Interview with Eben Sadie

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  • Monday 8 June 2009

The Western Cape’s enfant terrible tells Tim Atkin MW of his frustration with protocol and why he’ll never follow the crowd

Eben Sadie belongs to another era.

In an age of instant mass communication, of bloggers and Twitterers and information overload, South Africa’s most talked-about winemaker is gloriously unconcerned about the outside world. He doesn’t have a radio or a television and never reads newspapers, preferring to rely on people ‘who have already processed the information’. ‘I just work,’ he says. ‘That’s the only way I will make my dreams come true.’

And what dreams they are. Sadie wants to craft some of the best wines on the planet, not just in South Africa. To some, he is a muddle-headed idealist, a man who ‘believes his own bullshit’, as one competitor puts it; to others, he is one of the greatest and most original winemakers in the southern hemisphere, a passionate maverick with the courage to take risks and defy convention. He can be outspoken, even brusque, but you could never accuse him of lacking conviction. ‘I am very extreme,’ he tells me, standing in a vineyard in his beloved Swartland, ‘but I’m not volatile. I take decisions over a period of years, not days or months.’

The 36-year-old Sadie has packed a lot of experience into his professional life. For the past 14 years he has done two vintages a year, one in South Africa and one in Europe. It’s an odyssey that has taken him to Germany, Austria, Oregon, France, California and, for the past eight years, to Spain, where he has his own vineyard, Terroir Al Limit, in Priorat. His tasting room is lined with empty bottles of great European wines, testament to his desire to understand and compete with the best. ‘I spend most of my spare money on wine,’ he admits.

In just over a decade, Sadie has become a Cape superstar. His big break was landing the job at Charles Back’s Spice Route winery in the then-isolated Swartland in 1998. ‘I wanted someone who could live the product and live on the edge,’ remembers Back. ‘Eben was the outstanding candidate. Within a vintage it was obvious he was destined for great things. He’s a national asset.’

The first two vintages of Sadie’s top red, Columella, were made at Spice Route under the Sadie Family Wines name, but by 2001 he was ready to set up on his own. He set off with R9,000 (£650), 14 barrels and Charles Back’s blessing. ‘Charles liked the wine,’ laughs Sadie, ‘but he didn’t like the profit and loss account.’ Even today, with Columella established as one of South Africa’s outstanding reds, the figures don’t look all that flash. It retails in the UK for around £35 a bottle, but ‘costs me R240 (£16) a bottle to make,’ says Sadie. ‘People criticise my prices, but hardly anyone bothers to come here to see why they are expensive.’

The Swartland is not the backwater it once was, but it is still regarded by many producers as a marginal area better suited to wheat than grapes. Sadie, naturally, disagrees. Unprompted, he snatches my notebook from my hand and sketches the different terroirs around Malmesbury: clay on the Glenrosa Ridge, slate in Riebeek, gravel and volcanic soils close to Darling and granite on the Paardeberg. ‘That’s five different soil types within a short drive of my winery,’ he says. ‘I source grapes from 43ha (hectares) covering 48 separate parcels. Terroir doesn’t work in big blocks, despite what they say in Bordeaux; it’s a parcel-by-parcel thing here, just as it is in Burgundy. I don’t buy grapes from two vineyards that are the same.’

Terroir is central to Sadie’s winemaking philosophy. ‘Terroir is made up of history, tradition and time as well as other elements, and these three things aren’t always welcome in today’s world,’ he says. For someone who is often heralded as a great winemaker, Sadie is much more interested in his vineyards than in what goes on in the cellar. Modern winemaking, he tells me, is like instant coffee: safe and secure, but lacking in flavour and excitement. Real wine, on the other hand, is like real coffee: complicated to make well and threatened by commercialism.

How does Sadie define terroir? ‘I look at the wine and the landscape. I ask myself: does the wine taste like the countryside?’ I ask him what he sees when he looks down from the top of the Paardeberg. ‘The Mediterranean,’ he replies. ‘South Africa’s conditions are generally much closer to those of Spain, Portugal or southern Italy than they are to those of France. The Cape has suffered from Bordeaux-itis for too long, and it’s a very severe virus. You need to plant what really belongs in any given area, not what other people tell you to plant.’

Sadie is vehemently critical of all types of bureaucracy, but what annoys him most is the official insistence that Cape growers have to buy their planting material from INTAV/ENRA in France. Given the opportunity, Sadie says he’d plant Godello, Albariño, Treixadura, Riesling, Mencia, Teroldego and Grüner Veltliner in a cooler region like Elgin, and Aglianico, Terret Noir, Nero d’Avola, Assyrtiko, Fiano, Gattinara and Frappato in the warmer areas. ‘INTAV doesn’t have any of those varieties, but it does have 40 different clones of Sauvignon Blanc,’ he adds. ‘This country is far too hung up on France and French grapes. It’s ridiculous – the New World relies on five grapes but there’s 80 in Portugal alone. We owe it to ourselves to pursue variety.’

For all that, Sadie has made his name with Gallic varieties, most notably Syrah and Mourvèdre (for Columella), and Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Clairette and Chardonnay (for his white blend, Palladius). With the exception of one bush-vine white called Mrs Kirsten’s Old Vines Chenin Blanc – of which more in a second – Sadie does not believe in varietal wines. He even claims that ‘the varietal drive is what’s holding the New World back’. ‘When you have an oceanic influence, you have to blend for complexity. And in South Africa we have two oceans.’

Sadie believes in blending vineyards as well as grape varieties. He took me through a barrel tasting of the Syrah components of his 2008 Columella and they were a revelation, underlining the differences between his terroirs. ‘Columella is made in the vineyards, all eight of them, and I’m learning how to work better with each one of them. I don’t want all of my grapes to have the same flavour profile and sugar content; that’s why I blend.’

What Sadie’s Syrahs display is elegance, persistence and minerality – all this without resorting to over-ripe flavours. ‘I like a touch of unripeness in Syrah,’ he adds, ‘because it gives the wine nerve and tannin. In 2008 I picked earlier than in the past. Once the grapes have more than 14% potential alcohol, I want them off the plant.’ He crops low, uses natural yeasts and allows the grapes to do the rest. I think his 2006 Columella is the best he’s made to date, a remarkable wine that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the great Syrah-based blends of the world.

The other top wines chez Sadie are both white: Palladius and Mrs Kirsten’s Old Vines Chenin Blanc, which caused huge controversy when it was launched at R824 (£60) a bottle in South Africa last year. Sadie produced 680 bottles of the 2006 and sold the lot in a few hours, despite some raised eyebrows among his competitors. The Palladius blend is based on 48% of a 75-year-old block of Chenin, but Mrs Kirsten’s sees the grape take centre stage. Sadie saw the 90-year-old vineyard when he was out walking in Stellenbosch and made its octogenarian owner an offer for her grapes. He’s convinced that Chenin, not Sauvignon Blanc, is the Cape’s great white variety and is busy hunting down similar parcels.

None of Sadie’s wines displays the green, burnt rubber characters that are still a problem in the Cape, so how does he avoid them? ‘The burnt rubber character happens more in some regions than others, but the highest frequency is in big-volume blends, where the wines get made too fast. My strong feeling is that it’s mainly related to winemaking, particularly the management of sulphides during fermentation.’ In other words, smaller, slower, cleaner and more careful is best.

Burnt rubber or no burnt rubber, Sadie is convinced that the Cape is ‘one of the great wine regions of the world’. But for all his achievements, he believes that the best is to come, if not in his lifetime, then in that of his 10-year-old son, Markus. ‘Maybe Markus will astonish the world in 50 years’ time, or maybe I will when I’m old, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s plenty of time if you have the right terroir.’

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