Q & A WITH EBEN SADIE
Written by: Lynn Diehl - May 3,2010
IT'S TIME TO THINK - AND DRINK - SOUTH AFRICA
A wine producing country with a grape growing history that began in 1655 is certainly not "new" but,after stops and starts and political isolation, it can rip out, re-plant reinvent itself and that's exactly what is happening in South Africa.
The western Cape of South Africa borders the South Atlantic and the Indian Oceans and the wines that are now being produced there are riding a wave of enthusiasm - particularly the Syrah's being turned out by winemakers who are bent on quality. It's a desire to produce New World fruit with an elegance of the Old World wines that will engage the wine lover if they uncork the right bottles - which are becoming increasingly easier to find. Google is a godsend to the wine hunter and there is substantial press on winemakers to help you decide. In Britain, they're now drinking more South African wine than French wine. Price is clearly a factor for some wines, but premium brands are also making headway.
The modern South African wine industry is working hard to capture the essence of place and a substantial spot in the international marketplace. The number of wine producers has doubled over the last decade - now totalling more than 600. More than 112,000 hectares are in vineyards.
At the 2010 Hospice du Rhone event in Paso Robles, California a panel of South African winemakers traveled halfway around the world to share their grape growing and wine making philosophy. They were as a group dedicated,thoughtful and ethusiastic - and they poured wines that reflected place. Seriously, when you connect to the land through the glass it's a great experience. I'm smitten and possibly you will be, as well. The panel included: Marc Kent, Boekenhoutskloof; David Trafford, De Trafford; Andrea and Chris Mullineux, Mullineaux Family Wines; Eben Sadie, Sadie Family Wines. I can't wait to visit South Africa and ,until then,will be seraching for their wines here in the U.S.
Eben Sadie, of Sadie Family Wines, may be the winemaker creating the most stir - certainly the most ink. I've read the articles and you should too because they're full of straight forward answers with a philosophical thread. They're everywhere. In the news business - he'd be categorized as "giving good quote" but he's truly a thinker and that thought process drinks well. His journey in the vineyard and winery is worth watching and drinking. Ten Questions with Lynn Diehl in the Tolosa Press newspapers will carry this Q&A in the May 6 edition.
Q: I haven’t yet been to South Africa, what are the Swartland wine district and the western Cape like?
A: It’s a very dramatic landscape that changes incredibly by seasons. It becomes very dry and warm in summer and arid. In winter it’s as green as Switzerland so it’s very diverse. It’s got high daytime temperatures and drought conditions, which brings about great health in the vineyards. Dry and warm is healthy. At night you’ve got these amazing temperature drops. It’s got the highest temperature day and night temperature differences in South Africa wine regions. That makes it from a climatic aspect very nice.
Q: What are the soils compositions?
A: Soil wise it’s just unbelievable. It’s a phenomenon that I haven’t see anywhere else in the world and it’s why I went back to South Africa. You have the slates, the granites and you’ve got alluvial soils on the coastlines. You’ve got quartz, you’ve got chalky soils, you’ve got all the great soils of the world in a more decomposed version than anywhere else in the world because South Africa is the oldest soils on the planet known to us. So you have the soils and the diverse mountains and altitude differences from the coast to the two big mountains. If you work in that you have such an amazing canvas and if you paint from that canvas and if you’re not afraid to use the different colors of the paint you can actually picture wines that are incredibly complex. They have dimensions in them that are beyond the human mind. To really know our wines you have to really live with them. The world today has become this place where everybody wants to know everything in half an hour and no-one is investing energy into things anymore and it’s got to be all easy and we’re not about that. I’m about another world that existed in another time. My friends always say that I’m so damn eccentric but I will never change. It’s all about producing natural wines and natural vineyards.
Q: The Syrah variety seems to be doing very well.
A: Syrah is very interesting because in a cool continental climate Pinot Noir has been always the grape that sort of carried the flag of terroir because it has this amazing ability to express the soils and it explains the maps that have been drawn up on Burgundy an d the demarcation of Burgundy. In the warmer regions of the world Syrah is absolutely a chameleon. It changes its character completely. Cabernet has more of its own pristine DNA that it imposes on all regions of the world and winemaking. Syrah is not like that. You can have the living soil in the bottle and that’s why I work with Syrah. I don’t work with Syrah only; I never bottle 100% variety bottlings anyway. We’ve got a small winery in Spain, as well. Syrah in South Africa is the strongest grape category for high-end quality wines because it’s very well adapted to the country. It’s got an affinity for our soils.
Q: You don’t irrigate?
A: I drink wine because when you have great wine you drink not alcohol but you drink a place. When a wine has to have a sense of place in the bottle and if it doesn’t have that I’m not going to pay for it. If it has a sense of place I’m totally delusional about what I’ll pay. If you have the place in the bottle you have everything. A wine carries a vintage and if you irrigate then your vintages become flatlined because you marginalize one of the biggest aspects of the vintage and characters of a vintage – the rainfall. When you’ve got Bordeaux or a Burgundy the first thing they’ll mention is when the rains were falling. If you turn on the taps with a human interpretation your vintages all become the same. You need vintages that are age worthy and you need vintages that are drinkable at young ages and the world is obsessed with the best and first and points but in the end I’m not thinking of in numbers. My total production is 20-thousand bottles in South Africa and in our winery in Spain we do 12-thousand bottles. Our wines are unfortunately are always going to be difficult to find but today to find something easy you just Google. You put the name in and you’ll find the wine.
Q: How long are you here?
A: I just flew over for the weekend basically supporting this seminar. I think it’s very important. South Africa has been getting the fifth wheel in so many things. But somehow since 1994, the energy has been so dramatic and so fantastic and we’re just really trying to tell the story. South Africa is good news in the world. It’s living proof of a miraculous recovery. It’s amazing and the wines are amazing. It’s the oldest of the new world countries, we’ve got history and we’re incredibly proud about it.
Q: Did you grow up in South Africa?
A: I’m as South African as it gets my family in 1735 from Germany. I’m a bit square in my mind, I guess. I left when I was 18 – I studied and lived all over the world.
A: You lived here in Paso Robles?
A: Yes. I lived in Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and I decided in 1997 to come here because I wanted to see what America was about. You have to experience things first hand. I came to California to see the wine world in California because it’s fairly young. I wanted to see how the development has been here. The difference between a first world country and a third world country is not the roads or safety it’s the middle class. In South Africa we have a very small middle class so we don’t have in essence a big consumer market down there. So, we have to rely on the whole world to buy our wines. I worked here on a winery project that unfortunately never flew. I had a house here and I have so many great friends out here. It was a good time. I lived in Oregon, as well.
Q: You surf don’t you?
A; It’s a big aspect of my life. If wine is a lifestyle and the way you live I think it’s very easy to get absolutely absorbed by it and you can become just wine. Surfing has been for me a great source of energy and source of refueling just going out and being in the ocean. South Africa is such a dramatic country with dramatic landscapes and its picturesque and to surf in those elements is just amazing. If you surf - here in America, on the coastlines here, in Indonesia and all over the world - somehow you feel welcome because you know the ocean. There’s something mystical about it.
Q: Have you surfed in Jeffreys Bay - with the sharks?
A: Yes. There are sharks everywhere you have a bigger chance to die on the golf course than getting eaten by a shark. I’ve never been afraid of life and I’m not afraid of death so it doesn’t bother me. I respect the ocean and I’ve seen them and I’ve been in there with them. Sharks are the most intimidating predator out there but there is something very graceful about them. If you to San Francisco there are some serious sharks out there, as well. We enter into their arena, we must never forget that.
Q: Looking down the road ten years from now, what do you see?
A: I thinking I’m growing. As I grow older, I’m more balanced in many aspects in terms of myself and I hope that it comes through in the wines. My own personal journey – the equilibrium- that must come through. When I was 24 my wines were screaming like punk rock and they were all made to impress. Today they’re the opposite, they introvert. Our wines don’t raise their voice. Ultimately, I just want to make wines that you’ve got to drink a whole case before you understand the wine. If you understand my wines in the first glass, I would somehow feel that we failed. #