A visit with Eben Sadie, including some rare new releases

You only have to turn the clock back a dozen years to date the Sadie Family’s first wine, Columella 2000, yet Eben Sadie has the air of the wise old man of the Swartland.  As well he might.  In his quest to identify the best terroir and do it full justice, the man works double-time, if not triple-time.

It’s a journey which has unearthed 53 different climats spread over 180km and seen him work a string of double vintages, each year in South Africa but also in Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Oregon, California and Spain (where he co-owns Terroir Al Limit in Priorat).  His motive?  As he puts it “to beat the clock, because there’s only one vintage a year.”

Elaborating that, five years after entering world of wine, he realised there was more to wine than science, Sadie says compared with the wines of Europe “our wines didn’t have the emotion…there was a huge difference.” The point of difference?  That “the Old World has had the benefits of distillation of thought and philosophy and time to develop things naturally.”

Though Sadie accepts that wines Old World or New have become less easy to differentiate as global techniques and fashions have shaped wine style, it’s the emotion which captivates him.  He’s certainly not interested in points – “I knew how to make a 100 point wine four years after I left wine school, but the problem is the vineyards are not even in the game, the soils are not in the game – it’s about the architecture of the building and the architect, and that’s the world I’m running away from.”

Surrounded by wines which, he exclaims, “kept me rolling in my bed for weeks,” Sadie’s long, narrow tasting room serves to remind him of the exquisite gains to be had from unravelling the secrets of terroir.  Of working from the terroir up, he says “it’s not like tailoring a wine, so you know what it’s going to look like,” adding “I still don’t know what the wine is going to look like or what a Swartland wine must look like…?”

But on this he is clear.  Swartland is where he should be.  Why?  Saying “4 degrees doesn’t make plonk into Petrus,” Sadie prefers to focus on soils than climate and, for him, “Swartland has the most dramatic and highest qualitative wine soils in South Africa.”  Being Sadie, it’s no idle boast.  It’s a subject he’s researching with cartographer Paul Veit, whom he met four years ago.

Reeling off the range of soil types at his disposal, he reckons “we’ve got 6 appellations in Swartland.” Paardeberg is completely decomposed granite.  The Kasteelberg and rolling hills to south are slate – hard and Douro-like. Malmesbury has slivers of iron rich oxidised clay to the north, similar to Terra Rossa. Picketberg an hour and a half to the north of Malmesbury (and home to “incredible, amazing vines over 100 years old) is sandstone. Out towards the ocean west of Malmesbury is alluvial, like Pessac, Graves.  And, just two years ago, west to Dwartskodsbos, he discovered an exciting 80 year old vineyard (field blend) on chalk, which is planted to Palomino and Chenin Blanc.

Going forward, appellations interest Sadie.  He and fellow Swartland Independent producers are keen to create a regional identity and willing, he says, “to give up our freedom to do what we want [in favour of appellation-like regulation] because a place takes preference over a person.” Given, as he puts it, “our 40 year high impact existence,” there’s no time to waste.  And, for him, it would be a waste of time “to be a guy sitting in a cellar making a perfect wine.”   So watch this space.

Sadie Family Columella 2009  (Swartland)

Creamy yet elegant, translucent Syrah/Mourvedre blend (80/20), with a meaty undertow to its featherlike layers of sweet red fruits interlaced with white pepper, spice and dried herbs/renosterbos.  Fine, delicate even, tannins make for a long, fluid finish.  Well caught on the very cusp of ripeness, Sadie says it’s the best and most herbal Columella he has made. 15% new oak, worn very lightly.  Click here for a vertical of Columella and notes on its evolution over a decade.

Sadie Family Palladius 2010 (Swartland)

The varietal make up of this wine has shifted over time but Sadie reckons it’s now just right – “I’m not going to scratch on it any more.” This vintage features no less than 10 varieties: Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette, Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Verdelho, Palomino.  Apparently the Semillon Gris, from aged 52-100 year old vines, has the same DNA as Semillon Blanc, but it’s a spicier mutation.

Compared to the maiden vintage, which included more “you could fly airplanes with it” Viognier and had 16.6g/l of residual sugar, later incarnations of Palladius are much more svelte and nuanced.  For Sadie, “it’s now ladylike enough to be in a burgundy bottle.”  Though there’s a lovely sweetness to the fruit, this seamless, supple fruited blend is dry (like every vintage of Palladius since the first).  Beautifully balanced and fluid with fine acidity and a subtle pear skin-like texture, it finishes long, elegant and honeysuckle kissed.

Sadie Family Palladius 2008 (Swartland)

Deeper gold in hue and in the mouth, this shimmers with rich ripe stone fruits and honeysuckle; there’s a hint of renosterbos too.  Love the texture – like thick, waxy petals.  Lovely evolution – a great food wine – mature cheeses walk this way.

Sadie Family Skurfberg Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2010 (Olifants River)

This entrancing, tiny production wine made the cut for my Top Five South African wines of last year.  Its sheer force of personality and phenomenal balance really stayed with me. Also the fact that it hails from Olifants River. Once Swartland was believed to be too northerly for top notch wines. Sadie swiftly disproved that. And now he’s pushing the boundary even further north – some 300km from his Swartland cellar! The Skurfberg vineyard is located at 600m on very sandy, table mountain sandstone. Planted between 1920 and 1945, it has been farmed by two families. On nose and palate it shows a great intensity of quince fruit and quinine minerality on a supremely long and balanced, rolling palate which tells of old vine fruit, happy in its skin. Muscular and vital without being high impact, it’s tremendously lingering, glowering even. One of a kind.

Sadie Family Pofadder Old Vine Cinsault 2010 (Swartland)

Cinsault once dominated the Cape and found its way into many a stellar Cabernet.  This wine hails from 45 year old vines on slate soils with, Sadie says, “not an ounce of virus.”  It’s a wonderfully sensual, aromatic wine, shot through with incense spice, threaded with (corduroy) tannins and sluiced with minerals.  Lingering, intense and characterful like the Skurfberg, it makes its own shape.  Very good.

Sadie Family Soldaat Grenache 2011 (Piekenseerskloof)

And finally, we taste a barrel sample of 2011 Grenache (to be called Soldaat, meaning soldier).  It’s from a vineyard Sadie has had his eye on for 12 years.   On its own roots on table mountain sandstone, it’s located at 650m in Piekenseerskloof, which seems to be a hot spot for Grenache, red or white.  It’s like no Grenache I’ve ever tasted.  Pungently spicy, with a skeletal quality to both fruit and firm tannins it puts me in mind of Baga from Bairrada, Portugal.  Which I like very much.  Austere but promising.  I’ll be interested to see how it develops.

Sarah Ahmed
The Wine Detective
(Wines tasted 11 November 2011)

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