Tim James: A new release of Sadie ’T Voetpad
By Tim James, 24 July 2023
“An old vineyard is like an old-age home”, says Eben Sadie. “Everyone has to leave the home eventually, but always there are some arriving and some leaving – and it’s much better for morale that they don’t all go at the same time!” Hard to think of anyone else putting it quite like that.
I was asking Eben about the interplanting and other new arrivals at the vineyard on the farm called ’T Voetpad, from which he makes his wine of that name (no one knows why the farm was called that; Het Voetpad means The Footpath in Dutch) . Both the place and the wine are fascinating. Indulge my writing about them here when few winelovers will ever get to see the vineyard – isolated in a rather austere, mountainous part of the far northern Swartland, inland from the Atlantic – and, more sadly, not many get to taste the wine, which is produced in pitifully small numbers. But the vineyard and the wine are significant, and everyone who cares for Cape wine and its history should nonetheless be glad that they exist.
There’s less than one-and-a-half hectares of vines: mostly semillon blanc, semillon gris, palomino, and chenin blanc; with just a little muscat d’ Alexandrie – a few bunches making it into the current 2022 wine says winemaker Paul Jordaan. Phylloxera didn’t reach this isolated vineyard when it devastated most of the Cape winelands at the end of the 19th century, and these old vines – mostly planted between 1887 and 1928, it seems – remain on their own roots. That’s why I was checking with Eben about the newer chenin and other vines that have been interplanted in the gaps left by the oldtimers that departed the home. To provide further protection in a changing climate, and because there’s increased chance of phylloxera about, he says, the new vines have been grafted on established rootstock. So the old vineyard is a little younger on average now, with about 30% recent plantings.
While some splendid old vineyards died during the drought years of 2016–2018 (I mourn especially the chenin that made Alheit Radio Lazarus – even Lazarus had to remain dead eventually), ’T Voetpad just scraped through – no doubt thanks to the water that flows, if that’s not too strong a word, beneath the vineyard and is what makes it viable even in less parched times.
Eben once described the lonely little vineyard as being “at the gates of hell”, and I remember going up to participate (in the most gingerly fashion) in harvest one year, and how dreadful the heat was by 9 a.m. It’s been immensely hard, time-consuming and expensive work to, first, redeem it from comparative neglect – after Rosa Kruger “discovered” it in her search for old vineyards in the early years of the century – and then to keep it approximately flourishing. It’s unquestionable that the vineyard would have comprehensively died without a great deal of effort. The effort must sometimes have seemed unrelenting and perhaps not worth the trouble of intensive care involving many trips from the opposite end of the Swartland. Introducing the 2022, along with other new releases, at a small trade tasting last week, Eben said with some genuine intensity that “I’ve prayed many times on leaving this vineyard that someone would burn it down”.
It’s quite surprising, in fact, that the vineyard survived into this century at all – it seems that the mother of the current farmer felt sentimental about it, so the vineyard was minimally maintained and the grapes sold off cheaply. But, as I wrote elsewhere, “The real question is why they were planted in the first place, so obscurely, so isolated. The answer is surely that this was never a normal commercial vineyard but, rather, one of a type that must have been, for a few hundred years, scattered throughout the farmlands of the old Cape Colony—planted to make wine for domestic consumption and to sell to neighboring farms.” It’s really a throwback to the past.
But there it is now, though the sun does its best to produce the conflagration that Eben says he has despairingly wished for on occasion. In 2019, the exhausted vines could offer so little fruit that, for the first time since ’T Voetpad was made in 2009, the few scrawny bunches were dropped early and there was no wine. The following year, reported Eben, “we managed to produce one tiny cask so it is a sign of hope”. The recovering vines – saved by great viticultural effort – are now producing more again. But just 2200 bottles were made in 2022 (much less than half of what Romanée-Conti produces from a slightly larger vineyard in Burgundy) and it will be hard to find commercially outside of restaurants.
As a ironical footnote to the weather report, it’s worth noting that the vineyard was flooded this wet winter of 2023.
The ’T Voetpad wine is a genuine field blend, the grapes all harvested in one morning and vinified together. When the 2022 was shown by Eben and Paul, it seemed to me as excellent a vintage as any there’s been. The aromas – fragrant, complex and wonderful – made that much immediately clear. It’s extraordinarily light-feeling and elegant for a wine emerging from such harshness, but there’s subtle concentration that gives a long-lingering finish, and real volume; the balance is fine, with an acidity that is ripely soft but pervasive, a slight tannic grippiness, and an alcohol that’s notably modest at 13.3%. With this sort of subtlety and balance, it would be only too easy to drink now, but will certainly reward a good few years in bottle.
I had intended to say something about the other new Sadie releases, but my self-indulgence means that must wait.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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