There’s a potent feminine forcefield pulsing through the cellars of Nederburg. It charges the air like a vibration. Every so often it shifts in pitch and tempo. Sometimes it’s urgent and insistent. Other times it’s quieter, gentler, more relaxed, but always harmonious and focused. It’s an energy that comes from four women used to working alongside each other. Zinaschke Steyn makes Nederburg’s reds, supported by Imellia Prins. Jamie Williams makes the whites (under the direction of winemaker Pieter Badenhorst), while Isabel Teubes is the viticulturist who oversees the winery’s own vineyards and works closely with its network of supplier-growers across most of the Cape’s premier wine-growing districts. She’s the one with the direct link to the fruit delivered to the cellars, mainly for red wines (dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-based bends) but also whites.
Even-tempered or excitable, quiet or vocal, the four are very individual, independently minded women, but they’ve found their collective fit. They are easy with each other, comfortable with their differences in temperament and outlook, their ways of seeing and doing. Samuel Viljoen, Nederburg’s cellar-master, who heads the team, is awed by their communal warmth and respect. “I can look up from my desk and watch them. There’s a rhythm to how they work. They understand and accommodate each other. They help each other. They make suggestions to one another. Sometimes these suggestions are agreed on, other times not. But it doesn’t matter.
“They just have a way of handling whatever it is, with grace and calm. What they’ve created amongst themselves is very agreeable and professional. It has such a positive influence on everyone else too.
“I can clearly see how that helps our entire team to grow. The ladies are treated with respect and there seems to be a real connection. Each one of them brings their own dynamism and unique personality to the blend. Their level of commitment and attention to detail is truly inspiring. I get such good feedback from everyone who gets into contact with them, and am incredibly proud to have them as part of the team.”
Nederburg is a major South African brand, a domestic market leader that’s exported to every continent. It makes popular, household wines in significant volumes, but also produces specialty high-end wines in limited runs. There’s enormous pressure to maintain the award-winning standards set over many decades – the greater part of the 20th century and what we’ve seen thus far of the 21st century. And that applies across the range. Viljoen had big shoes to fill when he was appointed to his position in 2021, after many years of making the winery’s reds. But he’s more than keeping pace as the cellar continues to bring home trophies, medals, and high scores.
“The credit must go to the team. We are individuals who work in concert. It’s that ethos that keeps a good flow. But even so, these women are exceptional and I’m proud to call them my colleagues. They are all very detailed, very thorough, very driven, and very committed to wine excellence but in different ways.”
Zinaschke is serious but there’s a fun, playful side to her too. She was all set to become a chemical engineer but then switched to viticulture and winemaking. “I like to get my hands dirty and be physically involved. I relish being challenged. It inspires me and brings clarity. I see each vintage as an entirely new project. It’s the anticipation of new parameters, demanding new decisions, no matter how nuanced. Every day is different and knowing that is what gets me up in the morning.”
Imellia is more of an introvert and is highly analytical. She first experienced wine as an exchange student in Germany and that decided her career path as a winemaker. Soon after graduating, she preferred to focus on wine quality analysis through microbiology and laboratory work. Later, she began secondary winemaking, blending wines. “It was a fantastic foundation – evaluating quality, understanding in measurable terms what determines balance, texture, weight, palate length and the harmony evident in all those elements. It has helped me to be more intuitive.”
Jamie is a hands-on realist trying to keep all the balls in the air. She likens winemaking to motherhood. “There’s a humility that comes when you accept that however much you plan, organise, and arrange, you can’t always control what’s going to happen. Aiming for perfection is naive. Just be gentle with yourself. Stay sharp and keep calm. Do what needs to be done and give it your best shot.”
Isabel, always the pragmatist, has learned to trust her instinct. “My family is a farming family. I’ve been doing stuff related to winemaking and viticulture since the age of ten. Before I’d reached my teens, I’d been taught that the golden rule for keeping a healthy vine is to maintain balance between the rooting system and the canopy. After a while you develop a sixth sense about what a vineyard needs to thrive and that frees you to notice new things and new improvements to be made.”
As Viljoen says: “These four women are in themselves a magnificent blend. Nederburg would not be where it is right now, without them.”