Steenberg re-visited

In the continuing tsunami of new wine producers and labels, keeping up to date with those who made their name many years ago isn’t easy.

An invitation from Steenberg’s winemaker, JD Pretorius, for a catch-up tasting and lunch was both timely and welcome.

I’d forgotten what a comprehensive range comes from this cellar at the southern end of Constantia valley: even tasting 15 wines meant one or two were left out. Pretorius, one of the nicest guys involved in wine, has been at Steenberg for nine years and one has the feeling he’s got his finger on the pulse pretty well across the board. As he would need to; against the general grain, 2017 delivered the biggest crop off the farm ever; in all, 1200 tons were processed in a 900 ton cellar!

The MCC bubblies remain unfairly unsung, the main acclaim falling on the sauvignon blancs. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of consumer fans, which is what really matters. Of course, the bubblies are excellent; Pretorius is as enthusiastic about the style as is previous Cellarmaster and more recently MD, John Loubser, who originally honed his skills at Graham Beck (Steenberg is part of the Graham Beck stable). Loubser leaves this month to concentrate on his own MCC label, Silverthorn.

Steenberg Brut Chardonnay NV is now given a year on the lees rather than nine months and more interesting for it. Although it has a riper feel, the dosage is exactly the same – 8 grams – as in the apparently much drier Pinot Noir Brut 2015, my favourite. A delicate coppery pink, with sour cherry, raspberry flavours, rather than sweet strawberries, it’s full of attraction. The newish flagship, Lady R, 2011 the current vintage, is a 70/30 pinot noir/barrel-fermented chardonnay blend. Disgorged some 18 months ago, it’s still as fresh as a daisy. Freshness and delicacy are hallmarks of today’s quality MCCs; admiration for the more oxidative style has thankfully all but disappeared.

Old & new Steenberg labels. Catharina white (l), a prototype of Magna Carta (r). The then golden swan much resembling an award!

If the Chardonnay Brut NV is a popular seller, the Estate Sauvignon Blanc, around 140 000 bottle production, faces such unprecedented demand, 2017 is already on the market. There was a time the farm bit the bullet, holding it back for a year; sadly, that’s no longer possible. Steenberg’s sauvignon reputation is endorsed in the oaked Rattlesnake 2016; a drop of semillon enriches the texture, the focus of attention rather than fruit, it’s a great partner for food. As is Black Swan 2016 (R195), the original Reserve, still, I was surprised to learn, from the original 1989 vineyard, which was going to be uprooted due to uneconomic yields. Through careful farming, 2 tons/ha has grown to 6 tons/ha and, thank goodness the vineyard remains. This is steely, lees enriched, unfruity sauvignon at its best with years of ageing potential.

The jewel in the crown belongs to Magna Carta (R545) a judiciously oaked sauvignon/semillon blend introduced with 2007 (but not made every year); the latest, 2015 is as excellent as the vintage promised and in more classic mode than some of the other bright-fruited, cool climate blends.

Reds have fought their own corner, Steenberg Merlot in particular often the focus of attention, mainly because of its ‘love-it or hate-it’ minty features. The current 2014 curiously shows very little of this character, yet amusingly, Stately Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz 2015, one of three non-estate wines, where grapes are drawn from Darling and Helderberg, has a distinct mintiness!

But this was nebbiolo’s day and the second time Tim and I have tried 2015 (R255) recently; it also impressed at our new releases tasting a couple of weeks ago and must be the best vintage from this property. Herman Hanekom, viticulturist in the farm’s early days, would be delighted to hear this; in his enthusiasm for the variety he suggested it be planted.

Those vines are now 23 years old and showing their mettle; the wine has lovely purity in its tar and floral aromas, with great freshness and attack, but still more accessible than in its homeland of Piedmont.

Looking through my notes, I’ve frequently recorded the use of larger and less new oak barrels, both benefitting the wines. The nebbiolo was in 500 litre, just 10% new.

What there isn’t less of is the number of happy customers; Bistro 1682, where Kerry Kilpin does more than justice to her previous mentor, the excellent Franck Dangereux at Foodbarn, was packed and, according to Pretorius, it’s like that every day. No surprise to learn then that sales are pretty equally divided between the farm itself, locally and exports.

Over lunch discussion turned in many directions, including the new District WO Cape Town, something Pretorius says is unlikely to be used by producers in Constantia. ‘Firstly, so many have Constantia as part of their name; many also used the Constantia molded bottle,’ he explains, ‘which would preclude the use of WO Cape Town.’

From WOs to water and power. Unlike the Graham Beck Robertson operation, where roof space and access to sufficiently long sunlight allows for solar power, Steenberg’s structure and positioning underneath the mountain do not. Water is another matter. Pretorius tells me three, old 35 000 litre stoog vats are being epoxied and will catch rainwater from the roof, enough to provide for the cellar, tasting room and restaurant. There are also thoughts of making the toilet plumbing more water efficient and re-cycling waste from the cellar.

Pretorius won’t be asked to add the admin required of a GM to his portfolio, there is to be some sharing out of these duties; a good thing, leaving him to focus his very capable eye on the large, overall sound wine range with more than a few brilliant stars.

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