7 July 2022 As a companion piece to my article today on Eben Sadie's latest change of direction, I thought it would be interesting to rescue his previous, 2014, apologia from the archives. He's obviously an important character, mentioned in no fewer than 67 of our articles.
16 May 2014 South Africa's most admired young(ish) wine producer Eben Sadie was in London recently, as usual in reflective mood (followed, apparently, by party mode). Almost as soon as I sat down to taste some of his wines before a dinner he was hosting at the Guildhall Hawksmoor, he swung into a particularly frank and illuminating recent history of South African winemaking.
'We now have this big, shared notion: everyone is going for freshness and acidity. Quite a contrast from the early 2000s when everyone was trying so hard to get high scores on the 100-point scale. I was just young then. But I have to say that my 2004 tastes so much better now than when it was released. I honestly don't know how people sold them when they were young. They were so hard in youth and then went into lockdown in middle age. South African wines are now definitely fresher, which is good because our wines were too ripe. Mind you, I would have protested if you'd told me that in 2004! It's easy to say this now because the wines have been sold, but I do wonder how they would have been with only half the new wood I used in the past.'
Quite an admission. I wonder how many other winemakers secretly feel this way? It presumably takes someone as successful as Eben Sadie of the Sadie Family, whose wines such as Columella and Palladius have won such plaudits, to make such an admission. (It echoes similar sentiments from Gérard Gauby in Roussillon almost 10 years ago.)
His Columella red blend still comes from exactly the same Swartland vineyards as it always has done but the grapes are picked earlier and the proportion of new wood has been reduced dramatically from 60 to 10%. '2001 was my lowest yield but it was probably too low', he admits. 'Now I'm looking for higher yields for better balance. When I was 24 I suffered from dogma. Now I go much more slowly. I'm not reinventing anything, but over 14% alcohol is too much. Swartland is not a 12% region, but it's not a 15% region either. I'm gauging maturity now – I have to find farming techniques to get perfect ripeness before it gets to 14%. For example, I used to sucker quite heavily but now I'm happier with higher yields, especially since our climate has become so much warmer. Our bunches are much more shaded than they used to be. We need to run away from the sun, not chase it. Cover crops is another aspect that has changed a lot. We used to plough them in but the evapotranspiration rate was too much so we now we roll them without putting too much nitrogen back into the soil.' And, inevitably, we discussed 'vineyard manager' Rosa Kruger, who has worked so closely with Sadie.
Now he practises pigeage every two or three days during fermentation but in 2004 it was several times a day. The average age of his vines now is 20–23 years. He has been experimenting with amphoras and reckons that after producing no fewer than five prototypes, he's got the design right now. Ever questing (and, he told me, inspired by a certain 2012 book about wine grapes which he keeps by his bed), he has planted Aglianico, Negroamaro and Agiorgitiko. 'You have to wait for ever for them to get through quarantine though.'
He is particularly proud of having no outside investors for his 4,000-case operation. 'I have no ambitions to be rich or famous, I just want to make wines I can see in the future.' He is too late to avoid fame, I'm afraid.
Incidentally, I tasted a really excellent 13.5% Grenache from another Swartland Sadie. David Sadie is younger, and apparently completely unrelated to Eben, but is clearly someone to watch.
I tasted the following wines while listening to the older Sadie.