineering firm in Durbanville redesigned the Grand Constance bottle. The next decision was what size the bottle should be. Further research revealed that despite their different shapes, wine bottles from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s were all around 340ml. In the end they settled on a standardised 375ml bottle.

Initially local and international glass blowers were approached to recreate the bottle, but no one felt up to the task. Afterall, as Boela said, if the label says 375ml then it had better be 375ml. Eventually the bottle was produced by one of the biggest local glass manufacturers.

bottle today

The Grand Constance was launched (or perhaps we could say relaunched) in 2010 and generated a significant amount of local and international interest. Boela received emails from Belgium, Sweden and Germany regarding wine bottles with similar ‘Groot Constantia Wyn’ seals.

Groot Constantia Seals

Groot Constantia Seals

The seal from Germany was unearthed in an excavation in Meiningen and was evidentaly far older that the other examples. The Belgium bottles were discovered in 2011 in the cellar of a castle near Namur that dates back to the period between 1760 – 1840. The bottle from Sweden was found at the bottom of the ocean near Stockholm by a diver in the 1940’s.

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While the seals on the bottles showed that they were made by different producers, the Belgium and Swedish bottles looked very similar to each other, and most importantly, very similar to the “new” Grand Constance bottle albeit with a much longer neck.

Recently an extremely rare Grand Constance bottle from the 1821 vintage returned home to Groot Constantia and can be viewed in the Cloete Cellar. Read more about this historic homecoming here.

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Written by Kim van Niekerk
Photos by Heinrich Knoetze

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