Warm climate wines

Eben Sadie is not cheerful about the 2012 harvest in the Swartland – especially for winegrowers like himself whose vineyards are, for the most part, not irrigated. And even where there is provision for irrigation laid on, the dams are not always full enough to feed the pipes.

It’s the worst drought in the Swartland since 1969, says Eben. The winter was dry, and the spring rains did little more than bring on the weeds which immediately sucked up what little water went into the earth. So a lot of the crops are much reduced – and, sadly, there’s not always even the compensation of great quality that sometimes comes with smaller yields.

But no doubt there will be some good wines made. And I hope that one of them is from the marvellous Voetpad vineyard tucked away amongst rooibos tea and wheat in a remote northern corner of the Swartland. I’ve written before at length about this vineyard – parts of it a century old, planted with fransdruif (palomino), steen (chenin blanc), groendruif (red and green semillon) and hanepoort. The Afrikaans names seem particularly appropriate here.

Written about it, yes, and visited it a few times. But last Saturday I even helped with the harvest in a modest way suitable to my age and level of fitness and ability to work, stooping over untidy bushvines) under a blazing sun. It was hot. Very hot. Not really the sort of day to have chosen to remind myself of this aspect of wine production – I couldn’t remember when last I’d done a bit of harvesting: if I had, perhaps I’d have remembered that it’s hard work, best avoided if one can.

We had left the Perdeberg in the comparatively cool dark at 5 that morning, with a dozen cheerful, expert and hard-working grape-pickers from Lammershoek, a truck and a bakkie, seeting off on the long drive up the West coast. After an hour’s harvesting, when we stopped for breakfast around 9 o’clock, the heat was significant. At midday, with sweat in one’s eyes and everywhere else, it seemed impossible (and had proved so for me quite a while before midday, I confess).

Although Eben’s careful management of these previously rather neglected wines is now starting to give rewards, this dry season took its toll of the crop, which was rather pitifully small. It would indeed have been smaller still if it weren’t for a successful experiment: Eben had bought and installed amongst the vines a gas-powered automatic “cannon” which periodically gives off a remarkably loud pair of bangs, which echo around the mountains and had clearly achieved its purpose of chasing away the birds which can devastate the crop here. It also seemed to have frightened away the snakes which, Eben had alarmingly and happily informed me in advance, are rampant in this vineyard.

There was also the chance to chat with Eben’s two young sons, who were also helping out that day. Xander, the younger, is clearly the sharply ironical one (Markus the elder is perhaps the poet), and had been a bit sharply ironical to his father about the fact that the business is called Sadie Family Wines – “So why”, he asked Eben, “when I Google those words all is get is stories and pictures about you, and nothing about anyone else in the family?”

To start setting that right, the bottom two pics alongside are family snaps from that morning at Voetpad: Xander amongst the vines with his lugbox for grapes; and Markus with some breakfast mango sliced for him by a grinning Eben (bearded till the end of harvest).

That’s not the full extent of involvement by the extraordinary Sadie Family, of course. Eben’s brother Niko (who is hair-raisingly well informed and can and does talk at length about … anything) works full-time at the cellar – and drove the truck on this day. Sister Delana in the office tries to keep control of Eben’s extravagances and seems to hold the whole business together with cool efficiency. And beautiful wife Magriet, aka Maria, is indispensible all round.

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