New wines from old vines

Today saw one of the more significant releases in modern Cape winemaking, with the six wines in the Ouwingerdreeks (Old Vine Series) from Sadie Family Wines. Made in tiny quantities, and sold expensively in a set of all six, few winelovers will get to taste them, unfortunately. But all those who value the traditions and culture of South African winemaking (without forgetting its sorrier aspects) can surely participate in welcoming a brilliant collection of wines, made from some of the country’s oldest vineyards – whose number is sadly declining.

The wines were poured generously today in a tasting, and with lunch, at the launch in Riebeek-Kasteel, in the Swartland, not far from the cellar where they were made. At the warm-hearted, thoroughly enjoyable, as well as fascinating, party were family and friends, the farmers whose old, obscure vineyards yielded the grapes, media and trade; William Kentridge, whose artwork features on the labels, flew down from Johannesburg to attend. (In the photo, Eben Sadie presents the wines, on the screen behind him can be seen a photograph of William Kentridge looking at the isolated old vineyard called ‘T Voetpad, in the northenmost Swartland.)

  • The labels may all be seen in a separate posting – click here.
  • An account of Kentridge’s visit to the vineyards last November may be accessed here.
  • Below is the text of an article I wrote on the wines and the art for the current issue of the Mail & Guardian, which was well illustrated with the Kentridge artworks.


Kentridge and the Old Vines Series

At the end of a long, hot valley somewhere inland from Elands Bay on the Cape West Coast, a few untidy hectares of vines are lost amongst the wheat, rooibos tea and bleakness. All are old, and one section of them, planted in 1900, amongst the oldest in the country.

This vineyard must surely have been originally planted for table grapes and to provide wine for the farmer and, through the notorious dop system, probably his labourers too. More recently the vineyard was kept up by farmer Dirk Brand largely for sentimental reasons, and the grapes disappeared into the huge anonymous vats of a cooperative winery. Now two of the country’s priciest and rarest wines are being made from these vines – part of a collection of six wines from old vineyards being made by Sadie Family, a small, prestigious winery based in the southern Swartland. The maiden vintage is being released around now.

Last November I visited for the second time, with winemaker Eben Sadie and viticulturist Rosa Kruger, these “amazing sites” as Eben reverentially calls them. (I have been interested and involved in his project, although with no commercial connections). This time we took with us the artist William Kentridge. As a winelover and as a friend of mine since we were involved in student politics in the heady mid-1970s, William had let me interest him in Eben’s project, and was intending to produce artwork that could be used for labels, once the wine finally got into bottles.

In his studio, Kentridge later made a set of inkwash drawings and collages, some based closely on photographs of the vineyards and surounding country, some more mediated representations of humanised landscapes – old pruning shears dominating the scene; a woman with the blades of an old windmill for a head; an old bushvine in trousers, striding through the vineyard.

If wines can evoke history and culture, these strive to do precisely that – as well, of course, as to be delicious and interesting, which they are. What Sadie calls “the mystery of the old vine” is in them. They also draw attention to the value of old, obscure and largely forgotten vineyards which are irrelevant to the needs of mainstream commercial wine production. The grape varieties might be unfashionable (like cinsaut, one of those used here), and yields are usually too absymally low to justify the costs of maintaining the vines unless the farmer can get a commensurate price.

The old vineyards that survive generally do so because of the pride – and even love – of their owners, but more and more are pulled out each year. Sometimes cost-saving has, ironically, been useful, in helping farmers resist the temptation of the poisons and potions of the agro-chemical industry – no herbicides and chemical fertilisers have been used in the Old Vineyard Series vines.

As to the making of the wines, back in Eben Sadie’s cellar on the slopes of the Paardeberg, this is done with utmost simplicity, in much the same way as a few hundred years ago (give or take a bit of air-conditioning). A crucial difference, of course, is the modern understanding and control of the processes. The juice of the crushed grapes was fermented with natural yeasts in old wooden casks. There the wines remained until they were siphoned off to bottles, with no fining or filtering – the only radical intervention being the traditional and essential addition of a little sulphur. The wines speak directly, to those that listen, of their origins.

The landscapes that Kentridge has drawn over the years have always shown profound responsiveness to the history of the land, its “unnatural” appropriation and annexation to the socio-economic structures of human need and power. Most of the drawings that are being used on the wine labels (which, incidentally, Kentridge did not do the designs of himself) have historicality built into their very structure: they were created on ruled and headed sheets from the ledgers on which retailers were formerly obliged to record all sales of “intoxicating liquor”, as a part of state control.

The wines are being sold in sets comprising all six wines, so the total number of cases is limited to how many bottles there are of the lowest-volume wine each year. For the maiden 2009 vintage, this was  the 280 bottles of the wine called Kokerboom, which is drawn from a small block of semillon bushvines planted, it is thought, in the 1930s. The six-bottle case costs nearly R4000.

Why make a fuss over a handful of wines, that few could afford even if they could locate them, and very few genuine aficionados will even get to sip? Because, quite apart from the elitism that unfortunately and only too inevitably intrudes, there is a truth that should be important to all lovers of South African wine, as well as to all who resist obliteration of a past that had some aspects of positive value.  Simply that, as Eben Sadie says, “our old vineyards are a part of our national heritage”, and we should find ways of saving them. And relish, even abstractly, their bottled mystery.

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