Eben Sadie – a masterclass
I had a real treat earlier in the summer, a masterclass with Eben Sadie, who is indisputably one of the great South African wine makers. He is articulate, enthusiastic and superbly informative and one hour was simply not enough time. Essentially Eben makes two wines, a red and a white, Columella and Palladius, in the warmer region of Swartland. And we were treated to four vintages of each, making what Eben eloquently called an Evolution tasting, so that we could see how things had developed over the years.
He talked about the extremes of the drought conditions of 2017, 2018 and 2019, saying that ‘the drought has made us better farmers’. He mentioned about cover crops, and compost and the need to build carbon in the soil, and double its water capacity. He is searching for grape varieties that are more suited to drought conditions, using terms that I had not encountered before, namely isohydric and anisohydric. Varieties such as Carignan, Grenache Noir, Assyrtiko, are isohydric and Eben described them as hard-core Mediterranean varieties. Pinot Noir, and even Syrah, are anisohydric and cannot withstand heat and drought. They are looking at new varieties, but that takes time, with a lengthy plant quarantine. Agiorgitiko, Bastardo, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Counoise, Grillo and others are all under consideration, as is Pontac a grape variety that had more or less disappeared from the Cape and is now making a comeback. Piquepoul surprised him, as did Vermentino. He has 20 new varieties on three sites, with different soils, slate, granite and limestone. So far, the slate is not good for white wines, and the limestone is giving good results, making wines with good acidity. Chardonnay was a mistake, and he thinks that Swartland is also too warm for Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. He has planted Clairette and Grenache Blanc.
Eben’s very first vintage was 2000 and in 2020 he stopped making the wine to hand over to his assistant Paul, while he concentrates on the vineyards. He talked about the changes in wine making. They reassess every ten years, any sooner and you cannot read the development of the wine.
So initially all the grapes for the red wine were destemmed. They were picked ripe, to make wines with 14-15°. There were three pigeages a day; and then pressing after six weeks and into 40 – 60% new oak barrels, plus older barrels, all small, for 24 months. These were the methods of the first decade, which were refined ten years later.
So in 2010, they moved towards 70% whole cluster fermentation with 30% destemmed, but no pigeage. Ten per cent of the wine is pumped over. New oak accounts for 5% of the wood; the rest is old large foudres, 16 – 18 years old. Eben compared his technique, with coffee and tea making – hard core extraction as opposed to gentle infusion. And then in 2020 they reduced the amount of whole bunches to 30%, feeling that gives a better tannin balance with more layers of flavour.
So this is what we tasted, reds first, and then whites, going from old to young.
2004 Columella, The Sadie Family wines, Swartland
A blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache Carignan and others. A cooler vintage with some rain. Quite a deep colour. Rich spice on the nose, with quite a fresh palate, with red fruit. Elegance, balance and length. Evolving beautifully.
The same blend. Deep colour. Warmer richer and denser. Still very youthful. Firm tannins and dry spicy fruit on the palate. Rounded and harmonious with good weight and mouthfeel. Evolving nicely, but still with plenty of energy.
Deep young colour. Firm spicy black fruit on the nose. And on the palate, rounded black fruit. Quite a firm palate, long and elegant. A rounded harmonious palate of nuanced flavours.
Deep young colour. Dense youthful but elegant fruit on the nose and palate. Firm youthful; rounded and harmonious. Subtle; supple. Considerable length and potential. There are some wines that simply defy description; humble words are not enough, and this is one of them.
2007 Palladius The Sadie Family Wines, Swartland
A blend of Chenin, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Colombar, Palomino, Semillon and others. The Semillon includes a mutation, Semillon Gris, about which Eben enthused; it is more tannic. Light golden. A dry nuttiness on the nose. Lots of nuances on the palate. Very good acidity. Textured, layered and mouth filling. Very intriguing. And beautifully aged.
There is less Marsanne and Roussanne and Viognier than in earlier vintages, with a move toward Clairette and Colombard, for their acidity. Light golden. Quite a perfumed nose. Broader palate and honeyed, riper with layers and less acidity. Great length.
Whole bunch pressed. Light colour, with a firm flinty mineral nose. Very firm palate with good acidity. Youthful flinty stony fruit, and quite delicious. Very pure, with wonderful energy.
A blend of Chenin, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Colombar, Palomino, Semillon and others.
Very pale colour. Tight knit stony nose. Quite a firm palate, closed with tight acidity, and some weight. Youthful potential. A great finale to a fabulous tasting.