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PLACE ABOVE PROGRESS – Eben Sadie on old vines, new cultivars and bottling the Swartland

Eben Sadie from The Sadie Family Wines is a legend in winemaking circles. If you know your South African wines, chances are you’ve either enjoyed or coveted a bottle of Columella and Palladius – the signature blends that garnered Eben global success and drew the world’s attention to the singular terroir of the Swartland at the same time. 

Eben Sadie and friends in front of their Sadie Family Wines cellar in the Swartland.

MEET THE WINEMAKER’S WINEMAKER

Eben graduated from Elsenburg College in 1994 and proceeded to travel throughout Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, the United States and South Africa, honing his craft along the way. He joined Spice Route as head winemaker under Charles Back in 1998, and set out on his own in 2000. This is when he returned to his native Swartland to craft the wines and build the reputation that would ultimately lead to him being named Winemakers’ Winemaker in 2017. 

This award placed him in the same league as industry heavyweights like Alvaro Palacios, Egon Müller from Egon Müller Scharzhof, the late Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive, Paul Draper of Ridge, Peter Gago of Penfolds and Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus. The honour, which has been given annually since 2011, recognises outstanding achievements in the field of winemaking and is chosen by a panel of winemaking peers that comprise all Masters of Wine who are winemakers, as well as the award’s past winners.

However, although Eben was honoured by the award, this was never his goal. His mission has always been to put place above progress and craft wines that can hold their own as ambassadors of the Swartland.

“I believe wine is about putting a place in a bottle,” he explains, “It’s about bottling the essence of a place. It’s a huge undertaking – almost vain to start out with. Saying that you’re going to put the Swartland in the bottle sounds pretty cocky, but you have to understand that there is one thing that every wine in the world has in common.”

“Whether it comes from Georgia, Israel, Syria, Canada, Patagonia, the Napa Valley, New Zealand or Japan, it has a W.O. (wine of origin). When you stick that on a label, it makes certain claims – it leads to assumptions about that wine and about that place. A wine should be an ambassador for its region, which is why I always strive to bottle to truth about what the Swartland is.”

Eben Sadie in the Slangdraai vineyard in the Swartland’s Paardeberg.
Grapes from the Slangdraai vineyard with Kasteelberg in the distance.
Eben Sadie and Paul Jordaan during harvest earlier this year.
All grapes are hand sorted by local Swartland women before entering the next phase of winemaking. “I sometimes rely more on the capable hands of these ladies, than what I rely on myself”, Eben lovingly jokes, but we know better.
Portrait of a sorter in the Sadie Family Wines cellar during harvest earlier this year.

PRESERVING THE OLD WHILE SEEKING THE NEW

Aside from his stellar Columella and Palladius blends, Eben is also known for his Old Vine Series – eight different wines sourced from some of the oldest vineyards in South-Africa.  

“If you look at old wines from the Swartland you’ll realise that we don’t really have to reinvent anything, we should just go and harvest the good, old things that were already there. The Swartland really is one of those places where you can say what we have is fantastic, what we have is enough – there is nothing better out there. Our soil is remarkable and while our climate is a bit tough at present due to the drought, this place is thoroughly amazing,” Eben enthuses. 

“For the first decade, Sadie Family Wines exclusively produced Columella and Palladius. It was only in our second decade that we branched out to include our eight single-vineyard wines that stand as  snapshots of a very particular terroir. This volume of focus should show you how seriously we take our position as custodians of this amazing place. The vineyards from which we source the grapes for the single-vineyard vintages are located throughout the Swartland, with one or two falling outside of the region’s official borders. It’s from these special locations that we source the building blocks for Skurfberg, ‘T Voetpad, Pofadder, Kokerboom, Mev. Kirsten, Soldaat, Treinspoor and Skerpioen.”

The Sadie Family Wines flagship and old vine series wines, already thoroughly enjoyed.
Eben with his dog Hachikō – also affectionately called Sewe Meter by local Swartlanders – in front of the Columella and Palladius cellar. ‘Sewe Meter‘ translates to ‘seven meters’ in Afrikaans. Hachikō and was given this name as he is seldom less than 7m from his best friend’s side.

DON’T PLANT WHAT SELLS, PLANT WHAT BELONGS

The Sadie Family Wines is also in the process of growing and introducing a wide variety of new cultivars that were sourced from around the world, in active response to global warming and in the hope of establishing vineyards that can stand up to the climatological challenges particular to the Swartland. 

“The reality is that climate change is here to stay,” says Eben. “And while there are a lot of people who passively stare at the train heading in their direction without bracing for impact, we have taken a different view at Sadie Family Wines. At the same time, we also want to shuffle the deck we’re playing with. In Europe, they have 5000+ grape varieties to bring their soil and cultures to life, and Europe is a small place. In most of the New World, we only have 7 grape varieties to work with – we need to rethink our strategy.”

Alicante Bouschet or Garnacha Tintorera is one of the very few grapes in the wine grape family that has a red flesh and intense colour, sometimes referred to as the ‘blood grape’. 2019 sees the return of this grape to the Swartland. The first commercial wine is made this vintage by The Sadie Family wines in South Africa’s Swartland wine region.

Based on these two reasons, Eben and his team have embarked on a process of planting many new varieties, mainly chosen for drought resistance, its ability to handle sunburn and heat, as well as a naturally low hydric metabolism, which means it uses less water throughout the growth cycle. 

“We have planted 35 new varietals so far, mostly selected from other warmer Mediterranean areas like Sicilia, Southern Italy, Greece, Southern Spain. Southern France as well as Portugal and its islands,” says Eben. 

“This includes white cultivars like Assyrtiko from Greece; Grillo, Cataratto, Albanello and Vermentino from Italy; Cinsaut Blanc from Southern France; Verdelho from Portugal and Palomino from Southern Spain. On the red side we selected Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro from Greece; Aglianico and Negro Amaro from Italy; Counoise from France; Tinta Amarella and Touriga Franca from Portugal; and Alicante Bouchet from France. We’re also reintroducing Pontac from South of France, which is actually an old South African hero that has been all but forgotten.” 

Eben Sadie harvesting his Alicante Bouschet in his Paardeberg vineyard in the Swartland.

LEAVING A LASTING LEGACY

Even though he is driving change in the Swartland region, Eben does not believe in progress for progress’ sake. Having grown up in the South African wine industry in an era of modernisation, he believes that change should never eat away at your core values, or seek a quick fix on a squashed timeline. In his opinion there is a difference between advancement for opportunity and advancement to establish a legacy.

“When people think in terms of progress they think along the lines of ten years, but when you’re talking about the improvement of a wine you should be thinking in terms of 80 year or more. It really takes a single person’s entire professional life to add value. You have to realise that you will only be able to add one or two things in your entire lifetime and then you have to hand it over to the new generation, both in the vineyard and in the cellar.”

“I’m not planting these new grapes because it will be bringing in a lot of money. In fact, these cultivars will be hard to sell and not all of new plantations will be celebrated. We’ll plant the grapes, make experimental wines, and then assess and analyse each year to build up data. In ten years’ time we will have to make a couple of hard calls. Of the 35 varietals we’ve planted, only five might work and then we’ll continue to plant those. But to me it will be worth it even if I find only one grape varietal that can hold its own in our climate in order to keep the industry sustainable as we head into an uncertain future. That would be a huge contribution.”

Harvesting the Chenin and Palomino that make up the Skerpioen blend in The Sadie Family Wines’ Old Vine Series just outside Dwarskersbos in South Africa’s Swartland.

The Santam Swartland Wine and Olive Route looks forward to seeing what Eben dreams up next as he continues to forge a lasting legacy that will lead the region to even greater heights. 

QUICK LINKS >> Website: www.thesadiefamily.com | Email: office@thesadiefamily.com | Telephone Number: 076 151 7131

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