Fifteen years of Sadie Family Columella

“In the early years,” said Eben Sadie, presenting a vertical tasting of all released vintages thus far of his Columella red blend, “back then I was maybe trying too hard….” Later, with some success behind him, “I earned the freedom to make the real wine I wanted to do.” So, said this notorious perfectionist, “I’m now more interested in making an honest wine than a perfect wine.” It was a point he repeated in various ways through the tasting – his concern to make a specifically Swartland wine, one that best reflects local terroir.

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Eben Sadie, before presenting his 15 Columellas

He gets upset, says Eben, if someone claims that Columella tastes like a good Côte Rôtie – he wants it to taste like an African wine, not a French one. The current programme of experimenting with growing a range of different grape varieties is directed at that end: finding the right varieties to best express these slopes, soils and meso-climates. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tasting was the radical shift in character of Columella – from 2009 to an extent, and certainly from 2010; remarkable because it showed a willingness to abandon a very successful orientation and embark on a new stage of what can now more easily be seen as a work in progress, the search for the essence of Columella.

My long profile of Sadie in the current issue of World of Fine Wine concludes with some observations of how he looks always to the future, conscious that he is building something, not fully achieving it. The last paragraph in that piece goes thus (just a trifle portentously!):

And I realize again, as we stand in the Swartland sunshine, that all this effort, this building, is not about now, but about a larger, wider work and achievement that Sadie eagerly but serenely contemplates as progressing without him. The lessons of old Europe, of the long labor of achieving the Côte d’Or, have been taken to heart. Many years ago, he told me that “building a great wine is not the work of one generation”, and I recall this as I stoop to let a handful of the soil of the vineyard he is planting trickle through my fingers.”

The journey to the future is, nonetheless, so far proving to be a most entertaining and satisfying one for winelovers! This 15-year vertical held in the newly-built Sadie family home on Eben’s small Paardeberg farm Rotsvas (and another to be held in Johannesburg later this week) was originally intended to be a 10-year vertical, but long delay gave us locals this even more illuminating one. Years back, 10-year verticals of Columella were held in numerous cities around the world, and we were envious – but those tastings would not have revealed that re-orientation around 2009-2010 that was obvious here: partly the simple matter of earlier picking, with an eye to increased freshness without sacrificing depth, partly hundreds of little details in the winemaking and maturation process, partly the use of other varieties to supplement syrah. Originally, mourvèdre was the only other grape used, now cinsaut, grenache and carignan are playing a role too – marking more than anything else what Eben calls “cutting the umbilical cord with Côte Rôtie”.

It was a great occasion this tasting, for 40-odd members of the Sadie family and the winery team, friends and good, long-established customers, a few sommeliers and retailers. It began with a sparkling long-aged cider that Eben is to release shortly, and it ended with an excellent casual lunch. And in between were 15 vintages of Columella; to say that none of them was a dud would be a serious understatement. There was much vintage variation, however, as one would expect from this wine and this winemaker, and much interest as well as sensual delight.

My notes are very inadequate, but I offer them, largely unedited (as will be only too obvious) to convey, for a few who might be interested, some of my reactions to the wines that day.

columella1The wines, in order tasted

  1. An almost cab-like nose. Forward aromas, definitely some herbal quality and development. As Serious tannin, but well integrated. Elegant, also rather bordeauxlike to taste. Some leanness. Hint of sweetness on finish, but just a hint. Hint of drying out? Certainly room to go, but I wonder if it’s not past its best.
  2. More fruit on nose than 2000, quite beguiling. And lovely. Darker-fruited. Touch less harmonious, but still very alive. Some sweet fruit, but drier finish. Some power. Less cab character. Developes in glass, getting more convincing. Really good.
  3. Some maturity of colour on these, but no more than that. Riper, simpler than previous two, but attractively fruity nose. Noticeably S African. A little alcoholic heat on the finish, but less intense flavours. Important that it shows the difference of this poorer vintage. A little forest floor and earth on palate, less fresh, clean and pure on finish. Still v much alive, though. Developing in glass.
  4. Rather lovely nose, much riper-fruitier. Lightish feeling, rather charming despite 15.3 alc. Just a hint of warmth on finish – less than lower-alc 2002. Very hot year. Acid a little soft. Very clean. Alc less obvious because of quality of tannins. Tannins best yet, most integrated, balanced. Really lovely. Dry enough finish.
  5. Bdx-like again. Had more new wood, giving some spiciness on nose and palate. Drinking very well, very balanced, “everything went to plan” this vintage. Full, richer than others. But less exciting perhaps. Excellent ripe, round tannins.
  6. Cool nose, with real complexity. Excellent, vibrant. Tannins still youthfully tight. Long way to go. Oaking & extraction better balanced than 04. Fresh acid. My favourite so far.
  7. Youthful colour. Fine nose. Power. Big, full, a touch warm on dry finish. 14.7 alc. Perhaps hollow, with less length.
  8. Reminiscent of 2000 again. With more power, but grainy well textured tannins. Density, richness, with serious tannins only starting to resolve, some sweetness and cedar notes on finish. Youthful, less harmonious. These wines not yet at best.
  9. Full, rich nose and palate, with fresh acidity alongside ripe power. Less elegant than some, good balance. But these are big wines now in the “middle period” – I think I prefer the older ones. Very youthful. Very well made. Dense, promising. Lovely big tannins.
  10. A shift. Notably fresh nose. Freshest palate so far, better acid, very complete. Intense but not heavy. Earlier picked. Lovely red fruit. Again, tannins very smooth and textured.
  11. Entrenches change in winemaking. More perfume coming through on nose. Bright, elegant, more refined and fresh. Honest fruitiness, but drier finish than pre-2009 wines, which is welcome. Whole-bunch fruit. Tannins still very present – now stems too. Elegant, refined. No dip, the wine just soars from entry.
  12. The wines getting more charmingly perfumed-fruity, but tannins still powerful. Seems good balance. Very elegant, restrained, fresh. “I saw what the future could be” says Eben of this vintage. Together with retained power. Nowadays less oak influence on taste, good purity. More varieties. Dry finish.
  13. Riper, darker nose. Plenty of acid, tannins less prominent yet still very powerful albeit subterranean. Lifted freshness. Balanced in equilibrium but not yet harmonious. Promising complexity but far from ready to drink. Really fine; best for me so far.
  14. More harmonious, easier to drink now than 2012. Easier going, less intense. Really dry, pepper and dried herb, spice. Totally dry finish. 13.6 alc – a reduction. Comfortable now though young; but still blandly enigmatic.
  15. Light feeling but really intense. Has a new sweetness of fruit which disconcerts me. Has a volume to it, also a difficulty. Awkward still. I’m tired, and this wine really too young to guess at.

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