Author: Sophie Thorpe
I was incredibly nervous before meeting Eben Sadie, a man who doesn’t do press, doesn’t accept visitors, whose winery has no tasting room – and whose wines have an intimidating reputation for excellence. Winding along dust-laden dirt tracks, reading Tim James and Platter’s praise for the enigmatic Swartland pioneer, the anticipation only built. I shouldn’t have worried. As I was to discover during my time in South Africa, the country’s remarkably talented winemaking set couldn’t be more relaxed, humble or utterly charming. Eben was no exception to the rule.
We escaped the already scorching 10am sun and ducked into the office. The room reminded me a little of No.3 St James’s Street, the surfaces lined with (regrettably empty) bottles – fabulous vintages of the best wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône and Champagne. Tall, tanned, with a truly dazzling smile and a thick Afrikaans accent – Eben shook our hands as he finished off a call, then settled down to tell us about The Sadie Family Wines. And – while Eben may be the face of the business – it really is a family company: while we are there his sister Delana arrives with dogs in tow and his mum settles into an armchair nearby to read The World of Fine Wine (to which Eben says, “next time I open a bottle of Dolcetto she’s going to frown and say she wants the Barolo”).
When we visited, at the end of October, he was – like most other producers we visited – pre-occupied by the current season, having not had a drop of water for two months, an incredibly short winter and no rain whatsoever between September 2014 and May 2015. “This is the driest it’s been in 89 years – so there’s nobody alive that was practicing winemaking that we could ask about the last drought of this proportion, and it’s quite nerve-racking.
“We’ve got to farm incredibly conservatively this year: it’s like when you run a marathon, the idea is that you’ve had all the training, but you must also be in the state of mind, and must also have the physique, and you must have the reserves. But, for the vines this year, it’s gonna to be like running the marathon on a serious hangover with a baby on the back.”
When I asked whether he would consider irrigating this year, knowing that his vines have had under half the rain they would normally receive (just 140 to 200mm versus the normal 450mm), he firmly rejected the idea. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with pumping water out of the earth,” he said. “Obviously in a year like this you think: my philosophy pretty much sucks. But, there’ll be rain again, and if you if you have to take one really bad vintage in 10 years, but you have a resource that’s intact, that’s a better norm than letting the human greed factor decide where water goes.”
He believes that “water is going to become the most sacred commodity on the planet”. It’s easy to be cynical and see this as theatre, a mantra determined by a PR firm – but he’s busy building his first house that will be almost entirely off-grid, with solar panels and a water-collection and purification system. It’s difficult not to be drawn in by this seemingly simple farmer, forgetting momentarily that he makes some of the finest wine in the New World. “I’m made to plant and I’m made to pick, that’s the two things I was grown to be, that’s for sure… and to surf the odd wave,” he says with a boyish smile.
In search of African wine
Talking about the varietals he works with, Eben explains how the New World has been limited. “Europe’s a small place, massive gene pool of plants. Fits into bloody Texas, you know: it’s a tiny place. And we go and we plant the whole New World – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, South America and North America – we plant seven grapes essentially. Seven. Just the seven. Irrespective of their affinity, their sustainability, and their sense of belonging. And everyone talks a big terroir game, but how can you say that this wine […] is an exhibition of this terroir? We’ve taken seven grapes because they fit on excel spreadsheets, they fit on wine lists.”
He is planting tiny quantities (enough for just 80 bottles) of 35 new varieties, on specific sites chosen for their latitude, altitude, radiation and soil affinity, replicating as closely as possible the conditions of their respective ‘homes’ in Europe. He believes that the New World never evolved, never going through a natural process of selection for the grapes grown. “So I’m going to plant the lot. And then I’m going to probably have to pull out 90 percent.” He is particularly excited about the potential of Greek varieties, with plantings of Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro and Assyrtiko; he’s putting in Grillo, Catarratto, Negroamaro, Aglianico, Albanello and Counoise, Terret Noire, Carignan Blanc and Grenache Gris.
This is all in pursuit of an identity, he declares, almost statesman-like in his call to arms: “We must make African wines – our own wines. We must cut our colonial umbilical cord with Europe.” He believes that he has “a responsibility to make in my lifetime a wine that resonates this place”, not lesser imitations of France’s finest. Gesturing towards the many bottles around the office, he sadly admits that he has had to stop keeping the bottles. “Eight out of 10 wines I drink is Burgundy […] I just love Burgundy, but it doesn’t mean Burgundy needs to come into my wines here.
“One day I hope a Frenchman sits in Burgundy and he drinks our African wine with our African identity and our African DNA and then he falls in love with it. […] That’s kind of my fairy-tale story, but I think it’s possible. I think we can make truly unique wines here.”
The evolution of Eben
He talks about his journey this far: after leaving university he made wine scientifically, by the book, for eight years, and then veered off-road, making – in his own words – “completely left-wing, off-the-wall natural wines”. He believes that terroir is to be found somewhere in the middle. Today he claims to be “definitely questioning much more things”.
“Our wines 20 years ago were pitch black, loaded with oak and scored massive out of 100: they were bankers’ wines, for bankers’ banking the shots. They were obvious in what they were, and you didn’t need much of a brain to drink them. They were like vanilla ice cream. Now, 20 years later, they’re becoming more quiet, more introvert,” but he’s keen to make sure they don’t reach “the point of austerity, where the austerity starts eating the terroir.”
He believes that “you need a decade of dedication to one thing”, and that it is easy to live off “the energy of new things, new creations, new happenings” but you “don’t really get closure on things, you don’t really review things.” He talks about a recent visit to Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny. “The current generation is the 21st generation making the wine, I don’t know of any other business in the world that’s got 21 generations, and for 21 generations they’ve been farming five hectares. It’s fair to say that they know their five hectares.”
The wines he first dedicated himself to are “regional wines”, Columella and Palladius. “When I want to make a regional wine, I must include all of the region. It’s like a society, if you only include the rich people, only the white people, only the brown people, only the grey people, only the blue people, only the red people… No, a society is all of it, the ones that speak softer, the ones that speak louder, the ones that live off their pay check for 25 days, the ones that live off their pay check for 30 days, it’s the society, it’s the whole thing. And that’s how I see the regional wine: it’s everything.”
Looking back to move forward
His next challenge was the “old-vine thing”, seeking out parcels of old vines (some dating as far back as 1897) and producing single-vineyard, single-varietal wines – a very pure expression of terroir. “Being white South African, we don’t like to look beyond 1992,” he says. “On the other side of that date a lot of bad policy, bad politics, bad everything… But, in that time, also beautiful things happened; it wasn’t all bad. […] I just said we must go back and we must celebrate the beautiful stories, and the beautiful stories is some of these old vineyards.”
It looks like the next Sadie experiment will be “African wine”, forming a unique vinous identity for his nation. Part of cutting the “colonial umbilical cord” has been selling his share in a Priorat property, Terroir Al Limit. He has also made the last vintage of his Sequillo wines, his “entry-level” brand that has – in the past – offered access to Sadie’s talent at a lower price point. So what is he going to do for the next 20 years? “I want to get better, and not better by the judgement of the Decanter or the Wine Spectator or the Platter Guide, or the whoever. By our definition of our understanding of where we are with it. Better for the people that work with us, better for our employees, better for the soils, better for the plants, better for the socio-economics. All the stuff that needs to happen in our environment: it’s not just vineyards, it’s this whole community.” His two sons will soon be working with him, and he wants to work the land with animals (“for many reasons, not just the poetry,” he qualifies). However the next chapter unfolds, it is bound to be exciting – pushing boundaries and producing something of extraordinary quality.
Explore our range of The Sadie Family Wines on bbr.com, including extremely limited stock of his Old Vine Series as well the 2013 vintage of his signature wines, Columella and Palladius.