Earlier this week I attended a winetasting of Sequillo wines, led by well-known and highly respected maverick Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie, at French Toast. It was the most enjoyable wine function I have ever attended, largely due to the refreshing down-to-earth three-hour tasting done by Sadie, and excellent value at R100.
The name of the winemaker leading the tasting was clearly a big drawcard, with 45 winelovers having booked. I was introduced to Eben by Karen Visser, co-owner of French Toast, and Eben struck me as a really nice and friendly person, without any airs and graces, not what I expected at all, for a winemaker who has achieved a number of career highs, including having his winery selected as Winery of the Year, and his Sadie Family Wines Palladius selected as South Africa’s top white wine in the 2010 Platter’s South African Wine Guide.
It took some time for the tasting to get going, due to some late-comers, but we were served a Mystery wine, which we were asked to identify. It was a Riesling, only 60 bottles made (unwooded) by Eben from grapes coming from Elgin, and not one of the attendees could identify it. Throughout the evening, Sadie told us stories, and for him the most important role that his wines play is that they too tell stories. He loves to play with wine, to experiment, and his greatest goal is to get locals to enjoy wine, without any fancy references to the aroma wheel (which should be burnt, he says), as it puts people off wine-tasting. He said ‘my guava is not your guava’, explaining his controversial winetasting views. Eben came across as the most down-to-earth, hands-on winemaker. Awards generally do not mean much to him, and he would not answer my question as to how he views the Platter’s guide. In the introduction, French Toast co-owner John Harrison said that Eben is recognised as a ‘renegade’, who has broken all the rules of conventional winemaking. This ‘enfant terrible’ is South Africa’s first certified celebrity winemaker’, Wikipedia writes about him.
Eben’s big passion is surfing, he studied at Elsenburg, and he started his winemaking career at Romansrivier Winery in Wolseley, moving to Charles Back and making his Spice Route wines for him. Sadie Family Wines is a joint venture between two Sadie brothers Eben and Niko, and their older sister Delana, starting with R9000 in 1999. They grew up on a vegetable and pig farm on the West Coast, and it was grape farming, and winemaking with it, that attracted Eben to this sector of agriculture, telling me that winemaking ‘can carry a century’. They have three wine operations, making Sadie Family Wines (a wine for weekends and special occasions) and Sequillo (a wine for weekday drinking) in the Swartland, and make wine in Priorat in Spain (Terroir Al Limit label) too. Studying winemaking in Germany, Austria, Italy, the USA, and Burgundy, Eben liked the lifestyle of the Spanish the most, choosing this country, but clearly declaring his love for the Cape. Taking a swipe at ‘molecular gastronomy’, Eben said he believes that winemaking has been ‘intellectualised’, in that wine drinkers are encouraged to sniff and spit the wine. He said one should not bother with drinking one glass of wine only, as it was as good as drinking a glass of water! Wine drinking must be done in volume, so that one can enjoy it, he said.
All the Sadie wines are blends, and they do not make any single varietal wines to sell. Eben said that winemakers could make wines to the ‘100 point formula’, to tick all the judges’ boxes, but this would be an ‘intellectual wine’, made without regard for soil and climate. It would have ‘blueberries, cigarbox, cream, and fennel on the nose, would be opaque, and have tannin’. He mentioned this dig at the ‘aroma wheel’ a number of times during the evening. Rather, wines should be an ‘ambassador’ of the place and the climate, and that is why Eben does not irrigate his grapes anymore, to be a true representation of the climate of that vintage. To counter climate, Eben will reduce his crop by half, depending on whether there is late rain or not. His wines have no added yeast, and only about a third of the allowed quantity of sulphur is added two days before bottling. Very old barrels are used, adding little or no wood to the taste. Eben said it was hard to move from conventional farming to ‘natural farming’. He told us how they have built up the resistance of their grapes in Spain, and plough with mules there. Mules were not suitable for the Swartland, he found, so they use horses. We laughed when Eben said that one can read how to get onto the moon, but the internet does not guide him as to how to use horses to plough his land!
Eben became very fiery about Law 70 of 1970, which does not allow the sub-division of agricultural land. This means that Eben leases 53 blocks of land in different areas, which he tends to with his staff, driving from one piece of land to another.
Sequillo is a second label, and the name comes from the Latin, meaning ‘dry arid place of great purity’. To introduce the Sequillo Red and White blends to us, Eben ‘deconstructed’ the wines for us, and we drank most of the individual varietals that made up each of these two blends. The Sequillo White blend 2010 consisted of:
* Grenache Blanc: Eben said this wine is like someone you know who is in jail, being someone you love but you cannot mention it. This variety came from the south of France. It is used in the blend to ‘build volume of wine’.
* Palomino: the origin of this grape is Jerez, from which sherry is made in Spain. It has acidity, firmness, coming from a 65 year old block in Piketberg. It has minerality, and white peach and other stone fruit, with a lingering after-taste. There is some saltiness.
* Verdelho: This wine is made from grapes originating from Portugal, planted in its northern areas. Eben said that his wine comes from 8 year old vines, the youngest vines he has. He tested this variety’s suitability in different soil types, and it does well across a variety of these. It does not have the prettiest bunch nor leaf, not having been to ‘finishing school’, he says in Sadie-speak, but is a great grape that is conducive to good natural farming. Their grapes are planted in Wellington, Perdeberg, and Stellenbosch. It has spiciness, potpourri, great nose and taste, easy to grow but hard to make in the cellar. Presenting it to Portuguese winemakers, they were very complimentary about his wine, Eben said.
* Viognier: This variety comes from Croatia originally. Eben said that it was grown too ripe originally in South Africa, giving too much alcohol.
* Grenache Noir: This is the most planted grape in the world, about tenfold of the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a Mediterranean grape, which can go to 17% alcohol, but Eben keeps his at 13.5 % by picking the grapes earlier.
* Semillon and Roussanne are also part of this blend, but we did not taste them.
The Sequillo label design is done in-house, and is refreshingly different, changing every year. The ‘Dorper skaap’ on the Sequillo White symbolises the hardiness of this sheep variety, like his wine, and is politically correct in being white and black, he laughed! The Sequillo Red has a locust on it. The Sadie wines are sold in 35 countries. When asked how they market internationally, Eben said that he answers his e-mails! They do not have a website for the Sadie Family Wines, and have only just created a website for Sequillo. They will never get into Social Media, Eben said, and he probably will throw away his cellphone when the contract expires, he said. He has no TV nor radio, and does not follow rugby. He makes all his own wine, and does not buy any of it in. While Eben had to keep reminding himself to ‘focus’ on the tasting, to great laughter, he explained that he is ‘semi-German’, and has ‘structure and order’, answers his e-mails, and is organised about his wine-making.
Asked which wine estates and their winemakers he admires, Eben mentioned Mullineux, Hamilton Russell, Newton Johnson, Adi Badenhorst, Neil Ellis, Boekenhoutskloof, Paul Benade, and Chamonix, and described them as mavericks too. He told us that he used to make full-bodied heavy wines, but now he makes lighter ‘roadblock’ wines, that will get one through a traffic control! He said that the wine industry has come a long way, and that the country’s political transformation in 1994 caught the industry by surprise, not being ready to compete on an international platform initially. Eben deplored that rarer and interesting wine varieties do not sell locally. He is focused purely on making wine, and is not there to set up pretty gardens with fountains on his wine estate!
The Sequillo Red blend 2009 is made from the following varietals:
* Syrah is Eben’s favourite varietal, and he told us that its origin is said to be Persia or Greece. The Australians could not pronounce its Old World ‘Syrah’ name, and called it ‘Shiraz‘. While other winemakers pick their Syrah grapes in March, Eben picks his in January, to prevent it being ‘jammy’, sweet and pruny, because of its thin skin, and the intensity of our sun, giving him 13,8% alcohol compared to 16 % for others picked later. He says it is a lunchtime wine, is well suited to the Cape, although it may be too hot, needing altitude to do well. He would not reveal where the special Syrah is grown, but hinted that the block is 60 km from the city, just above that of a very well-known wine brand. Platter’s Guide says 65% of the blend is Shiraz.
* Mouvèdre is the most difficult wine to make, Eben said. It is great to farm, a beautiful grape and a vertical grower, but difficult to make in the cellar. It has ‘nervous aromas’, ‘energy and electricity’, ‘is alive’ and great to use in blends, as it raises the fruit in these. This grape variety makes the world’s greatest Rosé in Bandol in France, Eben said. He added that Rosés are cool wines now, not a ‘chick wine’ any more!
* Cinsault is like one’s brother that is in jail and about whom cannot talk (Eben likes to use the analogy of wines and jailbirds!), being one of the greatest varietals but that has ‘suffered from human ambition’, he said, extending the analogy to say that it has been ‘framed for a murder he did not commit’, referring to its poor appeal as a variety. He says it is one of the most drinkable red wines in the world, it is seductive, and a wine he thinks about every day.
* Grenache and Carignan are two further varietals used, but not offered for the tasting.
As if we had not had enough to taste, Eben opened a 5 litre bottle of his newly 5-star rated 2012 Platter’s (for its 2009 vintage) Columella 2007, a Rhone blend of 80 % Shiraz and 20% Mouvèdre, according to Platter’s.
Eben Sadie and his wine brands will continue to make waves, given his passion and charisma, his dedicated focus on what he loves doing best, in making wines, and his fresh anti-bureaucracy and anti-convention views. Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof said of Sadie that he makes wines as an ‘artisan’, and not as a chemist or a technician!
Sequillo Cellars, Malmesbury. Tel (022) 482-3138. www.sequillo.com
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com, Twitter: @WhaleCottage