“The 2019 Skurfberg, which is whole-cluster-pressed Chenin matured in old foudre, has an understated bouquet of subtle undergrowth, chalk and chai tea scents that take their time to find their groove. The palate is very well balanced with a fine degree of acidity, more neutral in style than Sadie’s other 2019s, just a touch of orange zest lighting up the finish. This Skurfberg needs 4–5 years in bottle but it will certainly be worth your patience and may merit a higher score down the line. Drinking window: 2022-2036. 95+ points
It had been too long since I shot the breeze with Eben Sadie. Even though we couldn’t chat in his natural habitat, the vineyard, our Zoom conversation between Surrey and the Swartland was the next best thing. As expected, our conversation meandered to cover all manner of subjects, not only pertaining to South Africa. Eben Sadie is a contradiction in the sense that he is wedded to his homeland yet has a catholic taste in wine, as evidenced by rows of Burgundy and Barolo bottles lining his office. He began in typically philosophical form, looking back at his professional career.
“I have surpassed everything I set out to do and forged a team around me with similar capabilities. You need people to follow with the same trajectory, people that buy into your vision. It’s like a painter. You need a good studio where you feel free to practice your art. Wine is the same, but there are all these people who make it possible. We’ve gone from a staff of 10 to 25, mostly on the viticultural side. We have also acquired land, so that 80% of the vineyards are completely controlled by ourselves, even if from a financial standpoint it is much less profitable. Also, we have planted different grape varieties, which is exciting, though not all are successful.”
One intriguing exchange concerned how Sadie reassesses the modus operandi in the winery every decade. In introducing a new approach – a change in punch-downs or aging vessel, for example – he wants to pressure-test that technique under different growing seasons and/or with different people, in order to gauge if it should be a permanent feature. Since the 2019 vintage is the 20th anniversary of Sadie Family Wines, it prompted Sadie to look back. To take just one facet of winemaking, he sees the first decade as one where everything was destemmed, then a decade when whole bunch was almost mandatory. Going forward, he plans to adopt a more nuanced approach.
“Whole cluster is such a huge debate at the moment. When you look at regional specifics, areas with very cool climates producing fruit with high acidity, low pH and often very low potassium are most suited to whole bunch. [Looking back at previous vintages] we found in the first decade that there was a level and sophistication of tannin that was better than in the second decade. It feels like a textural aspect was lost. The second finding was that the Swartland being low in acidity and high in potassium in the stems, compounded by the droughts, means that I don’t think Swartland is the best place for whole cluster. Therefore, for the Old Vine Series reds, we took the whole cluster down from 90% to 50% in 2019. We don’t do punch-downs but more like a délestage, so that is what we will do going forward.”
We then drilled down to discuss individual wines within his Old Vine Series of releases, commencing with the reds.
“With respect to the 2019 Soldaat, you might have noticed a vegetal aspect in the Grenache,” Sadie told me. “In late December we have started removing leaves around the bunches to remove that aspect. I like it, but I like very austere and ungiving wines. Pofadder is a pure Cinsault vineyard, one where I noticed that it crops much lower. I don’t subscribe to the view that low crops are necessarily the best, but here I think it is a good thing. The actual bunches are smaller. We used to get a lot of side bunches but they’ve not appeared in the last three years. That’s nothing that we have done.”
Eben Sadie is a huge fan of Tinta Barocca and once he starts on the subject, you can do little to stop him.
“The Tinta Barocca [the variety behind Trienspoor] has had the biggest leap in quality. I think it is the best grape planted in the Swartland but it’s an unknown. Even producers don’t know where to plant it. For the 2019 we had one tank completely destemmed and another half-destemmed, so it was 20% destemmed overall, though 2021 is completely destemmed. It has Piedmont-like tannins and Northern Rhône aromatics. The problem is that it has very low yields, which is why Portuguese growers did not plant it widely after the war, when they were getting paid per kilo. But it has such intensity of flavor that I have to stop my pickers from eating the grapes during harvest. The viticulture is much better in this vineyard now. Also, the aging is improved, using conical vats and one foudre to give a little more tannin.”
Sadie is one of the rare breeds of winemakers with no qualms about admitting that he could have done better, even though personally, I construe it as a bit of serendipity.
“The Skurfberg [pure Chenin Blanc] was maybe picked earlier than I wanted. The drought was at its peak and yields were down to 12hl/ha instead of 25-28hl/ha. We could have picked a week later, but we would have possibly killed the vines. Even picking earlier, some vines died because in some places there was just 118mm of rain, half the norm. So it has more acidity than normal, with a green line running through the wine. It’s very strict. I’ll be watching this wine out of the corner of my eye to see whether that earlier picking is something we should pursue. Mev. Kirsten is one of those wines where I talk with a pride that can border on arrogance. But there is no vineyard like it. It’s one of the most difficult soils that we farm – it gets so wet quickly and dries just as quick. We have put a lot of organic material in that vineyard over the last 10 years. From 2017 onward it has entered a completely different realm. I took a six-pack to Burgundy and poured it for some growers, and a couple said that it drinks like a Grand Cru. That’s a huge compliment. I’m so proud of the viticulture here. I would take Aubert de Villaine into that vineyard to show him.””
Neal Martin, Vinous (04/21)