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South Africa: Day 11—From Big to Small

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 18, 2007 5:33pm ET

It’s Sunday, but no rest for me. First stop this morning was Meerlust, the historic estate that has been owned for over 250 years by the Myburgh family. It’s a gorgeous property, set off the main road as you head into Stellenbosch, with 400 hectares, 120 of which are under vine.

Current owner Hannes Myburgh, who took over in 1988, has seen the estate’s wines undergo quite a transition, from the slightly hard-edged, traditional style favored by former winemaker Giorgio dalla Cia to a more modern approach favored by the current winemaker, Chris Williams.

After his appointment as head winemaker, Williams bottled the ‘03s and vinified his first vintage in ’04. He’s dropped the amount of new oak the wines see and reduced their time in wood. He’s also used the same infrared technology espoused by Gyles Webb to help him fine-tune the vineyards.

“In the beginning, I had so many experiments going—different yeasts, barrels, plots, picking dates—all to break the farm down into smaller units," says Williams, explaining how he got to know the property.

His efforts show in the wines: The ’05 Meerlust Chardonnay was really impressive, as are the reds, which are fresher, riper and more delineated. I particularly liked the ’05 Rubicon, which we tasted from barrel. Rubicon is the estate’s flagship wine made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It was dark, loamy and powerful, with lots of tarry grip, but still had a vibrant, minerally spine. Kudos to this estate for updating its wines without losing its sense of place and history.

The historic Meerlust estate includes a 17th century manor house in the classic Cape Dutch style.  

Making the transition from big winery to small winery, I headed to Sadie Family, the boutique project run by young winemaker Eben Sadie.

Sadie wins my unofficial poll among the country’s winemakers as the most talented winemaker right now, but you’ve probably never heard of him since he produces minuscule quantities of wine and has a hard time getting them to the U.S. market.

“Some people are in the inheritance business, I’m in the borrowing business,” says Sadie. “Some people farm because they inherited the land, I’m just borrowing it from my children.”

Sadie is outspoken and honest, and he isn’t afraid to give his opinion on any matter. He’s also got the surfer-turned-winemaker (or is it winemaker-turned-surfer?) thing down cold.

He’s obsessed with terroir and Rhône varieties, which he feels are ideally suited to the Cape’s Mediterranean climate. He started the project in 2000 while working at Spice Route for Charles Back and then eventually went out on his own. Since then, he’s found some choice hillsides that he’s developed using the same goblet-type trellis system that you’ll see in Côte-Rôtie, and his wines are starting to really come around.

The red, called Columella, is a blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, sourced from seven small vineyard plots spread over three main soil types—clay/iron, granite and slate. The wine is fermented in open-top wood fermentors, then moved to barrel for 24 months of aging before bottling.

Sadie poured a complete vertical of Columella (2000 through 2005) for me as we sat down in his minimalist cellar tucked up in the hills of the Voor-Paardeberg. The earlier versions showed ripe plum fruit and notes of sage and minerals, but the wine really seems to come into its own in the ’04 and ’05 vintages, with some stunningly pure fruit, exotic herb notes and a mouthwatering slate edge to the finish. (Think of it as a cross between a ripe, hot-year Côte-Rôtie and a great, modern-style Bandol like the ‘04s from Tempier.) The ’05 Columella was the best young wine I’ve had so far on this trip.

Sadie produces a white wine as well, called Palladius, made from a blend of Chenin Blanc (from some great-looking, old-vine vineyards in poor, sandy, granite soils), along with Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Chardonnay. The ’04 was showing some maturity, with a honeyed feel and brioche and paraffin notes, but the ’05 was a big step up once again, just loaded with bright stone fruit flavors, cherry pit, quartz, ginger and buckwheat honey notes. It is completely unlike any other white wine I’ve ever had.

A windswept, old-vine Chenin Blanc vineyard provides grapes for Eben Sadie’s Palladius wine.  

There are only a few hundred cases of each of these wines, and his importer woes don’t make them any easier to find. Hopefully that will get all sorted out, since this is a dynamic project on a rapid rise to world-class quality. Sadie also has a second project called Sequillo, which should be easier to find: It produces a little over 1,000 cases of a Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache blend which shows delicious floral red berry and mineral notes with a creamy texture.

From big to small, from the Cabernet capital of Stellenbosch to the Rhône varieties in Voor-Paardeberg, South Africa has a terrific range of diverse wineries. With young, smart winemakers like Chris Williams and Eben Sadie now in the mix, things are looking bright.

David Sean Muttillo
Port —  March 23, 2007 2:14am ET
Any thoughts on Chris Williams personal label "The Foundry"?
James Molesworth
March 23, 2007 9:29am ET
Davis: He's making excellent wines under his own label - a big, rich, plush Syrah and a ripe, round Viognier. The Syrah is outstanding. Look for him to appear in my "Winemaker Talk" series as well...
Jan Luthman
Sussex, UK —  June 28, 2007 11:23am ET
A UK merchant mentioned that Eben was (is?) also involved in the production of a Spanish red "Dits del Terra", Toroja del Priorat, and that he's married to the daughter of G¿rd Gauby, who is a similarly impassioned producer of hard-to-find (and expensive) wines in Calce in Roussillon (South France).
James Molesworth
June 28, 2007 11:34am ET
Jan: Yes, Eben spends nearly half his time in Priorat, working on his project there...

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