As the crow flies, there’s no more than 5 kilometers between Constantia Uitsig and Steenberg Estate. Yet there’s a lot more than simply geography that ties these two wine estates together…
For starters, both farms make their wine at the same location: Steenberg’s world-class winery. Both farms have also garnered international attention for producing incredible wines. The recognition and awards that have followed are not only testament to a good working partnership, but a common winemaking philosophy too.
And so, on a beautiful October’s afternoon, Jacques (Uitsig’s winemaker) and I met up with JD (Steenberg’s winemaker) to taste Steenberg and Uitsig’s two current-release Semillons side by side. With both farms having attained a somewhat niche Semillon following, we were all looking forward to unlocking what sets each apart, as well as what they hold in common.
Just like their wine, both winemakers are a little reserved on the uptake, but give them a few minutes to breathe, and their depth and complexities really come to the fore.
The majority of Steenberg’s Semillon originates from a rare French clone, bought in from Bordeaux in the late 1980’s. This particular one is only found in 3 of the Cape’s wine farms – Vergelegen, Boschendal and Steenberg. It’s this old block up by Steenberg’s dam that produces about 60% of this wine, and thanks to it, notes of apricots, peach, tangerine and citrus are evident in our glasses. The younger blocks (planted in 2007) are identical to all of Uitsig’s Semillon (Clone 14) and make up the remaining 40% of Steenberg’s Semillon. Thanks to this block’s relative youth, there’s a fresh herbaceous note to the wine too.
“Too much of one things is never great – you want a bit of complexity and diversity to come through,” says J.D. who began as Steenberg’s winemaker in 2009, under the expert mentorship of John Loubser.
“In the younger blocks, I try to completely expose the bunches to the sunlight in order to break down Semillon’s natural intensity and high pyrazine component. The bunches are yellow when picked – it’s a real art to choose which precise moment is right. Too soon, and the flavours will be over-powering, too late, and the Semillon risks becoming flabby.”
In this particular vintage’s case, Steenberg’s Semillon 2015 is neither flabby nor too flashy. Beautifully pale, bordering on translucent around the edges, aromas of nettle and lime give way to more lingering notes of orange blossom, apricots and ruby grapefruit after the first swirl.
As the novice in the group, I ventured out on a limb and professed to picking up a subtle smokiness on the nose. Much to my delight and vindication, J.D. nods and tells us that, as the last of the white grapes to be picked that year, Steenberg’s Semillon enjoyed a front row seat to the great Cape fires that blazed across the mountain range in early 2015. Far from detracting, we all agree that this whisper of smoke adds a really special depth and layer to the wine. A true example of beauty rising out from the ashes. Its creamy texture lingers on the palate as we move on to chat about the winemaking styles of the two wines…
Both wines are barrel fermented in big 600 litre French Oak barrels, but whilst Steenberg uses 35% new oak, Constantia Uitsig relies on only 15% new. In addition, Steenberg’s Semillon has a cork, whilst Uitsig’s is sealed with a screw cap.
Perhaps that’s why Uitsig’s Semillon 2014 seems to unfold a little slower in our swirling glasses.
Consistently rated as one of the top white wines in South Africa, Constantia Uitsig’s Semillon 2014 has already followed in its predecessors’ footsteps and was awarded John Platter’s coveted 5-star rating last year.
Exhibiting ripe citrus fruits like green limes, tangerines and candied marmalade on the nose and palate, it’s a full-bodied white that seems to grow even bigger in our glasses. Twenty-three years old, Uitsig’s Semillon vines have had plenty of time to settle down, and like Steenberg’s old block, produce a low, but concentrated crop of low pH, high acidity grapes. Given this, Semillon is one of the few white wines that ages beautifully.
With such fine examples of Semillon before us, you’d be mistaken for assuming that making a great Semillon is a simple task. “It doesn’t work everywhere – Semillon only thrives in poor soil and in a cool climate. Uitsig’s Semillon block has extremely sandy, well-drained soil – perfect for this cultivar. The cool (but not too cool) conditions do the rest. This valley is quite special that way,” reflects Jacques.
Indeed, what strikes me first and stays with me long after we have left, is the mutual warmth and respect these two winemakers hold for each other. In a small valley such as ours, it is truly wonderful that instead of rivalry, there is a genuine sense of brotherhood amongst winemakers. Instead of breeding complacency, this has strengthened each of their individual ambitions to create ever-better wine. Watch this space.