Columella, Giotto and the perfect circle

Two weeks ago I went to the launch tasting of the latest releases of Sadie Family Wines, and have written nothing about it. The range of wines which I consider the Cape’s most important, most interesting, and finest – surely I could find something to say before now? Struck dumb? Perhaps. Just a bit sick and tired (the technical term is “gatvol”), as the Platter tasting season draws to an end, of writing notes about wines? Perhaps.

I arrived early (with permission), as I pathetically find it difficult to concentrate in circumstances of milling crowds and chat. The trouble with that strategy is that it meant Eben Sadie and his assistant Paul Jordaan were not yet overwhelmed themselves, and had time for talk. By the time more tasters arrived to demand their attention, I’d achieved little serious tasting – and there were more people to chat to and wrench my attention away.

Last year I managed a full set of notes, but this year I gave up scribbling half way through my tastings – partly because I was feeling a bit poncey and foolish tapping into my iPad while no one else apart from Angela Lloyd seemed to be doing similarly. Anyway, I didn’t feel I was doing justice to the wines in what I was writing (do I ever?). Happily, the urge to perpetrate the absurdity of solemnly imposing scores on fine wines, on the basis of the fleeting experience that a tasting permits, has long since passed, so I didn’t even do that.

I closed my iPad and enjoyed the varied range of aromas and flavours and textures and structures of ten lovely wines, promising myself that when I get the chance to sit down and spend some time with one of the wines I would try to find something useful to say about it. You want guidance as to which of these you should pursue? Well, I have remarkably little doubt that if you manage to snaffle one or two bottles of any of them, you will get great satisfaction. Might you get one that someone loftily thinks is worth only 93 points rather than 94 or 95? Indeed. But if you’re a winelover, there are none of these wines you won’t enjoy, I promise.

Perhaps I’m destroying what little critical credibility I have by renouncing fine discrimination (for now at least), and more than likely I’m adding to my notoriety (building up for a decade and a half now) as a Sadie groupie. (But it’s a bit like, only the opposite, when people say I’m prejudiced against the wines of Region XXX, and I say, my attitude is a deeply informed judgement, a post-judice, not a prejudice … it actually took a lot of drinking and talking and visiting and learning to become an adequate Sadie groupie!)

And in fact, my one little claim to obvious independence crumbled at this tasting. I have never been a fan of Treinspoor, the tinta barocca – though Eben Sadie himself has always rated it highly amongst his wines. I’m never “got” it, and found it impossibly tannic in a way that I thought precluded harmony ever arriving to it. This year, vintage 2015, though, I found it much better balanced than ever before, revealing depths and intricacy that, frankly, didn’t really matter before. I am convinced that it’s the wine that has changed, not me.

But the net result is that there’s absolutely no wine in the line-up that I could be the least bit sniffy and dismissive about.

This doesn’t all mean that I didn’t enjoy, and perhaps value more highly, some wines more than others. I always especially love ‘T Voetpad, and I did this year; the acidity and extraordinary characterfulness of  Skerpioen gets to me when its working, as it did this year. But I’ve visited both of those vineyards a couple of times, and they are both such remarkable and wonderful places that I can’t imagine not loving the wines (and I can’t actually really imagine anyone understanding the wines unless he or she has seen the places, or at the very least good photos of them!).

The Skurfberg chenin and semillon (wonderful vineyards too, but not quite so much so…) are also exciting – though especially Kokerboom I think needs quite a few years before it’s properly approachable. As for Mev Kirsten – it’s great, but I can confess to a rather heretical viewpoint here, in that I think I rather preferred it in the old oxidative style. But I can’t afford it, anyway, so it’s theoretical for me.


Freshly unwrapped to pose in my kitchen

Then there are the reds…. These were tasted first in the line-up this year, and after going through the three in the Ou Wingerdreeks 2015s (and partly regretting how much I like the Treinspoor) I moved across to taste the Columella 2014. Each year since 2009, something of a breakthough vintage, it has been getting better, on the whole – no doubt the result of Eben having given up his Spanish commitments in 2010 and having more energy to devote to his Swartland wines – and even more importantly, I’ve come to realise, having more time to think about them. All the wines in the two ranges have (given vintage variations) generally gained in profundity and precision of expression in the last half-decade, but none so much as Columella.

I was reminded of a conversation I had long ago with Eben – surely at least a decade back: certainly it was when he was deeply involved in Spanish wine. He was trying to describe to me the wonders of the tannic structure of the Dominio de Pingus, made by Peter Sisseck. This structure was, according to Eben, circular (as I recall).

circleOne of the most famous circles in art history is one drawn by the Italian painter Giotto (who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries). The story goes that the almighty pope in Rome sent a messenger to him, asking for a drawing that would demonstrate his prowess. Taking up a brush charged with red paint, Giotto drew a perfect circle, freehand. That’s what he offered the pope.

Now, when Eben first told me about circular tannic structures (and sketched them too) I was rather bewildered. But I suddenly remembered the story when I was taking great pleasure in my little glassful of Columella two Saturdays back. I’d be perfectly willing to be convinced that the structure of the wine was circular (and as close to perfect as I can measure) – perhaps even spherical. And also that one could send them along to the pope as a convincing illustration of prowess – and also of the potential of Swartland terroir.

One thought on “Columella, Giotto and the perfect circle

  1. What I rather like like is that you set aside the critic-ing and got on with really tasting and enjoying the wines. Perhaps more wine writers should do this – enjoy the wines first and score them later? Perhaps that would be a more honest assessment?

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