JD Pretorius, cellarmaster at Steenberg Vineyards, is the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year for 2014. Appointed winemaker in 2009, cellarmaster since 2012, JD's Steenberg Merlot 2011 and 2012 as well as the Steenberg Echo 2012 red blend qualified for the Young Winemaker of the Year award. Twenty-nine year old JD received the accolade for the Steenberg Merlot 2012.
What does being a finalist in the prestigious Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year award mean to you?
It is a great honour; it has been one of my aspirations since I finished my studies. This is the last year that I can enter this competition and it ends off the first chapter in my winemaking career on a high note, and hopefully springboards the start of the next one.
What makes the grape variety you entered special?
Merlot is quite a tricky variety, especially in South Africa. It can make wonderful wines, but it needs the right climate to succeed. Steenberg has always had a very good track record for Merlot and it’s great to see the wines nominated.
What would you like winelovers to say when they sip your nominated wine?
The Merlots are very unique, we have quite a number of eucalyptus trees on the property and the Merlot is quite minty. The wines are controversial as you either love it or hate them. They make a great conversation point.
When making a red wine, what should a winemaker beware of?
Balance between fruit and tannin as well as oak-derived flavours. The wine needs tannin to give it backbone, but you also need to respect the fruit and the structure of the wine.
Which foods would you recommend with your wines?
All three wines are elegant; don’t overpower them with too-strong flavours. In general these three are more wintery wines, as they lend themselves to stews and roasts. The Merlot works incredibly well with roast lamb, especially with a little hint of rosemary.
Would you say winemaking is a craft, an artform or both?
Definitely both. Winemaking is fundamentally a science, but it is much more than that. With science alone one creates sterile wines that don’t have much character, and with art alone, they might be very interesting, but they generally don’t last. One needs to find the mid-way to make wines with character that speak of where they are from but are still crafted with the basics in place.
What drew you to winemaking as a career?
I come from a wine family in the sense that they enjoy wine – it’s unfortunately no more than that! I grew up in the Free State, so quite far removed from a wine farm, but my parents have always had a very keen interest in wine, food and travel. Ever since I can remember, family gatherings have always revolved around what we are eating and then what we are drinking to go with the food. So I grew up with this and it became second nature to me. The more I learnt about the industry, the more I liked it – it involves farming, winemaking, people, travelling, good food and obviously wine, and these are all things I really enjoy and wanted to learn more about.
What do you enjoy when you are not making wine?
I love to be outdoors: hiking, cycling, golf and surf-skiing are great passions of mine. I enjoy cooking a lot, and I love to make stuff around the house; carpentry is something that I would like to learn more about.
What do you regard as a winemaker’s greatest challenge for 2015?
Every year brings new challenges, whether it’s the weather or in the cellar or the size of the crop. There will always be something. I think the biggest challenge is to continue moving in an upward direction and to stay innovative every year. As soon as one becomes complacent you have lost the battle.