Tasting the Swartland Revolution

When I first went to South Africa in 2008 for the Cape Wine convention, I knew next to nothing about South African wine. I attempted to remedy this fact by spending as many hours as possible tasting as many wines as possible at the multi-day trade fair, which was (still to this day) one of the best-designed and organized wine fairs I’ve ever attended.

As I made my way through the vast halls of the convention center, I tasted several hundred wines from producers big and small, most of which were decent, some of which were good, and a few of which were excellent.

But there was one stand I blindly arrived at, where the wine rocked me back on my feet. In this proverbial pull-the-needle-off-the-record moment, I caught a glimpse of South African wine’s future, and experienced my first taste of what would become a movement known as the Swartland Revolution.

This movement has since changed the face of the South African wine industry, but back then, it was basically just one guy who decided to make wine from the old vines near where he grew up in Swartland.

The Rediscovery of Swartland

Eben Sadie (pronounced “sah-dee”) got his start in winemaking in the late 1990s, working at various producers in Europe before signing on in 1998 as the winemaker at Spice Route, a wine label owned by Charles Back. Sadie made an immediate impact on the wines, but also just as quickly realized that his path lay elsewhere.

“Spice Route was fine, but I truly wanted to be involved with the development of a system to produce a magnificent, world-class wine—something iconic,” says Sadie, “and I didn’t think I was going to be able to do that there.”

Since 1997, even before he signed on to the Swartland-focused Spice Route, Sadie had been spending his evenings and weekends working in a few old vineyards he found in the Swartland, getting them ready for making a wine that he believed better demonstrated what was possible in South Africa.

By 2000 he believed the vineyards were ready, and Sadie produced the first vintage of a Syrah-based blend he called Columella. A few months later he departed Spice Route to focus on The Sadie Family Wines (along with a short-lived second label Sequillo Cellars and several different wines he was making with partners in the Priorat region of Spain).

Sadie’s approach to his wines, which he has honed in the two and a half decades since, included what he refers to as “OCD-level” farming; picking for natural acidity and moderate alcohol levels; native yeast fermentations; some use of whole clusters; and mostly neutral wood and concrete for vinification and aging; all done with an exacting eye towards ensuring pristine fruit makes its way to the bottle with a minimum of handling and an obsessive level of hygiene.

Eben Sadie with old vines in the Voetpad Vineyard

When Sadie decided to return to his roots in the Swartland, the area had already seen a long history of winegrowing and winemaking. Vines had been planted in the region as far back as the mid-1800s. After World War Two, three large cooperative wineries sprang up to produce large amounts of inexpensive wines for domestic and international consumption.

Using a broad base of well-established plantings, these co-ops initially thrived. But then in 1948, Apartheid began, and like much of the country, these cooperative wineries didn’t fare well, especially once international sanctions were imposed in the Sixties. By 1994, when Apartheid ended, they were barely hanging on. Only one, the Riebeck Valley Wine Co. remains in existence today.

But the true legacy of these co-ops may be one big happy accident. The hundreds of growers used to selling their wines to the co-ops weren’t in a financial position to do anything different during the sanction years of Apartheid. They couldn’t even afford to rip out their vines and put in a more lucrative crop, leaving Swartland to be a treasure trove of remarkable old-vine…

Source : https://www.vinography.com/2024/06/tasting-the-swartland-revolution