Swans, Vino and the Steenburger
Steenberg Vineyards is the oldest farm in the beautiful Constantia Valley, known as one of South Africa’s premier wine growing regions with its cool, sea-facing slopes and granite ridges. The vineyard has a worldwide reputation for producing excellent Cape wines.
Anna Ridgewell, Jacqui Wood and myself recently caught up with marketing manager, Caroline van Schalkwyk, to see the “Steenberg Experience”. And what better way than with a glass of Steenberg Brut 1682 Chardonnay overlooking the vineyards to learn a bit about its history.
Steenberg, translated from Afrikaans, means “Mountain of Stone”, but its original name was actually “Swaaneweide”, meaning The Feeding Place of Swans. No one can tell for sure if swans did drink and swim in the cool clear waters of the farm or whether the first owner, Catharina Ras, was being nostalgic about her former home in Lubeck, on the Baltic Coast of Germany but it is most likely that Catharina had mistaken spur-winged geese for swans which aren’t indigenous to South Africa. Today there is still a large population of spur-winged geese at Steenberg and this image follows through in their branding.
Catharina Ustings Ras was one of the most daring and controversial figures to ever settle in the Cape. In 1662, only 10 years after Jan van Riebeeck landed, not exactly an age for woman’s rights, she boarded a sailing ship to Africa. When she arrived the grass was definitely not greener but instead she landed in a dangerous, fiercely wild land. No place for a lone widow of only twenty two. She very quickly found herself a second husband, Hans Ras. Not exactly the best fish in the sea, he was a soldier and free burger who enjoyed female slaves. After their wedding ceremony, two wagons departed, one with the bride and groom, the other with wedding guests. The two drivers, probably having consumed too much Cape wine, decided to race each other back to Rondebosch. As the guests clung to their seats with great fear, the wagons vied for position down a rough and narrow road, leading to a collision. Enraged at this conduct the bridegroom jumped down from his seat and soon became entangled in a fight receiving a knife thrust, the weapon broke in two between his ribs. He survived this and lived to father several children but came to an unfortunate end when a lion killed him some years down the line. Legend has it that Catharina grabbed a gun, jumped on her horse and gave chase, finally shooting the lion herself – Steenberg’s very own Princess Alice!
This, however, was not the end of Catharina’s love life, although she was not particularly successful at it either. A Hottentot murdered her next husband and an elephant trampled his successor. Her fifth husband, a German named Matthys Michelse, managed to outlive her, I presume he banned wagons and wild animals from their home.
In 1682 Catharina Michelse, also known as The Widow Ras, asked then governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, for a portion of ground at the foot of the Ou Kaapse Weg and he agreed to lease 25 morgen (just over 21 hectares) to her. After he became the owner of Groot Constantia in 1685, she asked him for a legal title deed and a mandate was granted to her in 1688 to “cultivate, plow and to sow and also to possess” the farm below the Stone Mountain. According to Baron Rheede tot Drakenstein who visited the farm and was served a luncheon of “radishes and freshly baked bread and beautiful cabbages”, Catharina was a fiercely independent woman, “riding bare-back like an Indian and her children resembling Brazilian cannibals!”
In 1695 Frederick Russouw bought the farm and made the first wines at Swaaneweide. His widow, Christina Diemer, turned the farm into a highly profitable business by supplying hospitality to travellers and provisions to the sailing ships. Her youngest son Nicholaas inherited the farm in 1765 and when he died in 1802 his son Daniel bought it from his mother. The farm fell on difficult times and was sold to Johanes Adriaan Louw in 1842. The farm stayed in the Louw family until 1990 when it was sold to JCI (Johannesburg Consolidated Investments) who re-developed the farm into what it is today. Graham Beck purchased Steenberg in 2005.
We were given a tour of the cellar by the winemaker, JD Pretorius. The state-of-the-art cellar is one of the neatest, cleanest and most organized I’ve seen, JD and his team have worked hard and put in a lot of passion to make it what it is. We were treated to tasting the different wines out of the tanks and it is extremely interesting to taste the wine still in the process of being made and to experience how the same varietal can be made in different ways and how it varies from different vineyard blocks. One of my favourite moments was JD scooping a handful of lees out of tank to show us. Lees is dead yeast cells which can impact lovely flavours on wine such as biscuits, toast, brioche and butter.
Steenberg really does produce some great wines from the delicious Steenberg Brut 1682 Chardonnay, the Magna Carta – a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend, their flagship Sauvignon Blanc – Black Swan, to a very interesting and rather delicious single varietal Nebbiolo filled with flavours of prunes, apricots, crème brulee, tea leaf and strawberry cheesecake. Look out for a picture of a spur-winged goose and you know you can’t go wrong.
We had an amazing lunch at the Bistro Sixteen82. The bistro is headed up by intrepid chef and bistro dining specialist Brad Ball. We were treated to the “Steenburger”. These are only made on Fridays and only ten are available. The Steenburger is a slab of Waygu beef with a slice of seared foie gras, truffle aioli and a piquant tomato chutney on a perfectly toasted home made bun served with skinny parmesan truffle fries. I thought the Steenberg Nebbiolo was the perfect pairing for this exquisite and luxurious burger! Their whole menu looks excellent though with various tapas and other items available.
If you are in the Constantia area, do yourself a favour and visit this beautiful and rather special vineyard. Good wine, good food, good company – you can’t go wrong.
For our friends across the ocean, their wines can be purchased from the following agents:
United Kingdom – John Armit Wines Limited
Tel: +44 207 908 0640
United States of America – Cape Ardor LLC – South African Wine Importers
Tel: +1 888 122 543
Have you been to Steenberg? How was your experience? Have you had any of their wines? Should we add a Nebbiolo to our wine list?