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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


Paul Fate, it would seem, is conspiring to stop me from meeting Eben Sadie when I visit Swartland: in 2010 he was in Europe, and on this return visit in 2013 he was in Johannesburg on business. However, it was a pleasure to be greeted by Eben's sister Delana and assistant winemaker Paul Jordan (right), who joined only in January 2013 having worked "all over the Cape," for the past five years, plus working vintages at Roc d'Anglade in the Languedoc.

The Sadie Family Wines story began in 1999, whilst Eben was still in charge of Charles Back's Spice Route winery. His early vintages, including the first ever release of the iconic Columella from the 2000 vintage, were made in Back's facilities.

From the outset Sadie has farmed organically and biodynamically. The winery is a vision of unusual fermentation vessels, a bewildering array of amphorae, concrete eggs, cones and cubes, and larger formats of oak barrel. Only wild yeasts are used for fermentation and all red wines are pressed in a small, manual basket press. The winery is both state of the art (and meticulous) and minimalist, the winemaking being very much hands-off with minimum work on the fermenting wines such as 'punching down', the technique of sinking the floating cap of grape skins to extract more tannin and pigment. Instead punch downs are minimal and at other times a much more gentle 'sprinkler' system encourages a much gentler extraction. "As Eben always says," laughs Paul, "We're making tea, not coffee".

As we settled down to taste the extraordinary wines in Sadie's Old Vineyard series, Paul told me a little of the thinking behind them: "Part of the mission of the winery is to capture these old pieces of South African history," he explained. "We want to celebrate the positive side of old South Africa - that's why all labels in the Old Vineyard series are in Afrikaans: if the French don't translate their labels for the world, why should we?" As with all the upper tier wines in the portfolio only natural yeast ferments are used and the wines are bottled without filtration.

the wines

Sadie Family Wines are imported into the UK by Roy Richards. See all stockists on wine-searcher.


Sadie Family Wines, Skerpioen 2012, South Africa
All of the wines in this Old Vineyards range are sealed with wax. The Scorpion comes from a very old vineyard planted in a sand dune with chalk layer beneath. It's a 50-year-old field blend of Chenin Blanc and Palomino, only reachable by a specially adapted Land Rover according to Paul Jordan. These are unirrigated bush vines a couple of hours drive north and the wine is made in concrete 'eggs'. Lovely golden colour and a beautiful nose of salty minerals, a touch of wax and lanolin, nutty apple and honey tones all so appealing. There are lovely little roasted notes too, before the palate shows pristine, dry, lightly orangy, orange rind fruitiness. There is such clarity here, all that nutty, lemon rind texture and visceral weight in the mouth. 93/100.

Sadie Family Wines, Skurfberg 2012, South Africa
Skurfberg (Rough Mountain) comes from a much warmer area hence 14.5% abv as opposed to Skerpioen's 13% abv, from a vineyard three hours north of winery in Oliphants River. Again the 60- 70-year-old bush vines are unirrigated, all Chenin planted in decomposed sandstone. That beautiful golden colour again, nutty, a bit of vanilla (though it is made mostly in concrete eggs with just a little neutral oak). Hints at more fruit and on the palate that much more fruit sweetness comes through, really ripe crunchy golden apple, but hinting at more tropical fruit too. Lime rind and zest, and a juiciness to this and delicious balance, the alcohol sitting very nicely, barely noticeable because of that old vine concentration and shimmering acidity. 93/100.

Sadie Family Wines, Palladius 2010, South Africa
Another of the wines that put Sadie on the map, 22 barrels were made this vintage and the alcohol comes in at 14.5%. Based on Chenin Blanc, Palomino and Grenache Blanc, with little bits of Semillon, Semillon Gris, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Verdelho and, finally, a touch of Viognier. From decomposed granite and slate soils, and some table mountain sandstone. All grapes are hand sorted into 500 litre neutral barrels for fermentation. Huge, honey and nut-layered stone fruits and that deep golden colour again, the apple and peach subsumed under minerality and that nutty, dry character. Beautiful silky texture here, with such intensely sweet fruit, concentrated nectarine and then that flowing but nutty dryness into a very long finish. 95/100.

Sadie Family Wines, Pofadder 2012, South Africa
This Puff Adder bites with 14.5% abv. It is 100% Cinsault from Riebeek, planted on slate soils, and only whole bunches go into the fermentation tank with no destemming. Beautiful, fragrant nose, gentle exotic spices, with a Sandalwood lift and cherry-light fruit, even a hint of Pomegranate and a touch of sappiness. The palate is really light, freshly fruity, with that sappy, gently green edge again that adds to the freshness. Nicely dry, cranberry fruit and racy, delightfully orangy acidity. Beautiful and easy to drink despite the grip of tannin in the finish. 92/100.

Sadie Family Wines, Soldaat 2012, South Africa
Named after Soldier - the vineyard dog - this is 100% Grenache from Piekenierskloof, one and a half hours north, and a vineyard at 708 metres above sea level. It has a green touch, a menthol and briar character, with herbs and garrigue and a nutty Grenache background. Beautifully fresh on the palate and very dry, this is verging on the austere, with the cranberry and redcurrant dryness of fruit, and a nice fresh, dashing and long finish hinting at cherry. A pleasing touch of rounding, softer vanilla too. Lovely but I might prefer a little less of the greenish character in this 13.5% abv wine. 91/100.

Sadie Family Wines, Columella 2010, South Africa
The blend in 2010 is 72% Shiraz with Grenache and Mourvèdre, all coming from soils of decomposed granite and slate in the Reibeek and Paardeberg region. Columella is aged two years, fermented in conical wooden casks, then spending its first year in barriques, its second in big old wooden casks. According to Paul "Clay in the vineyard gives spice, the granite gives red fruit and floral aspects." Immediately complex, with brightness from red fruits, something herbal and subtle notes of coffee and game beneath. There is spice too, and a hint of riper, darker cassis. Silky on the palate, but so much energy and so light on its feet from the racy, grippy tannins, the fresh acidity and the dryness of the fruit, but then there is that inherent juiciness and hints of ripe, chocolaty richness. 95/100.

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