Eben Sadie's laid-back surfer-dude persona can mask his true intensity. Since my last visit here in 2007, when Sadie was basically alone on the Paardeberg, he's become a curator of sorts for South Africa's forgotten old vines—pockets of vines here and there that had been abandoned by others, or forsaken by an industry once built on volumes rather than quality. Sadie doesn't make a lot of wine, but his 2005 Columella was the first South African wine to earn a classic rating (he did it again with the 2007 and 2008 vintages) and his newest project, a bevy of single-vineyard bottlings from parcels he's rescued from extinction, are among the most compelling wines being made in the country today. They may be hen's teeth, but don't ever pass up a chance to try them.
"Look at that view," said Sadie, as we stepped out of his bakkie and walked to a clearing, beyond which the rolling foothills of the Paardeberg mountain extend. There are parcels of green interspersed with parcels of brown dust.
"Those are vineyards being ripped out," he said forlornly. "That one there, at the top of that hill, was 60-year-old vines, man. Chenin Blanc. Beautiful stuff. Now it's gone forever."
Sadie, 40, is still youthful in appearance, with a lock of slightly long brown hair that sometimes covers part of his face. He's now making 3,500 cases of wine annually, with a modest 5 percent going to the U.S. market.
The top two Sadie Family wines are a red called Columella and a white called Palladius. But Sadie felt he needed to downplay some of his winemaking after getting a decade of vintages under his belt and seeing how things worked out.
"If you want to see terroir, you have to downplay winemaking and focus on farming," he said. "So we've made changes that might seem like big changes. But they're the first changes we've made in 10 years and now I won't change for another 10 years. If you're tinkering all the time, you look back and see differences in the wine but you don't really know what had an effect."
The changes are from 12 months in barrel to 24 months in large foudre to age the red, while extending the time of the white to 24 months in barrel.
"Whites are better at handling oxidation, but the reds from the Swartland are fragile," said Sadie of the shift in élevage.
The 2011 Palladius Swartland is now a blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette, Palomino, Sémillon, Sémillon Gris and Verdelho (the latter four varieties are all new to the blend). It's dense, almost chewy, but has gorgeous white flower, lemon pulp, quinine, melon, yellow apple and macadamia nut flavors all wound together and stitched up with a chalky minerality that delivers a crunchy intensity on the finish. It's much fresher in style than previous vintages, in part because of the new varieties mixed in.
"The new cowboys," said Sadie. "Plus the extra cask aging doesn't hurt, and with that, the wine doesn't go into bottle shock. The wine is fresh right out of the gate."
The 2010 Columella Swartland is its typical 80/20 Syrah and Mourvèdre blend, and this marks the first vintage the wine was given the additional aging in large cask (ditto for the '11 Palladius above). It's taut and sinewy now, with bitter cherry, blueberry and briar notes and a long, sleek, graphite finish. This courses with energy but has yet to fill out fully. It shows great cut and precision though, with a greater reliance on minerality and restraint than the overt yet gorgeous fruit of some of the earlier vintages. It will certainly be interesting to see how the wine evolves following the recent winemaking changes.
But after achieving success with his Columella and Palladius bottlings, Sadie felt he needed a new challenge.
"I've refined Columella and Palladius, but I had to stay stimulated. So I spent the last four years looking for old vineyards. And to convince the growers who owned them not to rip them out, I needed to come up with a reason why. So I went back through the old records and talked to the older winemakers about how they made wines in the '40s and '50s and '60s. And now I'm going back to the way they did it then: bottling reds after 11 months, whites after 10. I'm begging these guys not to rip their vines out. These vines are our country's history. You can make good wine from young vines, but it's so much easier from old vines. There's an equilibrium there that you don't have to fight for."
I asked Eben what has been the biggest hurdle to vineyard health in South Africa, and why there is a dearth of old vines, save primarily for Chenin Blanc and Sémillon, two varieties known to be naturally resistant to leaf roll virus, which is still a problem in the Cape's vineyards. Is it the propensity for virus? The lack of dormancy in winter? Overcropped vines that spend too much energy too early in life?
"No man. None of that," he said. "It's economics. As soon as the vines start to drop yields, that's when they get interesting. But when you're growing for a co-op, as soon as the yields drop, you start to lose money. After 20 years, you've made enough money you can just rip out and plant again. That's why there are so few old vines around."
The single-vineyard project started in 2009 with just a few hundred bottles of wine from each of the vineyards Sadie earmarked. The wines were first commercialized in 2010, and 2011 will be the first ones to hit the U.S. market. I tasted through the 2012s, which were set to be bottled the next day. The wines will retail for between $48 and $60 depending on the bottling, a more-than-fair price for the diminishing returns each of these vineyards provides. Only a scant 10 percent of the production will make it to the U.S. market.
For this lineup, all the white are whole-bunch pressed, fermented in a combination of concrete eggs and large foudres ("if I can fill a foudre," said Sadie) and then bottled after 10 months. The only sulphur addition is done just prior to bottling, as the wines sit on their lees all the way through the élevage.
The 2012 Skurfberg Olifants River (skurfberg means rigid mountain) is Chenin Blanc sourced from 88-year-old vines planted on Table Mountain sandstone. There are just 380 cases. "This is the highest acidity I ever got on Chenin Blanc at 6.7 grams per liter tartaric, and a pH of 3.35," said Sadie. It shows crystalline purity, with bracing pineapple, green fig and melon rind notes and a steely, even chalky finish. It's very linear, very pure and very long.
The 2012 Skerpioen Swartland (skerpioen means scorpion) is a Chenin Blanc and Palomino blend from 66-year-old vines planted on clay and chalky soils in the northwest corner of the Swartland. There are just 350 cases of this wine that shows a bracing Manzanilla Sherry profile of salted almond, fleur de sel, melon rind and quinine with rapier like cut on the finish and a long, invigorating finish. It's thoroughly unique.
The 2012 'T Voetpad Swartland comes from a 3.5-acre parcel that is a field blend of Sémillon, Sémillon Gris, Palomino, Chenin Blanc and Muscat d'Alexandria planted in a stretch from 1887 to 1928 (Sadie has checked the planting dates with SAWIS, the winery-funded body which tracks the wine industry). The 'T Voetpad (which means foot path) bursts with honeysuckle, pineapple pulp, Meyer lemon and quinine notes that blaze along with remarkable cut and precision, driving through a lengthy finish. There were only 150 cases made.
The 2012 Kokerboom Olifants River (a kokerboom is a type of quiver tree that lines the vineyard) is made from a blend of Sémillon and Sémillon Gris and displays citrus oil, white peach, quinine, green almond and a bracing verjus note. It clings to the palate with a salty intensity while an echo of warm paving stones just won't quit on the finish. There are just 100 cases of this thoroughly unique and intriguing wine.
The 2012 Mev. Kirsten Stellenbosch (named for Mrs. Kirsten, the vineyard's owner) comes from, according to Sadie, South Africa's oldest Chenin Blanc vineyard, planted in 1905. There are just 80 cases as the 2.4 acres of vines crops to just 6 hectoliters. The entire production is done in clay amphorae as there isn't enough juice to fill a concrete egg, and Sadie prefers neutral vessels rather than using oak. It has an intense quinine edge, along with kaffir lime, pineapple pulp, fennel and watermelon rind. It's bone-dry, taut and nervy, with perhaps too much cut for some people, but there's an intense blanched-almond and white ginger backdrop that should emerge more with cellaring, while the oxidative nature of amphorae aging will likely cause the wine to take on a burnished feel, deeper gold color and notes of graham and dried orange.
For the reds, the 2012 Pofadder Swartland (named for the puff adder snake) is made from Cinsault. There are just 400 cases of this silky and pure red, with bitter cherry, blood orange and sandalwood notes laced with a dry, chalky edge and a light pepper note that dances through the finish.
"Cinsault is probably South Africa's best grape," said Sadie, making a statement I haven't exactly heard before. "It's been here for so long. But it doesn't take kindly to human greed—it hates over cropping. And there's no color, so it fell out of favor with the blending co-ops. But in the 1920s, alongside Sémillon Gris, this was the red wine of the country. All the great old wines from Chateau Libertas, Rustenberg and other old historic estates had lots of Cinsault in the blend. I've only got a few bottles left of the old Libertas and some of those other wines, but man I hope my wines get there in 40 years. If not, I'll be really disappointed."
The 2012 Soldaat Piekenierskloof (soldaat means soldier) is 100 percent Grenache sourced from 48-year-old vines on decomposed granite soils at 2,200 feet of elevation. Even though the soils aren't pure sand, the wine is a dead ringer for a cool-vintage bottling of Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with flecks of savory, pine and pepper in the core of light red cherry and mineral notes with a tight lacing of shiso leaf that holds the finish together. There are 500 cases of the wine which will be an eye-opener for lovers of stylish Grenache.
The 2012 Treinspoor Swartland (treinspoor means railway line, as one runs through the vineyard) is the tautest of the reds. Made from Tinta Barocca, it offers distinctive ground spice, mulled cherry skin, blood orange and mineral notes with a coating of plum skin on the finish.
"Tinta Barocca has a big history in this country because of Portuguese settlers. But of course now it's completely out of fashion," said Sadie, with an air of proud resistance.
It's a brave new path Sadie is taking, but if he can make a brand out of bottlings of Cinsault, Sémillon Gris and Tinta Barocca, he'll have achieved his latest rather lofty goal. But following the success of his first wines, it's hard to bet against him.
"Things are difficult here. It's a difficult country. South Africa has teeth, man," Sadie said. "But I also wouldn't want to live anywhere else. And I wouldn't do what I do anywhere else."