From 165 rand, £21.99, €23.15, 209.77 Danish krone
Walter's extensive coverage of the fourth Nebbiolo Prima this week provides a panoramic backdrop for this rare specimen: a Nebbiolo that shines a long way from Piemonte.
The combination of haunting perfume, longevity and persistence in the best Barolos and Barbarescos has tempted a considerable number of producers around the world, notably in California and Australia, to try to produce a wine that can stand tall next to its Italian relations.
Inspired by a visit to Italy in the 1990s, Steenberg's former general manager (a viticulturist) Herman Hannekom was determined to produce the first Nebbiolo in South Africa. One hectare of vines was planted in 1994 and for a long time served as the 'mother block' for producers that followed Steenberg's lead. They made their first two barrels in 1997.
The Steenberg Nebbiolo 2010 from Constantia is one of the best Nebbiolos I have tasted outwith Piemonte: deliciously aromatic, with red-fruits, a hint of floral perfume and just the very first signs of maturity in a delicate impression of autumn leaves. The tannins are still firm but balanced by the sweetness of the fruit and a dancing freshness on the palate. (The freshness is confirmed by the analysis: total acidity 6.2 g/l and a pH of 3.58; the alcohol not intrusive at 14%.)
JD Pretorius, Steenberg's young winemaker, pictured above (I highlight his youth as it was at the London tasting of wines from South Africa's young winemakers that I came across this lovely wine), explains the difficulties they have had in the vineyard with this variety, well-known for its lack of adaptability:
'Up to 2007 we really struggled with the vineyard and had dismal crops so we started to go away from the conventional trellised vineyard methods, we took all the wires off and stopped pruning it for three years. The effect was a very bushy canopy that hangs open all the way to the ground. Now we have a lot more sunlight on the cordon and fertility is up and so are the crops. Even with these extreme methods we are lucky if we hit 8 tons a hectare [c 56 hl/ha], generally the crop is between 6 and 8 tons/ha. We have started pruning the vineyard again in something similar to the Australian box pruning method, roughly leaving a box of shoots about 30 cm wide and high; yes it is odd but it seems to be working. We planted another 1 ha in 2007 and we took in the first crop in 2012, very small, just over a ton.
'In the cellar we handle the grapes very gently, fermentation in stainless steel with a 5-day cold soak prior to fermentation and two pump overs per day for 2/3 of the fermentation, the last 1/3 only one cap wetting per day. Generally the wine spends around 25-30 days on the skins (including cold soak pre ferment). In the case of 2010, the wine was racked into new barrels for malolactic fermentation, this lasted about 3 weeks and thereafter the wine was racked into older barrels, 60% second fill and 40% third fill, for a total of 15 months.'
Although the total annual volume produced is still small, at between 400 and 500 cases of 12, according to wine-searcher.com it is available in South Africa, the UK, Luxembourg and Denmark. (Pretorius notes it is also exported to Sweden.) It is imported into the UK by Armit Wines, who also sell it for £132.60 per case of 6.
Although I have not yet tasted the 2011, which will soon be on the market, Pretorius reckons it is 'a huge step up from 2010', with the 2012, still in barrel, better still. 'We no longer use any new oak and have also introduced 500-litre barrels as of 2012.' Based on the quality of the 2010, this bodes well for the next vintages and I will report back on the 2011 as soon as it is available in the UK.