“We’re 10 years in and only vaguely understanding the vineyards,” says Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines as he welcomes guests to the latest vintage release. And he reckons agricultural resources are depleted to such an extent that everyone has to reconsider viticulture and vinification going forwards. The drought is clearly hitting them hard, Riebeek Kasteel’s rainfall to date this year a mere 320mm but not as bad as Paardeberg, were Sadie has measured just 140mm, similar to what Callie Louw has seen at nearby Porseleinberg (compared to a long-term annual averages of around 500mm).
Meanwhile Sadie is actively looking at drought resistant varieties, planting experimental cuttings of the Agricultural Research Institute as well as varieties brought in by him and Rosa Kruger. He reckons younger wine enthusiasts looking to drink something less mainstream will experiment with more obscure varieties like Macabeo (Viura), Assyrtiko and Mencia. His established clients in London’s more well-to-do neighbourhoods “dining with silver service and crystal salt and pepper cellars” might still buy his deluxe red blend Columella, but these more alternative varieties are set to find favour with the aforementioned category of consumers.
The reality is that it is increasingly difficult for those who favour minimum intervention wine-growing and -making to manage natural acidity, the previous issue of tannin ripeness no longer the challenge. “In 2016 we saw a risky situation of lower acids and higher pHs. It’s drugs and arms deals when the analysis is unstable. It was a dictator democracy in the cellar – otherwise corruption and the drug lords took over. Things have changed so much that in 2016 the Constantia guys did not have to worry about the Cabernets not ripening!” says Sadie. And while it was also a excellent vintage in the wards of Hemel and Aarde, the the drought conditions in the Swartland which tends to be more arid in any case caused all kinds of worry.
With winemaker Paul Jordaan in the cellar and Sadie trying to let go after 20 years, he started looking at some different approaches, like not doing 100% whole bunch ferments and taking the wines off the lees a bit earlier to sustain vitality and freshness. “My aim is to leave it to Paul now so I can spend more time in the vineyards and go surfing the Indo-Pacific.”
On to the wines with the tasting regime for the day like in Burgundy, reds before whites:
Old Vine Series Pofadder 2016 (from Cinsault)
“The giver that gives too much, to its own detriment. An overachiever, a late ripener, so prone to heat damage. But the 2016 has not evolved a bit yet. The wine thinks it is still in the cellar, fresh, unassuming and grippy, like a poodle,” says Sadie. And ghere was a little white fluff ball running around the werf and Sadie warned us against her…
As with the requirements to make great Cinsualt, Sadie insists that as with Grenache, you only produce great wines from vines 20 years and older, so you need to make rosé from them until the vines are in balance and of age which means cultivating a rosé wine culture in the meantime.
Old Vine Series Soldaat 2016 (from Grenache)
“One of the most misunderstood grapes in the world, high maintenance in the cellar and not as forgiving as Syrah. While it’s the world’s most widely planted grape, Grenache has probably appointed the wrong marketing department. There’s generally more bad Chateauneuf du Papes than good ones, the wines typically over-extracted and too oxidative,” says Sadie. Grenache needs altitude to gain freshness and that’s what you have in the Piekenierskloof where these grapes hail from, with deep Table Mountain sandstone formations.
Old Vine Series Treinspoor 2016 (from Tinta Barocca)
It’s a spectacularly interesting wine that’s as deep but perhaps more harmonious than previous vintages, something achieved by softer handling and extraction in the cellar – they introduced a regime of not working on Sundays anymore with Sadie saying “The wine has to rest as well, hey?”
In keeping with the rest of the red wines, this regional blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsaut and Tinta Barocca has also seen extraction reduced and a shift in ageing away from barrels to bigger-sized old foudres to retain freshness and fruit. This wine needs the benefit of long term aging and will not disappoint in the distant future. The alcohol levels are also much lower today and on a whole just a more restrained effort.
Before we move on, Sadie observes that the wines are “brutally” young. “A wine needs to be locked away for at least 20 years. He’s like that guy sitting in the corner at the bar, quiet, sullen, mulling over his beer. There is a moer of story there… Decanting is cheating. You must learn to wait. Drink a good rosé if you have to, in the meantime.” And now for the whites…
Old Vine Series Skerpioen 2016 (a field blend of Chenin and Palomino)
The block lives on pure white sea sand, with underlying white chalk bedrock, co-harvested and whole bunch pressed, lees contact for at least a year, the result appearing saline, fresh and linear. “If you are poor like us and can’t afford champagne, drink this with oysters,” says Sadie. Ageability guaranteed.
Old Vine Series Skurfberg 2016 (from Chenin Blanc)
The wine from the mystical place near Clanwilliam in the Olifantsrivier where my Old Vine Project colleague Jaco Engelbrecht and I “saw the dragons” and met the special people who grow these vineyards (see here and here). Sadie says this is one of biggest finds in the country, thanks to Rosa Kruger. “It’s a whole new world and we are planting more. This and Tinta Barocca are not swimming pool wines, you see food when you taste them.”
Old Vine Series Kokerboom 2016 (from Semillon and Semillon Gris)
And while the vineyard for is only 50km apart from the Skurfberg, the two wines taste different, even further apart than you might possibly expect. This vintage seems particularly full and textured.
Old Vine Series ‘T Voetpad (field blend)
Situated on the Malgasberg close to Piketberg, this vineyard was the source of vinous and spiritual pleasure for close to 100 years as part of the farm’s positioning as a service to weary travellers on “Het Voetpad”, literally meaning foot path. A trade route.
“This is one of the most diverse field blends I’ve ever seen with the Chenin and Muscat planted in 1900 and both the Semillon blanc (Groendruif) and gris as well as the Palomino in 1928. This is a great example of vines growing old together and morphing into harmony,” says Sadie. He used to harvest and vinify separately but currently co-harvest and -ferment. He reckons it makes a better wine, as if they walk the path together more harmoniously.
Old Vine Series Mev. Kirsten 2016 (Chenin Blanc)
This was Sadie’s first wine in his Old Vine Series. He says the vineyard has picked up a bit of Stellenbosch, being an “urban vineyard”, with students jog and cycle by daily and he even finds golf balls in the 1.2ha parcel on the edge of the Rozendal neighbourhood. It’s a mysterious wine though, oldest Chenin in South Africa and not keen to have an owner, he says during the year he feels he loses her, being unpredictable and a source of frustration. “Sometimes the wine smells like a perlemoen you forgot under your bakkie seat.” But she comes together after 12 months and bottles beautifully.
The final white wine to be tasted is the Palladius 2015, made from 11 varieties and vinified in clay amphorae and concrete eggs, the aim here to get as much fruit density and texture as possible. “Age this wine, please. We know it is a white, but age it!” says Sadie.
But then arrives a witblits called Blitsem. One of the reasons we have these old blocks in far-flung areas of the country was for witblits, a clear spirit or moonshine made by the original frontier farmers. This very palatable digestif is made from Hanepoot which grows among the other varieties in the Skerpioen vineyard, Sadie serving it with some Pinotage and fennel salami and delicious West Coast rollmops.
Sadie concludes, “All our wines, red and white, are made and treated similarly. There is no preferential treatment. Then you can see their potential and how they can perform. For if not, it be a matter of Bridge House and Kayamandi.”
- André Morgenthal has experience in both winemaking and wine tourism, having worked vintages in Burgundy and South Africa, as well as running his own wine tourism company. After a 15-year tenure at Wines of South Africa as communications manager, he is now an independent consultant, his primary involvement being with the Old Vine Project.