Eben Sadie, one of the most passionate South African winemakers I have been lucky enough to meet. He said he used to make big, pitch dark, oaky wines but now prefers to see finesse and elegance in a wine, without too much extraction (hence making wine like tea, not coffee). Of course he uses oak, but only old big, old barrels.
Eben has actually spent a fair amount of time outside South Africa, including ten years in Priorat, Spain. Maybe this explains why he appreciates old vines and makes Grenache and Cinsault. He is one of the pioneers in the Swartland region, with its Mediterranean climate and, even better, lots of neglected old vine parcels. He keeps looking out for such plots and, once he finds one he likes, he nurtures it back to health using natural composts, never man-made chemicals. His goal is to make wine that reflects the history and terroir of the plot, so he doesn’t blend wines. A couple of plots may be planted with different varieties and he will just ferment them together—a technique known as field blending.
The dry weather in Swartland means mildew is not an issue in the vineyard, but sunburnt grapes are. In the winery the grapes are sorted meticulously to make sure all sunburnt grapes are discarded as Eben doesn’t like the overripe, caramel taste they impart. He uses no chemicals, no filtration and no fining except for the 60ppm of sulphur dioxide that is necessary to ensure stability during a voyage over the equator.
Eben’s new range of wine, Ouwingerdreeks (meaning 'Old Vines Series' in Afrikaans), is made from some of those forgotten old vine parcels. He was in Hong Kong recently to present the 2012 vintage. All the wines have a purity of fruit, an elegant structure and not-overpowering aromas that make them perfect for food pairing.
The Ouwingerdreeks Range has a simple classic label design that conveys the down-to-earth character of the wines. But we noticed that each wine has a different colour wax seal, and it turns out there is a story behind that:
Pofadder: 100% Cinsault from 50 year old vines. Eben reckons Cinsault can only be made into good quality red wine when the vines are old. Young Cinsault should only be used for rosé. The wine has a black seal because the name means puff adder, a venomous black snake found in Africa.
Soldaat: 100% Grenache from 48 year old vines at 700m altitude. It is the altitude that gives the wine its freshness. Soldaat means soldier and the highest military honour is purple colour hence the purple wax seal.
Treinspoor: 100% Tinta Barocca (Tinta Barroca) of Portuguese origin. Eben describes the wine as a blend of Cote Rotie and Piedmont—the spicy, blue berries of Syrah combined with the tannin of Nebbiolo. The silver wax seal is derived from the name Treinspoor, meaning railway.
Skerpioen: A field blend of Chenin Blanc and Palomino from 66 year old vines. Eben swears that the saline taste (from the Palomino perhaps?) is heaven when paired with oyster cooked with lime peel and almond, one of his home-made dishes. The white wax seal recalls the chalk soil where the grapes are grown.
Skurfberg: 100% Chenin Blanc from an 88 year old vineyard 300 km from the winery. This one has 14% alcohol but is well balanced and supported by a fresh acidity and elegant fruit and perfume. It has a red wax seal because the plot is on red soil.
T Voetpad: A field blend of Semillon, Semillon Gris, Palomino, Chenin Blanc and Muscat d’Alexandria grown in one of the oldest vineyards in South Africa: the plot was planted between 1887 and 1928! A wine full of concentration that can certainly age gracefully. The yellow wax seal reflects the vineyard’s yellow footpath (Voetpad in Afrikaans).
Mrs Kirsten: 100% Chenin Blanc from the oldest vineyard in Stellenbosch, planted in 1905. According to Eben the pleasant oxidative character is a characteristic of the vineyard. Only 480 bottles are made each year. Why the orange wax seal? Simply because the owner of the plot, Mrs Kirsten, likes orange.
All these wines, of which only a few hundred cases are made per wine, retail here at just HK$200-240 per bottle, with the exception of the Mrs Kirsten ($740/bottle). These are some of the very best value wines I have ever had and, for once, I found myself begging a producer to increase his prices to be in line with consumer expectations (I suggested $280-$350/bottle)! Eben responded that wine is a living thing and he sees his work as agriculture—not agri-business. He just wants to make wine that brings pleasure to consumers. He would much prefer us to drink two bottles per night at a lower price than just one at a higher price ... but then Eben, you don’t make enough wine to satisfy the market!
Anyway, I’m stocking up now. If you want to do the same, Eben’s Ouwingerdreeks Range from The Sadie Family is available from Berry Bros & Rudd.