I’d find it difficult to conceive of Eben Sadie fermenting his grapes in plastic tanks – though he’s done so in the past and knows the advantages (and disadvantages) of them. But somehow, it’s aesthetically not right, and I don’t know any winemaker with such a highly developed aesthetic sense when it comes to the disposition of his cellar – though it’s perhaps more accurate to describe it as a form of perfectionism. Everything has to be just right. Exactly right. Precise. Both good AND beautiful, if possible – for ultimately they mean the same thing.
The striving for perfection is even reflected in the choice of Latin for the label of his first wine, Columella – neither English nor Afrikaans was good enough. And I remember once noticing, in the small cellar devoted to maturing barrels of that wine, a spirit level resting on the crossbar of a barrel-head. Eben had been making sure that not only were the ends of the barrels in a perfect line, but each cross-head was perfectly level.
I think it’s a respect for wine – and not just his wine. I remember another occasion, when a group of us were uncorking and tasting the hundreds of bottles to be poured at a Swartland Revolution tasting. Most of us were simply ripping off the capsules in the quickest possible fashion – but Eben objected. He, at least, was going to cut them carefully. Respect for the wine; no ugly ripped capsules, please. And a direct continuity in his mind between what seems to me the corresponding aesthetic dimension of winemaking and the quality of wine.
So, to get my little story, and the picture above. Sadie Family Wines has now attained the sort of financial success that even Eben’s sister, Delana, will countenance some serious spending on what not everyone would think of as the most basic necessities of cellar life. I was surprised to see, when I visited the Sadie cellar last week (taking Jancis Robinson around) to see a row of new, rather beautifully curved concrete tanks, of a shape I’d never seen before – much like the bowl of a wineglass. Gone were the large rectangular concrete fermentation/maturation tanks that had been expensively imported from France not many years previously – later that morning I saw them fitting beautifully into Adi Badenhorst’s cellar not far away on the Paardeberg.
Eben started working seriously with cement in 2007, valuing it for preserving fruit purity, though he had to learn how to adapt to its character. “The vessels we choose”, he says, “are some of the biggest choices we make”. Not to mention some of the most expensive. I didn’t dare be crass enough to ask how much the new tulip-shaped concrete tanks cost…. They come from Italy, each bearing a little terra-cotta badge with the name of the winery; with the tank design tweaked by Eben. (See here for the website of the manufacturer, Nico Velo.)
Each tank can take 2.8 tons of fermenting grapes (they will be used for the wines of the Old Vine Series, each dedicated to one of the vineyards – at least when the rest of them arrive to complete the complement), and will empty perfectly into the corresponding large oval, oak foudre which stands opposite in the cellar. It’s a most harmonious arrangement – in a cellar now replete with lovely curves – both technically and aesthetically. How can this beautiful alignment of form and content not please the wine?
An incidental note for the geeks: Apparently these new concrete tanks must, for a few years, be washed in tartaric acid before use, to attain pH neutrality. Eventually the pH of the concrete will stabilise.