40 Under 40: Jolette Steyn

There’s a lot to love about wine all-rounder Jolette Steyn - for starters, her warmth of spirit and charming disposition are infectious. She is smart and multilingual. And she has built an entire career on the self-proclaimed fact of being a wine geek.

It’s this uncanny skill that has made her the go-to as winemaker at Steenberg and one-fifth of team South Africa at the World Blind Tasting Championship in Burgundy earlier this month. The Johannesburg-born beauty made her first foray into the world of wine at the age nineteen when she started studying BSc Oenology at Stellenbosch University. Since that first step into the industry over 10 years ago, Jolette has worked tirelessly and passionately to make her mark. With her hectic work schedule, it’s no wonder she has created her calm by taking up surfing and hiking. Enviable life aside, it’s the dry sense of humour and humble kindness that make Jolette my perennial wine-lady crush. I foresee great things ahead. We talked French (wine) and alpacas.

What vintage are you?

1985. One of the greatest vintages all around - great for birth year wines!

If you could bottle yourself, what would the tasting note be?

Awkward in youth. Will age gracefully.

What sparked your love for food and the drink?

Sunday family lunches and travelling. Wine encapsulates so many of my interests – art, history, travel, culture, languages, philosophy, geography, science… and social events. Always best served with food. So it was a very organic decision for me to start studying and working in wine.

Aliens come down from space and you must explain to them in one bottle of wine what it is that you do – what do you make?

If it’s nice Fifth Element aliens, Pinot noir or Riesling because I’d like to be friends. But, if they’re the aliens from Alien; first some Grappa to neutralise them and then some Cap Classique to make them feel the love.

What is still on your wine bucket list?

Ooph. The list is long. It is a continuous and unpredictable journey. Close to the top – making my own wine, travelling to Portugal, Georgia, South America to explore the vineyards, cellars, and wines. And trek with Alpacas whilst discovering a long-lost vineyard. I love alpacas.

What makes a wine fine?

True terroir, balance, honesty, a light touch. It tells a story of a time, a place, and a maker.

What do you rate as your proudest achievement?

When one of the best cellar workers I’ve worked with finished first in his class with SKOP 3, chatted on RSG radio about his experiences and received his assistant to the winemaker certificate. We started his SKOP1 journey together. Also being part of the team to represent our country at the World Blind Tasting Championship in Burgundy, France.

What is a big no-no to you when it comes to making wine?

Bad ethics. Not listening to the vineyard. Overthinking it.

What would you like to achieve over the next 15 years?

Bring some of our lesser known and/or less revered grape growing areas into the spotlight. Focus on training cellar and vineyard workers. Make my own wine. Surf. Become an MW. Write a book. Properly learn Xhosa and German (and Russian one day). Relearn vineyards every day. Get a dog. Leave people better/happier than when I found them.

Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?

Mosel Riesling. The balance and delicacy is insane. Effortlessly chic. Unique to place.

Where are you happiest?

With my family and friends and a view. Travelling. Reading.

Biggest vice?

Karaoke.

What are the biggest challenges we face in the South African wine industry? Where would you like to see us go and grow over the next ten years?

Drought and bridging the inequality gap – transformation as highlighted by Michael Fridjhon. With more and better education – for farm and cellar workers, as well as consumers. I would also like to see South Africans backing South Africans. Gaining pride in the industry. I’d like to see the industry truly stand together to build and promote our wines at home and abroad. Building on ethical practice in the industry and for the next generation to step up.

Your cellar is underwater. You can save one bottle of wine from your collection – what do you choose?

A bottle of 2000 Dom Perignon Andy Warhol Series. It was a gift.

What is your favourite food and wine memory?

Having a picnic at the vineyards of Romanée-Conti.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Why?

John Snow. Because John Snow. (Still in discussion with my boyfriend about this).

What is the best and worst thing about working in the wine industry?

It consumes you. It consumes you.

Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are. – Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland. Just do it.

Jolette Steyn

more news