The tenth vintage of Sadie Family Columella was made this year. To celebrate, it seemed a good idea to taste the first five Columella vintages in a context they deserve. So, four good wines from the northern Rhône appellations (plus one from the southern Rhône) that were Eben Sadie’s inspiration for his Swartland wine, although unlike them Columella is not pure syrah/shiraz, but always has up to 20% mourvèdre.
To taste them and drink them over dinner (as well as three preceeding dry rieslings from Germany and Austria to accompany the sushi) were friends with familiar names like van Zyl, Lloyd, Pfützner (Jörg, who as sommelier at Aubergine learnt to know Columella better than most people), Kruger (Rosa, the L’Ormarins viticulturist who now works quite closely with Eben on some projects), and Mullineux (Chris, the winemaker who’s surely destined to also become a big name in the Swartland); not to mention Eben and Maria Sadie.
It turned out to be a great tasting, with all ten wines (well, nearly all) showing extremely well: the slightly doubtful one was the 2003 Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a grenache-based wine included to represent a Rhône blend: it was a touch oxidised as well as typical of an ultra-ripe vintage, though still interesting. The ten wines were presented blind, mostly in vintage order from 2004 to 1999, and I’m still not quite sure how many of his own wines Eben recognised – certainly not all; and his surprise and pleasure at how well a few of the vintages he had some doubts about was unfeigned. He did, though, certainly pick up some as South African.
Chris Mullineux, who has worked vintages in the Northern Rhône and knows the wines well, didn’t recognise some of the Columellas as being local. He emailed later: “It was an amazing evening on many levels, best of which was how the wines even surprised Eben. I felt humbled before I knew what they were, and more so after.” All of the other tasters were surprised when the wines were revealed, though some had been identified as South African.
It must be said, though, that perhaps the general favourite wine of the evening was a stunning Cornas from Robert Michel, the Geynale 2001, a superb, tannic and youthful wine, with the herbal/herbaceous note, plus violets and earth, typical of traditionally made Cornas (no destalking, scarcely any new wood). There were two vintages of Chapoutier’s highly rated St-Joseph Les Granits, 2004 and 2000, both showing excellently – the 2000 perhaps approaching its peak – with power as well as finesse. (Chapoutier wines are imported by the Wine Cellar in Cape Town; the current Les Granits 2006 is R435, sadly carrying rather a heavy premium on what you’d pay in London, say). Another, grander, Chapoutier name in fact showed a little less well on the night, though elegantly powerful, intriguing and beautifully structured: the Côte Rôtie La Mordorée from the great 1999 vintage – but it might well come into its own in another ten years or so. (The 2006 costs R1625 from the Wine Cellar.)
As to the Columellas (also not exactly cheap: the recently released 2007 is about R580). The maiden 2000 is in great form, one of the finest wines of the tasting, harmonious in its power, with a real freshness and life. Still years to go, I should think. A close second-best for me was the 2004, with typical Swartland dried-herb, rosemary and blackcurrant perfume, and forceful fine structure; youthful but already delicious. The 2001 (which pleasantly surprised Eben, who had not tasted it recently and found it a bit disappointing in the past) was notably rich, more spicy than the other Columellas, perhaps showing more influence from oak, though most attractively so. 2003, while very good, was a touch less fresh and harmonious to me, and the 2002 showed the great fruity ripeness and richness that had disturbed me somewhat when I last tried it in its youth – in some ways the most “Parkerised” of the Columellas.
But any criticism and doubt here is all relative. This was an excellent line-up, a testimony to fine Swartland terroir and to the meticulous, extraordinarily hard-working and genuinely passionate devotion to excellence shown by its winemaker.
In 2002, in an article in Grape (then a print magazine) in which some Platter tasters wrote of their “finds” that year, I wrote the following about the maiden Columella (this after not being a total admirer of everything Eben Sadie had done in his few years time at Spice Route):
“Lastly, an undoubted future star. After sampling, over four or five hours, the Sadie Family Columella, a Swartland shiraz made in the tinest and most expensive quantities, I telephoned the editor of Platter, Philip van Zyl, to say that I’d just tasted what I thought was the best Cape wine I’d ever had. Time and future drinking will tell me whether I should change my mind – I haven’t yet.”
Seven years have passed, and I won’t squabble with my early enthusiasm. I do know of enough other excellent modern Cape wines to tell me I shouldn’t enthuse too exclusively, but, reinforced by this vertical sampling of the first five vintages, I still have no doubt that Columella is one of the very finest red wines being made here today.