The Terroir of Time
The highly anticipated annual release of the Sadie Family Wines is usually an intimate and personal affair where people get to engage directly with the wines and their creator. This year however, thanks to the tumultuous events that have engulfed the planet, things had to be done a little differently.
WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL
IMAGES COURTESY SADIE FAMILY WINES
Eben Sadie has a deep personal connection with both the land, and the people who drink his wine.
Eben Sadie occupies a revered status in the firmament of South African winemakers. His approach to the 2020 release of his wines raised him yet further in the estimation of those who have followed and understood the impact of the so-called ‘Swartland Revolution’ on the craft of winemaking globally.
Since the maiden vintage of their signature Columella was released in 2000, Sadie Family Wines has attracted a growing following of dedicated oenophiles. Palladius had its maiden release two years later, and the number of followers intensely loyal to this Swartland wine domaine continued to swell.
The annual release of the year’s vintage is a big day on the calendar for those who have seen the light through a glass of Sadie Family wine and know it’s worth. It’s a small club. Only 25 hectares of the family’s 34 hectare farm is under vines. It’s also in one of the driest wine regions of South Africa’s Western Cape province, so it produces roughly 65,000 bottles of wine per year. In years of drought, like those experienced recently, that can fall to a mere 50,000 bottles per annum.
As farming hinges on so many factors, annual yields can be influenced by many factors. In 2020 thanks to the pandemic, the live release by invitation had to be abandoned. Instead Eben Sadie made a short film to introduce the fruits of a turbulent year to the world. Watching this documentary-style introduction to his craft and the wines captured my imagination and immediately sent me out looking for some of his hard-to-come-by bottles.
The film is a simple, gentle piece that feels like you’re right there listening in on a conversation with an old and trusted friend. Eben’s presence is powerful because his philosophy is simple. Wine is made from grapes and grapes are the product of agriculture which is, in his view, a cultural activity and a relationship with the land as cornerstone.
The launch of the 2020 vintage took a creative turn which has given customers a deeper insight into the wines.
What Eben defines as agriculture is not the ‘farming’ that he sees carried out all around him. That’s better defined as agri-businesses, where the main objective to take from the earth without nurturing or giving back to it. He is deeply aware of the true responsibility we have as citizens of the very land we inhabit to guard, protect and nurture it.
“We are merely borrowing this land and planet from the next generation,” says the quiet-spoken farmer by way of explanation. “We need to return it in a better state than we found it. As a collective we have failed the planet here. However, Sadie Family Wines is committed to do everything in our power to become a great citizen of the globe.”
The operation has various charters in place with policies on aspects like going off the grid, recycling, water conservation, and the provenance of every component that forms part of their agriculture activities. Much care is taken to make the best decisions and cost is not the driving factor because as Eben says: “Great wine is produced outside the realm of spreadsheets. It is the confluence of a relationship with the soil, the atmosphere, the plant and the people involved in the process.”
To understand this philosophy, and its outcomes, one need only look at the wines produced by the Sadie Family. The flagship Columella is a blend of Mediterranean red varietals well suited to the soils of the Swartland and its oceanic climate. With nine small parcels of isolated vineyards making up the final blend, it probably best described as an “appellation” or “regional” wine.
The main objective is that Columella should be the best possible ambassador of the entire region. All the stand-out regional grape varieties need to be part of the final wine. As Eben says: “We blend the vineyards, not the grapes.”
The results of his dedication to the vineyards, the land and the environment in which he practises his ‘agriculture’ are reflected in the bottle. Since the first release of Columella in 2000, it has come to be regarded as one of the finest regional wines of the world.
In a similar vein, Palladius is considered one of the most unique wines in the world. This blend of Mediterranean white varieties well suited to the soils and oceanic climate of the Swartland combines 11 grape varietals harvested from 17 regional vineyard parcels. Each variety and each soil type, even elevation and aspect, brings forward another note adding to the complexity of the wine.
To make Palladius, grapes from all the vineyard parcels are pressed to concrete eggs and clay amphora to ferment.
Not content to produce two wines of exceptional quality that are important to the entire global wine industry, the Sadie Family sought new challenges. Following their philosophy of ‘agriculture’ in preserving both land and heritage, 2009 saw the first release of their ‘Old Vine Series’.
Wine tells a story not only of the land and it’s climate, but also of the grape and the human endeavour that turns it into wine. Each bottle is like a time capsule that reflects the place and conditions in which it was grown and the story of the people that made it. With this in mind Eben realised that much of the history of wine making in South Africa was stored in some bedraggled or neglected vines throughout the region where he worked.
He realised that South Africa has inherited many old precious vineyards in the Cape. Some of them are complete historical compilations that capture the country’s entire viticultural legacy. Many were neglected due to economic challenges, or considered obsolete due to modern tastes or production methods.
The Sadie family has charters in place to improve and nurture the land that they farm and around 2009, Eben Sadie started working with pockets of heritage grapes that had been forgotten or abandoned, to produce the ‘Old Vine Series’.
With a reputation firmly established as both farmer and wine producer, Eben was able to gain access to some truly historic pockets of vines. He considered it a privilege to tend and gently bring them back to life again. This resulted in the maiden release of wines from six historical vineyards in 2009. A couple more have since been added and they are a sort of bottled snapshot of wine making in South Africa for the past century or more.
Because the heritage of wine in the Cape is not only defined by one region or a single grape variety, the range represents a massive footprint of the Cape Winelands. The oldest vineyards in the Cape are to be found in Stellenbosch, Olifantsrivier and the Swartland. Unlike the Sadie Family’s signature wines that are only from Swartland based vineyards, the precious ‘Old Vine’ tells a broader tale.
Very limited quantities of the Old Vine Series are released annually. The range includes Soldaat, Pofadder, Treinspoor, Skerpioen, Skurfberg, Kokerboom, Mev. Kirsten and Voetpad, each from a single historic vineyard.
A great deal of care and time has been dedicated to upgrading and restoring these old vineyard parcels. The vision is that they may gradually be able to produce more bottles to share with more people in the future.
The exploration of heritage in the terroir, the respect for the land and its delicate balance with time and evolution is present in every bottle of wine from these exceptional producers. To drink one of their wines is truly a transporting experience, a journey through time and terroir guided by a hand that truly understands and reveres the craft of winemaking in all its multiple layers.
The Swartland is an extremely dry region with very marginal rains worsened by ongoing drought and Eben is aware of the fact that we are merely borrowing this land and planet from the next generation.