Eben Sadie & the Poetics of Winemaking
“Eben Sadie is something of a poet as well as one of the world’s greatest winemakers.”
Tim Atkins MW, South African Wine Report
It’s become something of a game for me to find new praise for Eben Sadie. I’m on my 8th vintage of being one of the major retail advocates for his wine in the United States, one of the highlights of my career in wine, and every year I think this is going to be the year where I can’t find a new bit of a effusive mythmaking about Mr. Sadie and thus far it hasn’t happened.
I could include similar quotes to the one above from every critical outlet which has encountered his wines, along with the Institute of the Masters of Wine, which awarded Eben their Winemaker’s Winemaker award a few years back. Recent other winners include Paul Draper (Ridge), Anne-Claude Leflaive (Domaine Leflaive), and Egon Muller (Weingut Egon Muller) so it’s kind of a big deal. It’s the wine world’s version of a Lifetime Achievement Award only they gave it to Eben Sadie before his 50th birthday because how much he’s already accomplished.
The point is Eben Sadie is one of the world’s greatest winemakers, a distinction he certainly needed in 2019. South African wine has had a challenging half decade of vintages. They’ve been dealing with drought for the last five years. 2019 brought rain but often not the good kind and not when desired. Fortunately, the dedication to quality has never been higher so a year, in time’s past, which would have resulted in disaster, has yielded some incredible results.
Before we jump into the wines, I’d like to make a quick note about drought because 3 of my selections this year are from the Citrusdal Mountains which suffered from an EXTREME lack of rainfall in 2019. What this means in practice, and in the hands of someone like Eben Sadie, is a sort of ultimate Green Harvest where the yields are cut by 50% but what remains is absolutely ideal. I always think of vines in terms of life energy. It only has so much to give so the less grapes on the vine, the more each grape is fed. Less grapes equal more stuffing in the wine. That is ABSOLUTELY the case with the wines from Citrusdal (Skurfberg, Kokerboom, and Soldaat).
In terms of his Columella, Eben's flagship red, it represent sources from many vineyards across Swartland. Honestly, I’ve not always connected on the Columella but Eben has been decreasing the amount of Syrah each year and the results have been very promising. It actually reminds me of some of the very exciting wine coming out of Southern Portugal! And then there is the Mev Kirsten. No one should buy this bottle without an intention to age it but if you can wait 5+ years then I can’t recommend it highly enough. These are the oldest Chenin Blanc vines in South Africa, which puts them in the running for the oldest in the world. What Eben is doing with this vineyard is incredible and there’s only so long 120+ vines can survive so there will not be an unlimited trail of vintages for Mev Kirsten, at least not the one we have available to us in the current.
Years ago, I hosted a wine dinner with Eben Sadie. He talked about something which stuck with me. He said he favored “Width” and the “Expense of Precision”. That’s one of those concepts which feels right but is a bit slippery when you put it in your rational brain. When he said that, one of the guests at the dinner asked him to expand. He didn’t or couldn’t, or maybe his wines ARE the explanation.