Lunch with JD Pretorius of Steenberg Vineyards
My life seems inextricably linked to Steenberg: whether it’s through a friend who grew up on the property, or because it’s where my parents first settled nearly 20 years ago when they made the great trek south from Joburg to Cape Town, or simply because it feels like my ‘local’, where I always receive a warm welcome.
Steenberg is the oldest farm in South Africa, with one of the most vibrant young winemakers. JD Pretorius is only 28, but has been making wine at Steenberg since 2009. JD qualified at Stellenbosch University in 2007, and worked the harvest at Graham Beck in Franschhoek before heading off to the USA to Sonoma Valley’s Kendall Jackson.
A harvest stint back in SA at Steenberg led then head winemaker John Loubser (now GM) to say: “You are welcome to leave anytime, but you are also welcome to stay on for as long as you want.” So, JD stayed, helping to generate excitement and progress at Steenberg and beyond. In the Constantia Valley alone, he’s in good company, with a handful of young winemakers — Matthew Day at Klein Constantia, Justin van Wyk at Constantia Glen and Stuart Botha at Eagles Nest — pushing the envelope for quality, alongside established winemakers at Buitenverwachting and Groot Constantia.
My Friday afternoon lunch with JD at Steenberg’s vibey tapas restaurant, Bistro Sixteen82, was a celebration, as much as a catch-up session. We’ve just been given one-month exclusivity to sell the newly released Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2012. The place was buzzing with locals and foreigners, all enjoying the vineyard setting and complementary tasting provided by the tasting room team.
We quickly got our orders in for two Steenburgers from chef Brad Ball who only makes and serves 10 of these legendary burgers (topped with foie gras, truffle aioli and tomato confyt) on Fridays. When they are gone, they are gone! Over a glass of delicious bubbly — Brut 1682, first introduced by bubbly fanatic Loubser — and later Sauvignon Blanc, we chatted about the estate’s course.
JD sees white wines as Steenberg’s future, and in particular Sauvignon, Semillon and the blending of both. Sauvignon Blanc, although it’s a difficult grape to work with, is his favourite wine to make. “You need to protect it to maintain its beautiful flavours,” he says. Bubbles also feature prominently in future plans.
Steenberg is in the process of rebirth from a farming perspective, having recently undertaken an extensive replanting programme based on what works best with the terroir. Steenberg is terroir-driven, he says, and being so close to the ocean (4 km as the crow flies) brings a long and cool growing season.
That afternoon, JD looked relieved to momentarily escape the chaos of a harvesting cellar in full swing, and I was happy to be in his company. A couple of guys drinking great wine and eating amazing burgers on a Friday afternoon — what could be better?
JD IN A NUTSHELL
Why did you decide to become a winemaker?
I grew up in a house that loves wine and food. Most of my family is involved in agriculture in some way, and I always wanted to do something with farming. When I realised that you can farm wine, I was sold.
What do you enjoy most about winemaking and why?
Being involved with a living, ever-changing product. It combines creativity, manual labour, science, farming and art in a great career.
Highlights in your career?
Steenberg, it’s a dream job!
Your winemaking philosophy?
I always try to let fruit play the leading role in wine. Everything else must be the supporting acts. I always aim for wines with balance and harmony.
Challenges for South African wine producers?
We compete in one of the most oversupplied markets in the world – great for the consumer but hard for the producer. We need to make brilliant wines to compete with the rest of the world, matching them in all aspects, including marketing and social media.
How can we make wine more accessible to the SA population?
Education. We need to take the wine to the people. People are eager to learn. We just need to simplify wine and wine drinking.
Your favourite white and red wines to drink?
At the moment, I drink a lot of Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends, which I think is one of the most exciting styles in SA, and for reds, I enjoy Shiraz or Rhone and Bordeaux-style blends.
Your favourite pastimes/hobbies?
Golf, rowing and mountain biking.