I went to South Africa to learn about its wines. This meant understanding first hand what the country’s wine regions and winemakers were capable of, and by implication, how they stacked up against the rest of the world.
My main activity in pursuit of this goal consisted of tasting hundreds and hundreds of wines at Cape Wine 2008, the biannual trade show of South African wine.
After about 10 hours of doing nothing but tasting wines, I had learned a thing or two about South African wine, the wine regions, and the various styles of wine currently being made throughout the country. I had also tasted some very good wine, a few excellent wines, but sadly, none that thoroughly wowed me. This realization itself was part of my ongoing education, as much as it was a slight disappointment that after traveling so far, the country did not seem to make truly world-class wines that could compete with the best from other countries.
But then I tasted the wines made by a young winemaker named Eben Sadie, and everything changed.
Eben Sadie got his start in winemaking in his early twenties, apprenticing at various producers before eventually signing on in 1998 to be the winemaker for a new label called Spice Route, headed by veteran wine producer Charles Back. Even by then, Sadie had already begun a quest to understand wine as deeply as he could, a quest that would take him to most of the major wine regions of the world to taste and work, and would eventually have him leave Spice Route in 2001 to start his own label.
Or more accurately, to start five different labels.
Sadie learned a lot of things in the roughly 8 years he spent intensely absorbing the wines and winemaking traditions of everywhere from Burgundy to Napa to Rioja, but perhaps none of the lessons he learned was so profound as what he says was his own realization that terroir really mattered. “Most winemakers get in the way of the wine. This is wrong. We need to remove as many things as possible to allow the grapes and the soil to say what they want to say,” he said to me over a glass of his wine at a dinner party in Cape Town. “I’m trying to get rid of everything.”
Indeed, Sadie’s winemaking could be described as either ancient or primitive or both, depending on your point of view. Of course these days, we have another word for that sort of winemaking: visionary. Most of the truly visionary winemakers of the world are all a little…. whacko, in the best possible way, if you get my meaning. Sadie sounds more like a philosopher poet than a winemaker, always a little drunk with passion about wine.
In addition to being Biodynamically produced, Sadie’s wines are handcrafted to an extreme — from the meticulous vineyard management of incredibly small yields, to the hand harvesting in tiny boxes, to the use of small, open-topped wooden fermenters, cement vats, and only the power of gravity in the cellar. The electricity to control the temperature of fermentation is the most modern piece of technology in the cellar. The grapes are pressed with a hand-cranked basket press, just as they are punched down by hand during the fermentation process.
Sadie also told me that he is in the process of eliminating all new wood in his cellar, again because, as he put it, “why would you add flavor to the wine? I want my wine to taste like wine, not wood.” His wines are aged in the cement vats and large 200, 300, and 500 liter ancient oak barrels, as well as some smaller “neutral” barrels that he reuses every year.
Per the requirements for Biodynamic production (though it’s clear Sadie would be doing it anyway, even if there were no such thing as Biodynamic certification) the wines are never fined or filtered, and are only fermented using native yeasts.
Sadie tends to age his varietals separately and then blend after about 12-18 months of aging, let the wine rest, and then put it into bottles for another period of aging.
When I met Sadie in South Africa he was slightly distracted, as harvest was approaching in the Northern Hemisphere. Why would he care? Because one of his wines is made in Spain.
Sadie Family Wines (comprised of three employees: Eben, his brother, and his sister) owns two different wineries and six different wine labels in two different hemispheres. In South Africa, Sadie produces three different wines: Columella, a southern Rhone blend, Palladius, an unusual white blend, and two wines named Sequillo, two more red and white Rhone blends. In Spain, Sadie produces three Priorat wines under the Dit al Terra, Arbossar, and Terroir Limit labels.
When I asked him about why all the different labels, he shrugged, smiled and said, “they are all different wines.”
While the wines are, indeed all different, the thread that links them together (at least all the South African ones I tried) is a rich complexity, and an incredible sense of authenticity.
Without a doubt, Eben Sadie’s wines were the finest I tasted during my entire trip to South Africa. But it is not enough to simply say they were better than every other South African wine I tasted, because this does not give them enough credit on their own. These wines are truly phenomenal — individual, quirky, passionate, and deeply satisfying. I cannot recommend them highly enough. And thankfully they are all available in the United States.
2007 Sequillo Cellars White Blend, Swartland, South Africa
Light gold in the glass, this unusual blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Roussanne has a surprising nose of white peaches, star fruit, and greenish tropical fruit aromas that are tough to pin down. In the mouth the wine is nothing short of gorgeous. Lovely, silky texture carries flavors of peaches and honeysuckle that are balanced perfectly with a mineral acidity so that the whole wine resonates through a long finish that leaves a simple, lowercase, “wow” at the end of my scribbled notes from the day. Score: 9.5. Cost: $25. Where to buy?
2005 Sequillo Cellars Red Blend, Swartland, South Africa
Inky garnet in color, this blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre has a beautiful dark nose of mulberry, earth, and cassis aromas. In the mouth it is the wine equivalent of Valentino in his prime — utterly seductive, dark, and just exotic enough to be mysterious. Rich, textured, complex flavors of cassis, mulberry, and other dark fruits, juicy with great acidity, linger into a long finish where the faintest hint of tannins emerge, but only for those paying close attention. And it’s hard to pay attention when all this wine makes you want to do is swallow, swallow, and swallow some more. Score: 9.5. Cost: $25. Where to buy?
2007 Sadie Family Wines “Palladius” White Blend, Western Cape, South Africa
Light gold in color, this wine has a nose of wet granite, clover honey, and lemon blossom scents. In the mouth it is angular and explosively bright with juicy lemon-flavored acidity and lean mineral qualities that mellow into cold cream and soft texture as the wine finishes lovely and long. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. Where to buy?
2006 Columella Rhone Blend, Western Cape, South Africa
Dark ruby in the glass, this blend of Syrah and Mourvedre has a nose of bright cassis, blackberry, and grape aromas. In the mouth it is…there’s no other way to put it….rockin’ with flavor: cassis, blackberry, black cherry, and other rich ripe dark fruits swirl in a concoction that is shot through with a dry minerality and deep complex texture that evokes some of the best wines of the Northern Rhone. If I am reading my sloppy tasting note correctly, I believe the finish was described in the moment as “hot damn.” Score: 9.5. Cost: $80. Where to buy?
NOTE: the 2006 Columella and 2007 Palladius have yet to be released in the USA but will likely find their way here in the next 6 months or so.