Steinkopf, Northern Cape, was as a mission station in the early 19th century. It’s truly a tiny town with just over 7 500 people living in this northernmost region of Namaqualand. Its wide skies, penetrating silence and remote landscape sustains three very distinctive plant biomes – Cape fynbos, Kamiesberge, and Richtersveld – have always attracted naturalists, and local and international tourists. They come in spring to see the wildflowers that bloom for a few short weeks.
“It’s a very close-knit community but it feels, and is, far, far away. It takes nearly six hours to drive from there to Paarl, says Imellia Prins (34), Nederburg’s newly appointed assistant red winemaker.
The closest centre is Springbok, 45 km away, and not exactly a major metropolis either, but it’s where she went to school.
“Now imagine me, a young woman on the brink of adulthood, switching that primal, essential, unspoiled environment for one of German worldliness, architectural history and sophistication. The contrast was so immense, I could measure the leap in light years.”
She is referring to her time as a month-long exchange student in Leissling during her final year of school, a small town known for its baroque church, museums, mineral springs and vineyards. “Probably the most lasting impact of that experience was at the table in the home of my host family. We all got to drink wine with our evening meal. It wasn’t a big deal. It was just there, and I was invited to share in it.
“I’d never really thought about wine because it hadn’t been part of my upbringing. But sitting at the table, being confronted by all these interesting and very appealing flavours and discovering how they changed as you ate, was totally life-altering. As I sipped, it came to me. I could do this. I could plan for a career in wine.”
And that’s exactly what she did. After school she moved to Stellenbosch to earn a degree in winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College. Yet interestingly, she didn’t follow the regular path that would have taken her directly into winemaking. “After working two harvests, I went the analytical route for eight years. My focus was on wine quality, through microbiology and laboratory work. Later, I began secondary winemaking, blending wines made by the cellar where I worked.
“It was an absolutely 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 as I step into my new role as winemaker.
“I’m so excited to be at Nederburg, with such marvellous mentors! Who would have thought that in Leissling, when I gave myself that challenge, I would be joining one of South Africa’s most famous cellars! I have to keep on pinching myself that it’s real.”
Nederburg’s red winemaker, Zinaschke Steyn, her immediate mentor is thrilled to have another woman on board. “It is so affirming to witness the growing numbers of women entering the industry. Imellia brings outstanding skills, a refreshing curiosity and vibrant energy to the team.”
Imellia says her family is so proud of the move she’s just made. “But, in truth, I’m the one who is proud of them. They have always enabled me, encouraged me and I’ve learned by their example. I hope what they have taught me, I can impart to my son, now eight, when his turn comes to build a career.”
Her favourite Nederburg wine is Heritage Heroes The Brew Master, a full-bodied but graceful Bordeaux style blend. “Blending is the consummate art. Get it right and you can create power and subtlety in the same drop of wine.”
She lives with her husband, also in the wine industry, in Wellington.