The world of wine offers, at best, an illusion of permanence. Transformation is a continuous process, even at ancient estates. There are the obvious changes, which come on an annual basis and are driven by vintage conditions. However, there are broader trends – climate and ownership are the most obvious – the effects of which may only emerge after many years.
In the last decade of the 18th century, for example, the fruit at many Bordeaux properties did not ripen and the harvests were abandoned. The producers knew that it had become a lot colder – but they weren’t really able to conceptualise it coherently until after the short term weather cycle had passed. In the same way, French producers in the 1930s went through a series of catastrophic vintages, only to discover that nature’s bounty returned in the five year period from 1945 to 1949.
Then there’s the question of the role of the proprietor (hands-on or absentee) and the investment strategy. In tough times those who are under-capitalised cut back: what begins as an imperceptible decline becomes increasingly evident over time. If a nearby competitor has been able to maintain planting programmes and cellar renovations, the gap between the two will become increasingly evident. When the Ginestets owned Chateau Margaux in the 1960s and 1970s they weren’t able to keep up with the kind of technology appropriate to a First Growth estate. Chateau Latour – which had been purchased by Pearsons in 1963 – moved ahead and stayed there until Andre Mentzelopoulos acquired Margaux in 1976 and made the investments that the Ginestets had deferred.
Sometimes improvements arise from everything finally bedding down: the money wisely spent, the vineyards showing some maturity, a winemaking team familiar with the terrain and on top of its game. That was certainly my feeling when I visited Steenberg recently and tasted through some of the range with winemaker J.D. Pretorius. JD has been in charge of the winery since 2009 – having taken over from Ruth Penfold who in turn had been running the cellar (under the direction of the previous winemaker – now group GM, John Loubser) for six years.
Pretorius would be the first to admit that the continuity with Loubser and the stability of the production team made it easier for him as a young winemaker to step into one of the most prestigious positions in the industry. In a sense, the planning had largely been done, the vineyards were being maintained (as far as possible – some of the very old blocks, essential to wine quality, were starting to become uneconomical). He had the advantage of knowing that the man running the business had been in his shoes only a few years before.
That said, the position was not without its challenges: limited production and growing demand meant that the range needed to be expanded, and with fruit from elsewhere than the property’s Constantia vineyards. On the other hand, Steenberg’s strength lay in its white wines, so there was clearly room for improvement with the estate’s reds.
Perhaps the most visible difference since his arrival has been in the two varieties for which Steenberg has enjoyed a reputation with aficionados, but which seemed inaccessible to consumers of less arcane cultivars – the semillon and the nebbiolo. Subtle tweaking has transformed them dramatically. The Semillon is still dry, but not austere, and without the herbaceous notes which have compromised the variety’s popularity in South Africa. Pretorius’s oaking regime has given it an almost creamy texture, and the complexity and allure of a fine white Bordeaux. The Nebbiolo is almost Burgundian in its delicacy and finesse, though with a haunting aroma of violets, the hallmark of the greatest Piedmontese examples. Both are suddenly expressing their potential: time and circumstance have turned them from cygnets into swans.