Wine Revolutionaries Mix Vines, Leopards in South African Hills
Eben Sadie pours glasses of red and white, brushes back sun-bleached hair and starts talking his wine revolution. The South African’s non-stop philosophizing seems part vision, part spin -- until I taste his brilliant, original wines.
“I’m a soil maniac,” says South Africa’s most outspoken winemaker (a term he hates). “Some people bet on horses, I like to walk into a vineyard and say, ‘I bet this will be the one.’”
Sadie focuses on getting terroir -- a taste of the climate, soil, and tradition of where the grapes are grown -- into his wines.
We’re in the Sadie Family Wines office above his small winery, a room with orange walls, maps of Burgundy, and crate shelves lined with empty bottles that once held the world’s greatest vintages.
In this cluster of whitewashed buildings in the Swartland district, the opinionated Sadie is making some of the most fascinating wines I tasted during a recent trip through South Africa’s vineyards.
An hour north of Cape Town, Swartland is the country’s latest buzz wine area, a Wild West compared to the famous Stellenbosch district, whose sophisticated shops, flashy architecture and wealthy French investors remind me of Napa Valley.
Long known as wheat-growing country, Swartland has a history of bulk wine cooperatives. The name means ‘black land,’ for the native rhino bush that turns the dry, spare landscape dark part of the year.
In the past decade, a small group of maverick winemakers has been changing that image.
“Here,” says Sadie, 38, “is where you can make the greatest South African wines.”
He ticks off the region’s virtues: the temperature swings (40 degrees centigrade by day, 15 degrees by night), the schist and granite soils, the many old vineyards, high altitude grapes growing in baboon habitat.
A wine perfectionist in baggy cargo shorts and scruffy canvas shoes, he got his start in Swartland as winemaker at Charles Back’s Spice Route winery, one of the district’s first serious ventures, then branched out on his own in 1999 with $12,000, 14 barrels, and a German partner.
“The cellar doesn’t excite me,” he says. “What really affects me is the angle of the plow.” Still, he constantly experiments, even aging wine in clay amphora.
What stands out in Sadie’s several bottlings is their surprising purity and complexity. I give the edge to his luscious, mineral-and-orange blossom white, 2008 Palladius ($60), a blend of 10 white grapes. His dark, earthy 2009 Columella, a syrah/mourvedre red ($90) is plush, seductive. Of his $30 “Monday to Friday” wines, I prefer the creamy yet fresh 2009 Sequillo white to the 2008 Sequillo red.
Swartland’s revolutionaries prize blends over single varietals, syrah over cabernet. They like organic grape growing, natural yeasts, and above all, old vines -- all to show off the region’s unique terroirs.
At 6 p.m., I arrive at nearby Babylon’s Peak (first vintage 2003) on the slopes of Paardeberg mountain, more than an hour late. Owner Stephan Basson assures me that’s the norm when you’ve been visiting Sadie.
We bump up a long rutted jeep track to a spot just below the mountain’s 700-meter peak for a drink and the view, passing a steep vineyard of 40-year-old chenin blanc vines that look like thick trunked bushes.
Like many growers, Basson considered pulling them out because of low yields and prices. Now he makes his own lively wine from some of the grapes, and serious winemakers like Sadie are willing to pay top dollar for the rest.
The family set aside part of the mountain on their huge farm as a natural preserve, one example of the recent efforts in the South African wine world to preserve biodiversity. The Western Cape is the smallest yet richest plant kingdom on earth.
“We know the leopards are back,” Basson says. I keep my eyes open, but spot only unusual birds.
Later that evening, several producers turn up for a tasting and braai (barbecue) at the winery of another rebel, Adi Badenhorst, former winemaker at a high-profile Stellenbosch estate. Badenhorst, 40, wears flipflops, a TinTin t-shirt, and a short grey ponytail. He carries a wine bottle in one hand and his sleeping daughter on his back.
The 1930s winery, abandoned until he and his cousin bought it 3 years ago, is almost restored. “Every farmer had one until the cooperative opened in 1948,” he says. Now the cooperatives are becoming unprofitable and the wine scene encourages growers to make their own.
While Badenhorst’s assistant winemaker turns meat on the fireplace grill, I head for the wines, savoring the fresh, citrusy 2008 A.A. Badenhorst white blend and spicy, plushy 2007 red, (both $35), and the Lammershoek winery’s intriguing 2007 Roulette red ($20) and vibrant 2009 Roulette Blanc ($18).
Thanks to Swartland’s small band of talented producers, there’s plenty of hype about the wines. They don’t all live up to it. But, then, the revolution’s barely started.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)