Home > Travel, Wine > A long Journey to Perfection

A long Journey to Perfection

First published in Bolander Lifestyle & Property, December 3, 2008

Republished in African Safaris, May 2009

You don’t interview Eben Sadie; you listen to him talk about making wine, and if you’re lucky, you get to ask him some questions, and if you’re even luckier, he may well answer some of them – or perhaps not.

Eben appears arrogant, but if this is so, it is the arrogance of absolute certainty, rather than hubris. He is driven, and it is his quest for the ultimate truth that drives him, that defines his absolute certainty, and that confers upon him that apparent arrogance which, rather than affronting, is strangely compelling, drawing you in, challenging you to engage with the man. Such strong personal conviction could equally, and commendably, be described as courage of convictions.

“I’m interested in the truth; I need to be fed by the truth,” he says, “In the search for that truth you will find the answers, and I am prepared to pay the ultimate price to learn.” That ultimate price could be ruining a complete batch of wine, or even facing bankruptcy.

It is the quest for the truth about what constitutes a great wine, that has occupied Eben’s professional life. “I’ve been in this business for eighteen years, and I’m just beginning to understand what it’s about. You observe with this [pointing at his head] and you work with this [pointing at his heart].”

I am sitting in his office / tasting room at the Sadie Family cellar, a short distance outside Malmesbury on the Paarl road. It’s hot outside, a harbinger of the fierce summer temperatures that shape the wines that come out of this region, and Eben is talking about winemaking. I’m scribbling notes frantically, because I want to record as much of what he says as I can, planning to sort through it later when I have the time, but it’s a hopeless task. I realise that I must note what I can, and absorb the rest, hoping that I will be able to recall what I need to, to write the story.

Eben owns a Spanish winery, Dits del Terra, in Spain’s Priorat region, which is similar to the Swartland – arid and fiercely hot. His experiences there, and frequent travels in search of the truth about wine, have convinced him that Anglo-Saxons just don’t get it when it comes to wine. “Latin people live with heart. They taste wine with heart, with emotion,” he explains, drawing an ever decreasing spiral to illustrate, “and they get to the core of the wine, to the absolute essence. Anglo-Saxons look at wine logically, colour, nose, palate [drawing three boxes].”

Part of his 18-year quest has been to understand wine the Latin way, and in doing so, in pursuit of this particular truth, one of the things he had to do was learn a Latin language. “You have to be able to speak the language to understand a Latin describing wine, to describe it with heart. We’re buggered by genetics,” he says – “we look at wine wrong. We have forgotten how to taste.”

“Real wine will only ever exist in limited quantities,” he adds, noting that it is easy to make what he calls “swimming pool sauvignon blanc”. He draws a comparison between going out into the vineyards and experiencing what is happening to the vines and the grapes, and taking that back and interpreting it in the cellar, as opposed to dipping a sugar metre into the wine and seeing that as making wine. “I need a picture in my head of every one of the vineyards at every point in the season, so that when we harvest, I know what I need to do with them in the cellar,” he says, and that is where the magic emerges. He uses no balling metre, and phenolic ripeness doesn’t really get him excited. “I taste the grape when it comes into the cellar, and what I taste and what I know about that block of grapes, will tell me what I need to do with them.” And it is this single-minded pursuit of perfection that has led him to push the envelope in his approach to making wine.

The cellar is simple, almost Spartan, and you will see very little in the line of fancy equipment lying around. He points at two plastic buckets and a jug in a corner, and explains that this, along with another plastic bucket, is the transportation system of the cellar. I suddenly get this picture of cellar workers racking nearly 7000 litres of Columella using just three 25 litre plastic buckets…

The grapes for his Columella, the yield from eight parcels as he calls them, are all hand-sorted. “We clear this space, here, and I have 25 ladies who I’ve worked with since 2000 who sit and hand sort every grape. They know what to look for, and what to throw out; all the overripe berries are thrown out; they give you that jammy flavour. They get through about three barrels worth a day during harvest.”

It is this level of effort and attention to detail which results in the remarkable wines he makes, but these, along with other cost factors, drive his wine pricing. “Making a great wine costs money. If my farm workers all want medical aid, a retirement annuity and to educate their children, then I have to charge what I charge for my wines,” he says reflectively, and at R515 for his red Rhone-style blend Columella, and R380 for the white Rhone-style blend Palladius, these wines are clearly in the premium class.

Eben believes that winemaking must engage one completely. “To plot your wines, you must live with them, observe them, taste them every day, and be prepared to make changes,” he says, adding that you must complete the journey with the wine from the time the grapes come into the cellar, to the time the wine goes into the bottle.

Is he a biodynamic wine producer? “I’m not part of anything, any organisation or association or movement, and I don’t want to be,” he says, “but I do use the biodynamic treatment.” For example, he uses four enormous concrete “eggs” in which to make his Palladius, a white Rhone-style blend. “The egg is the most stable shape in the world. You get the calmest graph of fermentation. The phases of the moon work on those vessels,” he says. “I add nothing to my wine, but 20 parts per million (ppm) sulphur when the grapes come into the cellar to knock out anything bad that comes in, and 40ppm when I bottle it.” This means, of course, that he relies on wild yeast fermentation, something many other winemakers are too terrified to attempt, for fear of losing a part or the whole of a harvest.

He is the first generation of what he hopes will be many who make wine at the Sadie Family cellar, because for him, great winemaking is a multi-generational undertaking. “If you want to make great wine, you must make wine in the same place for generations,” he says, alluding to some of the venerable estates in France that have made wine for hundreds of years.

He points at a sketch map he’s constructed of the Swartland region from which he draws the grapes he uses to make his signature wines, then at a classification map of the Rhone wine region in France. ”When we can draw our map like this one, then we will be able to produce really great wines around here.”

He concludes with an insight that summarises the as yet unfinished journey on which he embarked eighteen years ago. “When you start to make wines, they are fat, wide, full of ego. Then over time, you cut out, cut away, until you have the essence of the wine. The wine becomes a linear experience of elegance, focus and length.”

But despite his willingness to share what he does, and to talk about his winemaking, I sense that there is a dimension to Eben Sadie that remains hidden, an enigmatic, almost mystic demeanour. And perhaps it is that hidden dimension which allows him to commune with his wine to become one with it, to tap into the energy he so fervently believes helps to make his remarkable wines what they are.

As I bumped my way down the hot dusty track back to the R45 and the long road home to Somerset West, the thought struck me that maybe, just maybe, the essence of Eben Sadie was in Valiant Swart’s thoughts when he penned the lyrics of his seminal, “The Mystic Boer”.

And then, of course, to the ultimate question: are his wines worth the asking price? In my opinion, without a doubt.

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Categories: Travel, Wine
  1. December 3, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for post. Nice to see such good ideas.
    amaninthekitchen.wordpress.com – go to my favorites!!!

  2. December 5, 2009 at 5:14 am

    Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

  3. December 7, 2009 at 2:53 am

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

  4. December 13, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Authentic words, some authentic words man. You rocked my day!!

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