Sauvignon Blanc is arguably one of the ultimate terroir wines in the sense that there is theoretically little to obscure the impact of site when it comes to wine assessment and yet many of South Africa’s top examples rely on fruit from a number of sources. It’s as if there’s a tacit admission by the winemakers involved that the variety is doomed to something less than excellent if they are confined to making a wine from one site and one site only.
One example of Sauvignon Blanc which is not only site specific but has scaled the greatest heights is the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve from Steenberg in Constantia. Made for the first time in 1997, the final vintage was 2011. This is its story.
The modern era of Steenberg begins in 1990 when it was acquired by conglomerate JCI (Johannesburg Consolidated Investments). Former Boschendal viticulturist Herman Hanekom was placed in charge of vineyard management and initially grapes were delivered to what was then Welmoed Co-op in Stellenbosch – a Sauvignon Blanc 1992 and a Blanc Fume 1993 made by winemaker Nicky Versfeld for JCI in-house consumption, the 1994 the first to be publically released.
Steenberg was busy building its own cellar and the position of winemaker was much coveted. The 1995 Sauvignon Blanc was the last to be made at Welmoed by Versfeld before Emmanuel Bolliger was appointed to handle the 1996 harvest on the property. Bolliger didn’t stick around long, leaving to help start Cape Point Vineyards, and Versfeld came across from Welmoed to replace him later that year.
According to Versfeld, 1997 was the first vintage of the Reserve (although not labelled as such). The quality of Sauvingnon was assessed block by block, and what was to become the Reserve block – 3.9ha in size and planted to the “Weerstasie” clone in 1988 – stood out. “We selected the best vineyard on the farm and bottled it accordingly. On taste, there was just so much extra fruit intensity.” The wine went on to win Veritas Double Gold, providing immediate validation for the decision to bottle separately.
Steenberg Reserve quickly established itself in the Cape’s top league (among a slew of accolades, the 1999 won the White Wine Trophy at that year’s SAA Wine Awards) although this did not surprise Versfeld too much, with him identifying two key factors contributing to the wine’s superiority: 1) more exposure to the Southeaster than the rest of Constantia causing vines to struggle during growing season and ultimately contributing to more intense flavour development and 2) leaner soils, which compelled the use of supplementary irrigation, a happy consequence of this being better ripeness levels. “Cool area flavours, good natural acidity, low pH – the wine is typically capable of ageing for quite a few years,” he says.
Despite the success that Versfeld was enjoying with the Steenberg Reserve (not to mention the Merlot), he departed after the 2001 harvest to become production director at Vinfruco (later The Company of Wine People). “I wanted another challenge,” he says of his move.
In stepped John Loubser, top student at agricultural college Elsenburg in 1995 and fresh from a stint at Graham Beck’s Robertson cellar. (Not the only significant change at Steenberg around this time: Loubser started in November 2001 and during 2002, JCI spin-off Johnnic sold the property to leisure and travel group Shamwari).
If 1997 had been a dream vintage (long and cool leading to optimal ripeness) to mark Versfeld’s start, Loubser had no such luck. “2002 was hot and the wine was big, bold and lacked finesse,” he says. Though the wine did not exactly tank critically, he wasn’t satisfied and he undertook extensive research about how to take Steenberg Reserve to the next level.
“I was very confident our terroir was tailor-made for great Sauvignon – Herman Hanekom had put a great foundation in place – but how to get the best from it?” he says. Over the next few years, Loubser slashed the number of wines produced to allow extra focus on Sauvignon while working hard to refine his concept of great Sauvignon Blanc through tastings and discussions with other leading practitioners. In particular, he and Hanekom undertook a special interest trip to the Loire, home to some of France’s greatest Sauvignon Blanc in 2005. “It was a period of great excitement – eating, living, drinking Sauvignon.”
Loubser’s efforts paid off, the 2003 vintage of the Reserve being the first ever to be rated 5 Stars in Platter’s as was the 2004 and 2005 (a fire in neighbouring vineyards in the case of the latter notwithstanding).
Steenberg was now firmly at the head of the pack when it came to Sauvignon but why? “A lot had to do with where we were – a maritime location for Sauvignon Blanc vineyards was a relatively novel idea. Green pepper was being hailed and we got green pepper – we played to our strengths,” says Loubser.
In 2005, Graham Beck Wines acquired Steenberg from Shamwari while 2006 saw Ruth Penfold who had been around in an assistant capacity since 2003 now taking more responsibility in the cellar, Loubser taking on a more managerial role. Despite winning the title of Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year in 2007 for the Steenberg Semillon of that year, she resigned at the end of 2008 to pursue a career in financial services, leaving the position open for JD Pretorius to fill.
Pretorius, just 27 years old, graduated from the University of Stellenbosch in Viticulture and Oenology in 2007. He found himself working at Graham Beck’s Franschhoek cellar in 2008 and made enough of impression there to steal a march on the competition and get the Steenberg job. During 2009, he worked closely with Loubser allowing him to find his feet but since then has had “more leeway” and his 2011, the last to be released, won gold at the 2012 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.
So what does Pretorius think makes the Reserve block so special? “It’s not going to win any Vinpro competitions but it provides flavour intensity like nothing else on the farm,” he says. It sits between 80 to 120m above sea level – the bottom very fertile as a result of topsoil having been washed down from higher up and here the vines are particularly vigorous while at the top the vines are more windswept . “We pick the entire block at the same time and there’s typically a 1.5⁰ Balling [sugar in grape juice] difference from top to bottom, which goes towards complexity in the final wine”.
The Reserve block is also the last of the Sauvignon Blanc to be picked – usually around end of February or beginning of March – and Pretorius points out that the intention has always been to make a wine of extra ripeness and richness. “What sets this wine apart is not just aromatics but texture.”
In the cellar, the grapes receive skin contact for between eight to 24 hours – all the flavour compounds are in the skin. Only the free run juice is used, which is to say the purest, least phenolic juice derived before any pressing of the grapes. Then a long, cool fermentation (25 to 32 days at 11⁰C) to retain the most delicate aromas and flavours before extended lees contact of up to six months, again to ensure maximum flavour and texture.
At this point, it has to be asked why a wine which sells for R195 a bottle from the cellar and is still capable of winning awards is being culled. The major reason is a precipitous decline in yields, the block giving around 7.5 tons a hectare up to 2006 but then this dropping off dramatically – 2009 the worst to date at 2.2 tons a hectare. Pretorius identifies various factors which have contributed to this, including 1) Constantia’s high rainfall resulting in pruning under wet conditions which promotes disease, 2) Constantia’s maritime location meaning it’s always cool rather than cold hindering vine dormancy and 3) Constantia’s high wind taking its toll over time.
Various efforts have been made to extend the life of the vineyard (employing radical pruning techniques like cutting the arms right back to the trunk) but these have only been moderately successful. A Steenberg vineyard has to crop at a minimum of 6 tons a hectare on order for the farm to break even and the game is up for the Reserve block. It will stay in the ground until 2015, supplying some of the grapes for both a new top-end Sauvignon Blanc as well as the property’s highly regarded Bordeaux-style white blend called Magna Carta but after that it will be replanted.
Quiz Pretorius a little more, however, and the issue of stylistics becomes a factor. He says that the Reserve has perhaps “lost allure” in the last 10 years and that he has a responsibility to “inject new energy” into the property’s best Sauvignon Blanc. The Reserve for him has always been relatively herbaceous while also possessing “gunflint, minerality, a smoky character, call it what you will”. The challenge for him is to keep up with trends within the category (wines with more tropical fruit) without losing the uniqueness that Steenberg imparts.
Is Steenberg simply off the pace? Here Loubser is enlightening. He notes that 10 years ago the hierarchy among Sauvingon Blanc producers was fairly clear but since then there’ve been a lot of new entrants to the market. “I have to say I find the anti-terroir movement within Sauvignon Blanc a little disturbing. With Darling and Durbanville being the source of grapes for multiple brands, a sense of place has been lost a little bit,” he says. “We are not following fashion, however. Today, more tropical fruit, tomorrow, more oxidative wines – these will all become passé and we’ll all come back to terroir.”
In sheer winemaking terms, Pretorius is clearly sad to see the Reserve discontinued. “No question that the vineyard is planted on the right spot. We get pyrazines [flavour compound responsible for Sauvignon’s green character] but we get lots of other things, too. If you ask me, I’d hang on to the block but it’s not really my choice.”
Loubser appears less conflicted than Pretorius. “Why has the Reserve been dropped? Because it’s not the best tank in the cellar anymore. It used to be streets ahead of anything else but no longer. Re-planting will mean virus-free vineyards on properly ripped soils with drip rather than overhead irrigation.”
The ravages of time have been cruel on the Reserve block. “Dead arm disease means the vines cannot push out the massive green canopy they used to and the wine has naturally moved to having less pyrazine character. In 2011, the wine simply isn’t what it used to be. It’s not nearly as herbaceous but it has moved to more of a thinking man’s kind of wine – bolster it with other components and we’re pretty sure we’ve got something better”.
A sneak preview of the 2012 set to replace the Reserve and to be known as Black Swan suggests that those who have enjoyed Steenberg’s ultimate expression of Sauvignon Blanc until now won’t be disappointed in the future. Consisting of 60% grapes from the Reserve block and 40% from two newer blocks, one six years old and the other nine years old, it remains true to the property while also delivering excellence. “Great wines have soul and authenticity allowing you to follow them across vintages,” says Loubser. “One great Steenberg wine dies and another is born.”