Sunday 1 January 2017
Steenberg was the first wine estate I visited in South Africa. I have been back many times and it never disappoints. My partner and I are currently visiting all the Constantia Valley vineyards. Steenberg was one of the few to open on New Years’ Day.
I read through the tasting menu and accompanying literature as we arrived. It surprised me to learn that Steenberg (not Groot Constantia) is South Africa’s oldest vineyard. It was founded in 1682 by Catharina Ustings Ras, a German immigrant to the Cape Dutch Colony, on land leased from Simon van der Stel. Many changes have taken place over successive years and generations.
The Steenberg (literally ‘Mountain of Stone’) estate now sits near the base of Ou Kaapse Weg at between 60m and 150m above sea level. The 60 hectares under vine are predominantly planted with white grape varieties (70%), mainly Sauvignon Blanc (64%) but also Sémillon (6%). The red varieties include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (Syrah). The estate is also one of the few to have invested in the Italian red variety Nebbiolo.
The vineyard produces over 40,000 cases per annum, with a maximum capacity of 70,000 cases.
Mild temperatures, cool sea breezes, reliable rainfall and good sunlight exposure combine to provide ideal growing conditions for the vines. Lean soils of decomposing granite help hold water to give the wines a distinctive minerality.
One of Steenberg’s great strengths is the range and depth of their wines. We decided today to relax and not to taste ‘blind’. Instead, we chose 5 each from the Classic Range (R50) and the Flagship Range (R70). This gave us choices of sparkling, white, rose and red wines. Oddly, and with such a broad range, Steenberg does not produce a sweet or dessert wine.
Our first two tastings were the sparkling Sauvignon Blanc and the 1682 Pinot Noir MCC, both being compulsory choices from our chosen tasting menus.
They were served at ideal temperature in elegant crystal flutes. What a splendid start to our afternoon of tasting they were too! Dry and crisp, sharp green-yellow and strawberry in colour, and with an endless stream of rising bubbles, they both delighted. I had no hesitation in scoring both a near-perfect 9 on ‘likeability’. It wasn’t long too before I marked down a bottle of each in the Order column of the tasting menu.
Our table in the 1682 Bistro became available and my partner and I enjoyed a cozy lunch before returning to continue our wine adventure. We would have preferred a cheese board while tasting but this is not offered at Steenberg.
The high scores set the bar high and the rest of the wines did not disappoint. Nadine, our tasting host, shared her tasting assessment of each wine with us as she explained the notes for each bottle. She was curious to know my reaction to many of the Steenberg wines and this made for an informative and entertaining tasting session.
She too was studying wine but with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) rather than the Cape Wine Academy (CWA). The two organizations similarly study the wines of the world but the WSET is more internationally recognized than the CWA. It is for this reason that many sommeliers and tasting hosts choose to gain WSET qualification, especially those who might wish to work abroad.
I scored the Black Swan Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, from the Ultra Premium range at 9 out to 10 too. This underscores the immense and reliable quality of the Steenberg wines and the reason why I am so happy to return again and again. I was excited to taste the Sémillon as it was bottled as a single variety. More usually, for example at Constantia Glen, Sémillon is added to Sauvignon Blanc to provide added depth and weight. The Sémillon tasting was one of the most fascinating I have experienced. The nose and palate were completely different. The nose was full aromatic, sweet with honey, nougat, caramel and tropical papaya notes with a hint of light woodiness. The palate offered none of these but instead was dry, low in acidity, smooth and creamy with a flinty aftertaste. I remember reading that the French make their Sauternes sweet wine largely from Sémillon grapes and so I could understand the dessert-style nose.
The Chardonnay and Rosé were equally interesting and impressive. Just 2 months in oak barrels gave the Chardonnay the perfect balance for my preference. Lightly wooded, the complex and delicate creamy elderflower, apricot and nectarine nose were not overpowered. This balanced the dry, medium-acid taste and the strong refreshing palate.
The Rosé was deeper in colour – strong coral and strawberry – than most from the Constantia Valley estates. This is because the Syrah and Cinsault grapes were bunch-pressed with a champagne cycle to extract the juice. This was not a white wine with skins added for colour for a few hours as I could taste a distinct red wine flavour in the smooth finish. This was another winner, dry, low in acid, smooth and well balanced, and I bought two bottles.
Another treat and a rare single bottle variety was the Nebbiolo, from the Ultra Premium range. Nebbiolo is almost solely grown in Italy and is just 0.02% of South African production. The low body was immediately apparent as soon as it was poured. All the more so, as it sat alongside the Syrah that was the next tasting.
The vibrant cranberry and redcurrant colour seemed ideally mid-way between the rosé just tasted and the Syrah to follow. It did not disappoint on the nose and palate, with sweet notes of white cherry, redcurrant and cedar balanced by a simple, low tannin, low/medium acid, long finish palate. I would have bought this too but shall save for next time.
Blueberry, dark cherry and blackberry colours heralded medium body of the Syrah. This spicy cinnamon single-variety wine oozed quality and smoothness with a delicious taste of aromatic blackberry and black cherry. This was another 8 out of 10 for likeability.
My partner and I ended with the Merlot and the Catharina. The Merlot had all the classic notes of dark chocolate and cedar. Tannin and acidity were immature but well balanced, even for a wine intended to age comfortably for another 10-15 years, to suggest an earthiness. The bottle label suggested dried fynbos, thyme and rosemary on the nose and notes of black olives and aniseed on the palate. I didn’t discern these to start but definitely picked up the black olives on second tasting.
The fun and enjoyment lasted right up to our final tasting, the Catharina from the Ultra Premium range. Intriguingly, the tasting menu gave no clue of the grape variety or varieties it was made from. We had Nadine’s full attention again. This was another full-bodied red, deep ruby in colour and with long ‘legs’. The strong nose proved a tantalizing mix of spicy blackberry and blackcurrant. A powerful alcohol smell too matched the long ‘legs’ from first sight. The taste reflected the dark berries of the nose, smooth and with medium tannin, and a long and strong finish. I mused on possible grape varieties. Could it be a Cabernet Sauvignon? Or a Shiraz? Or a Merlot? Or another rare grape variety? Or could it be a blend? A blend seemed unlikely given that every other wine (the Rosé excepted) was single variety. Yet it was complex and with characteristics of more than a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Shiraz so I opted for a blend of each. Nadine explained. The Catharina was a blend: 58% Merlot, 18% Shiraz and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ten wines are much to taste in one session, requiring focus and concentration as well as stamina. The Steenberg wines are distinct and very high quality. They offer great value for money too. I like the single variety wines that characteristically speak for themselves without trying too hard by being over-blended. The whites and reds are French in character, close to my British experience, and equally suit being drunk alone and with food. I shall remember most the Sémillon and Nebbiolo as these were my first tastings of these rare South African varieties. I could easily too have bought several bottles of each wine but had to settle – for budget reasons only this time – for 6 bottles of the sparkling Chardonnay, Pinot Noir MCC, Rosé and Sémillon.
I shall have to save up before I return – but that I definitely will.
Wines tasted (bought *):
Steenberg Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc – R115
2015 Steenberg 1682 Pinot Noir MCC – R195* FAVOURITE WINE
2015 Steenberg The Black Swan Sauvignon Blanc – R180
2015 Steenberg Sémillon – R180*
2016 Steenberg Sphynx Chardonnay – R125*
2016 Steenberg Rosé – R80*
2014 Klein Steenberg Cabernet Sauvignon – R80* (not tasted but bought after)
2014 Steenberg Nebbiolo – R240
2014 Steenberg Syrah – R170
2014 Steenberg Merlot – R155
2014 Steenberg Catharina (58% Merlot, 18% Shiraz, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon) – R240