In Vino Veritas. This hackneyed phrase was coined by my favourite of all the Elders, Pliny, and despite its overuse I could think of no better way to describe the Sadie Family Wines’ Ouwingerdreeks (Old Vine Series).
The Ouwingerdreeks are a set of six wines produced from fruit grown in six of South Africa’s oldest vineyards. Some were probably planted before records of plantings started being kept in 1900, so the ages range from 45year old Cinsaut to 100+ year old Hanepoot vines. Winemaker Eben Sadie and Viticulturalist Rosa Kruger along with the farmers – the unspoken heroes of this story – on whose land the vines grow have banded together to produce not just vinous oddities or collector’s items, but wines of substance, importance and truth.
So I use Pliny the Elder’s phrase here not in the sense that when one gets pissed the truth comes out, but rather, that in these wines there lies truth.
This idea is not mine but Sadie’s, and it can only be understood once the importance of old vines is grasped.
In Europe, Sadie was exposed to very old vines. He said that they produced fruit that was already great. He wasn’t using ‘great’ as in, ‘that was a great lunch’. No, he was using it in the same way you’d say Einstein was a great thinker, Mandela a great statesman, Pliny the Elder a great writer of one liners, etc.
You see, as Sadie explained, vines can be compared to people. When young they can be a little all over the place, giving in to moments of excess, all vigour without control. As we perform in the inexorable play of time everything begins to slow down, mellow out, and we can move from hell-raiser to sage. Similarly, vines whose roots have reached the extent of their growth stop, according to Sadie, overdoing everything. They reach the Goldilocks’ Mean, where everything is just right.
It is incredible that these vineyards still exist, ungrafted and untainted by herbicides and chemicals. But how does one approach the task of making wine from these venerable vines? Sadie says it is about removing one’s self from the act as much as possible – you need to put your ambition aside and “let the vineyard project itself”.
The goal of these wines is to express the truth of the vineyards, and in this endeavour Sadie truly lives up to a label given to him by many: a poet. In Vino Veritas.
Sadie said one has to “settle with the truth of how it is made. We are working outside the realm of points, competitions and aroma wheels” and must just accept what the wine is because “the wine is truthful.”
This is a bold statement which cynics may see as an excuse for imperfect wines. But to be cynical about this project is like slapping your grandmother.
The wine making process here is a picture of simplicity. Juice from the grapes – crushed by feet and pressed in a small hand operated basket-press – is poured into a single old, clean barrel where it ferments by way of natural yeasts. 18-24 months later the wine is bottled. That’s it. Pretty much as they did it a hundred years ago. Sadie described the method as “historical, with today’s understanding. “
To taste these wines was a privilege. There is very little of it around: only 250 cases of the six will be available. For them to be poured so generously at the tasting and lunch was amazing. Thank you very much Sadie Family.
Here are the six wines we tasted.
The Skurfberg 2009 gets its name from the mountains on which three parcels of old bushvine Chenin grow. According to Sadie, each of the three parcels produces specific characteristics. The grapes from Basie Van Lill’s farm give freshness and brisk acidity to the wine, the parcel on Henk Laing’s land gives deep fruit concentration, and Jozua Visser’s provide minerality.
I found deep honeyed notes on the nose with rich peach and pear boiled sweets and some hints of a minerally seashore. There was a marked intensity on the palate with luscious fruit undercut by a racy mineral core. A waxy finish rounds it out with refreshing acidity. The 14% alcohol was not overtly noticeable, and it paired well with the pickled seafood we had for lunch. It made me, a lover of Chenin, warm and fuzzy. Yet another expression of this remarkable grape.
The Kokerboom 2009 is made from a vineyard of mixed red and white Semillon planted in the 1930s. The blend is about 70:30 white to red Semillon. I found some stinky sweaty aromas on the nose at first that faded to mingle with pineapple, and some green leafy notes. The acidity on the palate is bracing and cuts through the caressing creamy mid-palate. I would like to come back to this wine in a couple of years.
My favourite wine (and label) was the ‘T Voetpad 2009. It shares its name with Dirk Brand’s wheat and rooibos tea farm where the vines are located. The vineyard consists of Hanepoot planted around 1900, red and white Semillon from the 1920s, Palomino (normally associated with sherry) from 1978 and Chenin Blanc from 1991. Again, all of these vines are ungrafted and have seen no herbicides or chemicals. The wine is a field blend (except for the Hanepoot) and the grapes were picked, pressed and fermented together.
This wine had so much character that it was alive. On the nose the Chenin bursts through with honey, wheat, and according to my neighbour at the tasting “furry peach skin”. The wine was bright and rich. The abundant tropical flavours were pretty much bottled summer. Waxy and fresh with stony undertones, and a finish I can only describe as cheeky. I absolutely loved this wine. It was a swinging, dancing, smiling wine (with dimples) skipping through a field in a summer dress.
I remember when I first started going to tastings and learning about wine and hearing about this Chenin Blanc made from really old bush vines. It sold for around R800. I was determined to taste it. Since then I have been lucky enough to taste all four vintages of Mev. Kirstens – it seems those late night sacrifices to Bacchus have paid off. The 2009 seems the most refined of the four, although this one is still as toight as a toiger. The vines were planted in the 1920s on decomposed granite in the Jonkershoek Valley, and regarded as the oldest chenin planting in the country. To my delight the owner of the vines, Mev. Kirstens, was in attendance, and the deserved applause she was given showed a side of our wine industry that I hope more people will experience.
The nose showed orange blossoms, pine needles, and just turned butter. The palate had searing (in a good way) acidity, zippy and bouncy with some litchi and pears. The wine seems to have been refined over the years, and has gone from very oxidative to fresh with some oxidative notes, to its current state of sheer deliciousness, which I believe will increase for years to come.
The one red of the set is the Pofadder 2009 a 100% Cinsaut from 45year old vines on the Riebeek Mountain in the Swartland. After harvest the grapes were sorted to avoid over and under ripe fruit, after which the whole bunches were put in an old wooden open-top fermenter. Daily foot-powered punch downs released the juice for fermentation. After a month’s skin contact the grapes were pressed in a small basket-press straight into an old wooden cask. After about a year the wine was bottled.
The wine was full of fruit, with a perfumed nose of cherries, mulberries and violets. It was bright, joyous and very juicy. There was a rustic quality to it that I liked, maybe not as complex as the whites – Eben mentioned at one point that the Cape is a land for white wines not red – but satisfying and provided much interest.
Finally there was the Eselhoek 2009 a sweet hanepoot made from the grapes in the ‘T Voetpad vineyard. It seems the vineyard is susceptible to becoming a buffet for birds, and who could blame them. “Some 100yr old Hanepoot grapes, don’t mind if I do.” *Swoop* *pluck* onomnomnom.
To avoid this avian dining the grapes were picked very early. As the sugar levels still needed to be increased, the grapes were hung under shade nets for three weeks. Then the shrivelled sweet grapes were pressed, resulting in a 90% reduction in original volume. This all ended up producing a wine with 285 grams of residual sugar per litre, 11.5% alcohol, and a crapload deliciousness.
This is the unctuous taste of South Africa. Notes of almonds, and apricots and naartjies. The palate was rich and I thought of koeksisters on the stoep with black tea. Dusty roads. Hot dry summer nights. Sweet and fresh.
I was satisfied after the tasting, but there was still the lunch put on for us by my favourite restaurant, Bar Bar Black Sheep. I’m not going to go into detail, but the skaapnek en waterblommetjiebredie was as honest and tasty as anything I’ve eaten in awhile.
Again I must acknowledge the privilege granted to me to taste these wines, and to again stress the importance of this project. At the end of the tasting Eben said that we have many old vines in this country, yet about 80% of the fruit ends up in big commercial blends. A sad situation. But thankfully there are farmers willing to keep these incredibly low yielding vineyards, and people like Rosa Kruger and Eben Sadie to make wines from them.
A note on the labels: The labels were produced by South African Artist William Kentridge. Kentridge was introduced to Sadie by wine writer Tim James, and these labels were produced after a visit to all the vineyards. An interesting fact about the pieces is that they were produced on pages of old ledgers on which sales of “intoxicating liquor” were recorded years ago. I think they are labels fitting for what are living documents of South African history.