Yesterday, on a beautiful autumnal morning in the Swartland (so fresh and gently sunshiny that hopes for rain had to temporarily give way), with the cover crops already showing bright green between the nearly-bare vines, I visited Eben Sadie. I needed to check some things with him for a profile I’m writing for a magazine, and to talk a little about the future. His future, and that of his wines.
In a way, that question was answered as well as it could be by the stretch of freshly tilled soil sloping down from the Sadie Family Wines cellar in the Paardeberg’s Aprilskloof – a fraction over 3 hectares, I found out later. I’ve watched this slope change its appearance over recent years. First, the old cabernet vines there were ripped out in 2008 – almost the first thing Eben did after acquiring his 13-hectare plot from Lammershoek. [corrected: 17 hectares]. Stones and boulders were removed, and various crops sown over the years, and compost added to enrich the soil. (And there was a lot of waiting for the right plant material.) Just this last week, Eben and a team of workers laboured long and mightily to install drainage for some damp spots (I hadn’t realised there are damp spots in Swartland vineyards!). Now, at last, all is ready for planting in early August. Yesterday, while I was there, the planting contractor arrived to place (according to some arcane system that even Eben didn’t quite seem to grasp, some hundreds of short bamboo-cane markers.
Every vineyard that gets planted anywhere is about the future, but this one is more so than most, perhaps.
The vineyard will be called Slangdraai (“Snakebend”), which is the name the locals have long given the sharp curve in the road at the vineyard’s foot. Other vineyard blocks are being planned for the farm – including a much larger one on a slope below the family house which is now nearing completion – and they will also have names reflecting their past and their place: Begrafsplaas (Cemetery), Jakkalsvoegel, Byeboer (Bee-farmer) – the small scattering of graves, the jackalbirds, the hives are still there.
Slangdraai is being planted in conjunction with the important nursery Vititec, with perfectly clean vines. Vititec will help monitor them over the years in order to ensure they remain so – especially important as these will serve as mother-blocks, providing material for the nursery.
Five different black-grape varieties are being planted, and Eben hopes that the fruit of all of them will eventually go into the Columella blend. The two most uncommon of these varieties in South Africa are alicante bouschet (tiny plantings now, but a permitted variety: a nineteenth century French crossing of petit bouschet with grenache), and counoise (not yet recognised here, as far as I know), a minor but high quality and usefully acid-rich permitted component of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Then there will be four selections of cinsaut, three of grenache noir (this variety will occupy about half of the vineyard), and two of carignan.
The geeks will want to know that all are being planted as bushvines (what are trellises? asks Eben) on Richter 99 rootstocks, with a spacing of 2.8 metres within and between the rows. This square planting pattern, with equal distance between vines in two dimensions, will not only allow tractors to move across and down, says Eben, but also allow the vine roots to spread in an untrammelled circle, just as the vine will grow in 360 degrees.
Before I’d seen the planting pattern, I asked if the vines were to be all mixed up, as some growers prefer for their field blends. But two aspects make this not on here: firstly, the different varieties must be vinified separately – at least for a while – to test how they are performing here; second, as these are mother-blocks, they need to remain as blocks.
But, says Eben airily, sometime perhaps they can be replaced with scattered plantings. And, if some variety doesn’t perform well over time, it can be replaced. The future, on this farm, is not being thought of in terms of years or even a few decades. These are plantings, and visions, for the longer term – and it’s clear that that term, for Eben, is something much longer than his own lifetime. “A great wine”, he once told me, “is not the work of one generation”.