Vintage variation

At the recent Steenberg Long Lunch, a colleague asked me if it’s possible to give a collective vintage description for South Africa’s white wines. Whew, that’s some task, considering it would encompass areas as diverse as Swartland and Elim and varieties spanning riesling to chenin blanc. Yet it’s something I attempt every year, along with red wines, when I write up the briefest of vintage reports for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide.

Some vintages are much easier to gauge than others. For instance, 2009 is an acknowledged quality, ageworthy year for both white and red, balance perhaps being the overall positive (we’re talking about top-of-the-ladder quality, though the more commercial level should also reflect some of the general characteristics); 2010 is more difficult – there are some stupendous wines but many were picked too late, so are over-ripe; angularity is a problem in others – and so on.

But each vintage will always throw up exceptions. Vintages on that Long Lunch table were 2013 and 2012. The former has always struck me as enjoying a wealth of fruit but so far the jury’s out on ageing potential. The older vintage is the opposite: structure being the defining feature.

So do the new Steenberg vintages exemplify these generalisations? Steenberg BlackSwan 2012

Black Swan, which replaced the old Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, is a very different wine from its forbear in that it is drawn from three different vineyards; the remainder of the original Reserve block plus two younger ones and in 2013 includes 10% unwooded semillon. This is one serious sauvignon, deliberately styled to age, which the Reserve did so well. So it is much more contained than many, more obviously fruity wines but in its underlying richness, there is plenty of flavour, which will be revealed over the next – perhaps – two or three years and further. A lovely, elegant wine and good value for R165.

Dare I venture that thanks to the introduction of other vineyards, it’s better than the old, single vineyard, Reserve? For me it certainly is. Single vineyard wines have become quite the trend since they became a legal entity, but I often wonder how many actually deliver something sufficiently distinguished to warrant the label. The early harvest got in the way of the article I still intend writing on this subject.

Steenberg’s varietal Semillon 2013 (I’m so glad it’s still part of the range) does better fit my vintage description in its great fruit purity – fragrant tangerine, lemon grass, honey with a cool climate dusty overlay – but it also has the structure and concentration to age well. It says much for the benefits of larger (500 and 600 litre) oak, just 35% new; enrichment without dominance.

Magna Carta, the flagship blend of sauvignon (60%) and semillon (40%), clearly reflects the structure of 2012. Primary, tight and sturdy build are my first impressions; only after an hour or so do the familiar lemon grass, citrus peel and herby notes begin to break loose. It should benefit from a good many years (3-5) to get into its impressive stride. Context came from the maiden 2007, where part of the wine was barrel fermented but not aged, so it’s leaner with more exaggerated green pea features (that’s taking into account 2007 was anyway a cooler year), and a quite glorious 2011, an elegant, seamless flow of textured liquid.

Steenberg Magna Carta 2007 (l), 2012 (r) and 2015 in the sorbet!
Steenberg Magna Carta 2007 (l), 2012 (r) and 2015 in the sorbet!

It was gratifying to see the two 2013 reds – Catharina and Nebbiolo – live up to my fruit definition. For those who don’t like the mint which is a trademark of Steenberg’s merlot, Catharina shows not a whiff of it, despite that grape’s 61% contribution to the blend; cabernet and shiraz (5%) complete the varietal trio. ‘Water stress or gum pollen,’ are JD Pretorius’s suggestions for origin of that recognisable mint. Both are wines of charm and ready drinkability.

Pretorius did tell us that there’ll be no 2014 Magna Carta, which does confirm the challenges that vintage presented but it should make a notable return with the 2015 (although, interestingly, Pretorius rates 2009 as a vintage above 2015) Whatever, a case was again made for Steenberg’s real strength lying in its white wines.

Kerry Kilpin, new chef at Steenberg's Bistro 1685
Kerry Kilpin, new chef at Steenberg’s Bistro 1685

Except now, its other real strength lies in Kerry Kilpin, new chef at Bistro 1685 (after 12 years working with Franck Dangereux, so with excellent credentials), who kept our tastebuds singing with her dishes, along with Pretorius’s wines.

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