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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


steenberg Many visitors to Cape Town will know Steenberg. Not only are their excellent white wines a feature on so many restaurant wine lists, but their beautiful estate is 20 minutes from the centre of the city and comes complete with golf course, luxury hotel and spa and a choice of extremely popular restaurants. The estate is owned by Graham Beck enterprises.

I met up with General Manager, John Loubser, for a walk around the estate and tasting of the wines before an excellent lunch in Bistro Sixteen82, the more casual of the estate's restaurants. As we walked along the vineyards at the foot of Steenberg Mountains he explained that the conditions for white wine grapes were excellent here: "It's cool because of the breezes from False Bay, just 5 kilometres away. On average our summer temperature is 22ºC, whilst in Paarl it might be 30ºC." And it is white wine that put Steenberg on the map, Sauvignon Blanc in particular but also their excellent Semillon. "Semillon is very niche," says John. "it takes a hand sell, typically Sommeliers in restaurants need to get behind it. Semillon is now only 1% of all South African plantings, but in the 1700s it was the major white wine grape."

In fact the estate now consists of 62 hectares of vineyard, 50% of which is Sauvignon Blanc, with 5% of Semillon as well as Nebbiolo, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Steenberg produces four levels of Sauvignon Blanc including a barrel-fermented cuvée, and the Reserve which comes from a block of 23-year-old vines. John says "These old vineyards are now losing leaf, so we are planting new vineyards with new clones which are coming on stream, and which we feel are giving even better fruit."

Their impressive 'Magna Carta' is a Bordeaux-style white which, when first released in 2001, was "ahead of its time," according to John. "It was an uphill struggle to sell it, so it was dropped, but fashions change and by 2007 we decided to reintroduce it as our top-end white." At 400 rand per bottle (around £26) it was South Africa's most expensive white at the time. Only around 250 cases are produced but its success will see that grow to 500 cases in future.

The Wines

UK importer of Steenberg is Armit. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Steenberg, Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2009, South Africa
All steel fermentation, lots of lees contact for 90 days, then fine lees for 6 months. Low yields of 2 - 3 tons per hectare. Bright green bean pyrozene aromas. Plenty of oily bean and asparagus here, but then tropical fruit comes through. Plenty of fruit sweetness on the mid-palate, but nicely balanced, long and filled with nice greener and sweeter notes and very good acidity. 89/100.

Steenberg, Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011, South Africa
Back label says "last from the old vineyards". More minerality here, less of the green, but really nice punchy fruit, the sherbet-edges, the crunch of lemon sorbet, very crisp gooseberry. Terrific acidity here, a pithy and zesty minerality, passionfruit and terrific zip and tang. 90/100.

Steenberg, Sauvignon Blanc "The Black Swan" 2012, South Africa
Around 60% of this comes from the new vineyard and will be launched as a new wine replacing the Reserve. A touch of smokiness and mineral character here is really very appealing, plenty of green pyrozene crunch and lots of salty mineral freshness. Those passionfruit and guava tropical notes are pronounced, but again a delightfully zesty grapefruity tang. 90-91/100.

Steenberg, Semillon 2009, South Africa
Barrel Fermented in 2nd fill 500l and 600l barrels with a very small proportion in newer barrels, and pure Semillon from a 21-year-old vineyard, a French clone smuggled in from Bordeaux during the apartheid years. The only property in SA with this clone. Beautifully buttery and creamy nose, lovely rounded lemon peel. Lovely nuttiness and a hint of lanolin, but delightful clarity and hints of the more exotic orange and blossom. Drinking beautifully, the sweet fruit flooding the mid-palate, with plenty of apple core, dry acidity and a long, fresh finish. Delightful wine. 90/100.

Steenberg, Semillon 2010, South Africa
A lot deeper in colour, Toastier, a little less full with a greener, herbaceous edge. Nutty and lemony beneath. Full, rich, very fine palate, perhaps a little less decisive, more of the oak adding the cashew and toastier notes, buttery but fresh enough and still drinking very nicely. 88-89/100.

Steenberg, Semillon 2011, South Africa
Bright, minerals to the fore, a little gravelly note and some gentle nutty and smoky quality too, the oak fragrant and lightly handled here. Cashew and lemon, a touch of nutty apple. Real fresh on the palate, the white fruit and citrus really powering through decisively, the fruit really has intense sweetness and concentration on the mid palate, but lighter, more dancing and orangey in the acidity. 91/100.

Steenberg, Magna Carta 2007, South Africa
Bordeaux White. 40% Semillon, 60% SB. Semillon barrel fermented, some new, SB unwooded. Again that oily green bean punch comes through, but so does a lovely soft vanilla smokiness and toast, and lovely blossom and some exotic spices and seeds. Juicy and full on the palate, has all the oily, full, juicy fruit and hints of exotic ripeness, but there is such a lovely core of minerality and the rounding, smoky swirl of soft oaking means this drinks with beautiful length and balance, and will age further. 94/100.

Steenberg, Magna Carta 2010, South Africa
The vintage currently with Armit in the UK. 35% Semillon, 65% Sauvignon Blanc. From this vintage on, both components barrel fermented, blended and back into old 500l barrels for another 11 months. Delightful honey and perfumed, bright, floral and sesame lightness, lovely blossom delicacy, the oak very fragrant and soft beneath. The palate has lots of those pure, racy, slightly green flavours, a touch of green fig and of grassiness, and very nice racy fruit quality. Lots of juice and greener notes, but very pleasing. 92/100.

Steenberg, Magna Carta 2011, South Africa
35% Semillon, 65% Sauvignon Blanc. Very fresh, very pure and bright, the creaminess and oatmeally qualities are delicious, again that minerality comes through with touches of lanolin and gravelly minerality, the fruit powering through with a grapefruit and lemon zest and pithiness, really concentrated in this vintage, but those blossom and lighter almost sherbetty characters are there and the subtle oak underpinning. Terrific and young wine, showing lovely intense minerality. 93-94/100.

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