Two Cape icons: 10 years of Columella with Eben Sadie

It was obvious even from the maiden 2000 vintage of Columella that here was an ambitious wine with a difference.  Eben Sadie’s sensitively sculpted Rhone-style blend of Syrah with a dash of Mourvedre has put Swartland, its region of origin, on the map.  And not without good reason.

I first came across Columella in 2003 when I managed Oddbins’ fine wine store in the City. It was immediately clear to me and my customers from both packaging and content that Eben Sadie’s Syrah with a dash of Mourvedre was an ambitious wine with a difference.

Looking back over a decade of Columella, Sadie has crafted a thrillingly refined wine which he intends yet further to refine over the next decade.  Earlier harvesting, less new oak and, most recently, an element of whole bunch fermentation, have paid dividends and sign post the way ahead.

My favourites?  Be very happy if you have some 2001 or 2004 in your cellar and watch out for the 2008!  But honestly, there was a lot to like here full stop.

Sensitively sculpted

Sensitively sculpted with absolute respect for the raw material, the maiden 2000 vintage was no blockbuster. Comparisons were made with the Rhone and my limited allocation of the maiden 2000 vintage didn’t last long. Even the London-based South African accountant who scoffed at the high price – £25 back then – returned to buy some the next day when he learned it was sold out back home!

The following year, when I spent several weeks in the Cape, I met up with Sadie and well remember rattling up to his tiny Swartland winery/cellar, an old donkey shed, via a bone-shaking track. As we tasted Columella from each barrel, Sadie talked me through the different terroir components and how granite and Malmesbury shale translated into the (back)bone, nervous system, flesh and skin of his wine. No dead fruit here, these incubating wines were positively alive! It was an inspirational visit.

Affirmation

Several years later, cut to Vinoteca, London and an equally inspirational vertical tasting of Columella presented by Sadie. Sadie first thanked his UK importer (Roy Richards of Richards Walford) for spotting his talent at a critical moment when, he says, “I had not a pound in bank to buy the cork and bottles.”

He recalled “like a cat up and down” Richards took “forever” to taste 14 casks of the 2001 and 17 casks of the 2000 vintage before, Sadie says, pronouncing “it smells pretty decent and expensive.” Richards wrote out a contract on the spot, giving Sadie much needed affirmation of what he was doing and, with payment upfront, solved his cash flow problem in one fell swoop. Columella could now be bottled.

The philosophy

Outlining his philosophy, for Sadie it’s all about the land – “we have a white wine and a red wine and that’s it. We go from the vineyards and make wine from the viti side.”Denouncing vinification blending as opposed to field blending as unprogressive, he explained “I’m not a test tube guy…I taste and if I feel it [a wine] needs acidity I won’t add it, I’ll find or plant a vineyard which gives me the acidity or plant a variety high in acid.”

And Sadie prizes acidity. A fan of Beaujolais and Riesling, when it comes to decision-making, his guiding principle is “always to go for freshness.“ Even in the early days – “the era of my wine’s bigger than your wine” – he was picking on average 2 weeks before everyone else. He’s clearly proud of the fact that Columella is the driest red to be tested in the central laboratory every year (vintages range between 1.2g to 1.8g of residual sugar).

Terroir

When he alighted on the Swartland, the Cape’s so-called “bread basket” was known for wheat not wine. But for Sadie, its appeal was threefold. He says it has “the most interesting soils,” which are also poor and unirrigated, plus “the highest per capita vine age.” His idea was to harness all these qualities.

Drilling down to the soils, Columella comes from eight sites with five different soil types between them:

  • The Paardeberg’s very young granitic soils and decomposed granite produce spicy, herbal, aromatic Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault with a garrigue-like quality.
  • Grapes grown on the red slate or schist of Riebeeck mountain (which Sadie compared to the Douro, Roussillon, Priorat & Cote Rotie) never get too ripe and the soils impart a freshness and brightness to the resulting wine’s red fruits.
  • Alluvial soils (like Pessac) possess very high levels of minerality, producing, he says “the most spoken wines.”
  • In contrast, heavy clay soils (like the Barossa’s terra rossa) produce big wines which make “a great base” - up to 15% of the final blend.
  • Clay/limestone soils are rare in the Cape outside Robertson, but Sadie has located several hectares on the coast which he says provides the “purple, violet characters I like in Syrah, continental style.”

Describing younger vines at several vineyards as “too optimistic about what they can ripen,“ Sadie still has to green harvest and manage the canopy rigorously, aiming for 1 bunch per shoot. Syrah bunch weights come in at around 100g bunch versus 220g in Stellenbosch. Sadie’s yields are never more than 22hl/ha.

Careful canopy management to avoid shrivel also results in lower fructose levels, which means yeasts don’t struggle to ferment the wine to dryness.

He concludes, “if you farm well, everything works in terms of balance“ and, for Sadie, farming well involves careful site selection, using lots of organic material and never over cropping.

Gently does it

Once harvested, grapes are sorted berry by berry. Saying “I don’t like sugar in anything, coffee or jam,” 25 women hand sort out any overripe grapes which pays big dividends in terms of freshness.

Each vineyard has its own tank and is (naturally) fermented, spending 7-8 weeks macerating on skins. During the first 10 days, it is foot-trodden and, when it becomes more liquid, Sadie switches to pigeage (hand punching) just once a day“so as not to overdo it.”

The wine is then matured for 24 months in French oak barrels.

The tasting

Sadie Family Columella 2000

A vinous intensity to the nose, showing sweet but pippy, animated red cherry and raspberry fruits on nose and palate, with some mushroom as it opens up. These notes follow through on a very vibrant, fresh palate together with hints of violets and saddle soap. A vivid wine, with impressive purity and freshness to its fruit given its age – I cannot think of another South African Syrah which shares its clarity and line. Will last another 3-4 years but I’m with Sadie on drinking this now while it’s still possessed of good fruit intensity and freshness.

The vintage: a bit of rain just before harvest slowed the growth cycle and gave the wine with great freshness and resulted in the lowest alcohol level (13.7%) for some years. Sadie described 2000 as,“a phenomenal vintage, but I didn’t know it. I saw the grapes coming in and, only realised years later how perfect they were.”

Other points to note: this vintage featured the lowest percentage of Mourvedre (just 5%).  Sadie explained back then the Mourvedre vineyard was still young and not so balanced.  The wine was aged in 35% new oak.

Sadie Family Columella 2001

A very deep colour, with great richness and concentration to nose and palate, this is a lithe, muscular wine with bright layers of blackberry, cherry, raspberry and darker tar and liquorice notes. Perfumed saddle soap and dried herbs bring levity and lift to the finish. Powerful ripe tannins augur well for ageing. Very impressive with great fluidity.

Vintage: the driest year on record with just 250mm versus an annual average of 450mm). Sadie told us he did 3 green harvests to reduce the amount of fruit the vine had to ripen and“stop the vine digging into the acidity of the fruit…like taking the backpack off the marathon runner.” The yield was a measly 12hl/ha.

Other points to note: from this vintage onwards, the Mourvedre component has comprised 15%. Given the low yields, Sadie used a much higher percentage of new wood (c. 70%) to enable more oxygen to smooth out the tannins. He has always used 225l Bordeaux barrels, which he says need at least 5 years of seasoning; barrels are untoasted. Over time he has come to the conclusion that, in the Cape’s Mediterranean climate, where he says “grapes are inevitably very mature, the last thing you need is wood because you have mature tannins and you need to preserve the fruit.”

Sadie Family Columella 2002

Significantly paler and less concentrated on nose and palate, it’s more developed with notes of mushroom, leather, smoke and dried herb “garrigue“ to its sweet, pure raspberry fruit. As it opens up, it shows baked plum, warm earth and a hint of vanilla on the finish.  Without the concentration and structural underpinning of the others, this is a drink up wine. 13.8% abv

Vintage: a wet year which Sadie says “looked like Burgundy the whole season – we were sitting waiting for the grapes to ripen whilst usually we‘re running and don’t stop running for 6 weeks!”

Other points to note: Saying “it doesn’t look like any of other wines I made,”surprisingly it has less acidity than others. It was aged in 20% new oak.

Sadie Family Columella 2003

A deep colour with a garrigue/dried herb edge to its brooding dark cassis and blackberry nose and palate with hints of leather/saddle soap, warm earth and tar. Though relatively generous, chunky even compared with other vintages, it still has a nervous system/animation and finishes long and spicy with renosterveld/tiger balm heat. 14.3% abv

Vintage: a warmer year, but not like in Europe and, fortunately, preceded by a wet winter. The growing season was very compressed – the shortest ever, as the grapes raced to ripeness.

Other points to note: this vintage underwent a lengthy 6.5-7 week maceration and Sadie expressed relief that he only used 30% new oak where more might have imparted a dried fruit/pruney flavour profile. Admitting he didn’t like the wine for its first 3 years or so in bottle – “it was always riper, heavier, extracted and powerful” –he’s happy it’s “calmed down” and come through with bottle age.

Sadie Family Columella 2004

Long, rolling, lithe and seamless, the 2004 shows bright red fruits with creamy black fruits beneath. With lovely fruit purity, fine tannins, great length and freshness, it‘s intense yet elegant. Wonderful fluidity with an underlying minerality to its long finish. Great beauty – terrific.

The vintage: Sadie says 2004 had the same characteristics 2000 but, this time, he recognised it and, from the outset, this wine possessed great equilibrium.

Sadie Family Columella 2005

Exuberant, spicy fruit with ripe but present tannins. Though I detected a schistous mineral quality, it‘s a glossy modern wine, seemingly less characterful than the others. For Sadie, it’s still way too young – when he drinks it at home, he decants it in the morning which he says “halfway shifts it back to where I want it.” Hold. A keeper. 14.1% abv

Vintage: an amazing year thanks to a good winter, with 25mm of rain in January, Sadie quips, “our Christmas box.” Though the tannins were not as round as in 2004, he says the wine has more acidity (c. 6.7g/l TA) like the 2001.

Other points to note: aged in 40% new wood. Since 2005, his aim has been to keep alcohol by volume below 14%.

Sadie Family Columella 2006

Much more open and expressive than the 2005 with an earthy undertow and liquorice spice quality to its cherry and black berry fruits which lack the vibrancy of other vintages. Grainy tannins firm up the finish and remind you that this is a young wine.

Vintage: similar to 2000 and 2004 with perfect rainfall and sunshine both. Sadie observes this vintage was “born mature.”

Sadie Family Columella 2007

A very penetrating, saturating quality to this super juicy wine whose bright core of liquorice-edged red and black fruits flesh out a firm backbone of tannin. Muscular, broad and long – very good – one for the long haul.

Vintage:  freak vintage with a 10 day heat spike just before harvest where temperatures hit 46 degrees every day. Fortunately it rained in January and Sadie had picked 7-10 days earlier than normal having spotted the signs thanks he says, to the 2003 vintage, adding “without the 2003 experience, in 2007, I would have made an amarone!”

Other points to note:  saying “the stems were so green it looked my lawn in the winery,“because the tannins were so lean and green, Sadie matured the wine in 50% new wood in order to facilitate oxygenation to caramelise and mature the tannins, also help stabilise colour. He says it was the best decision ever and has changed the way that he looks at fruit. Since 2007, he has picked grapes earlier and earlier in the interests of maintaining freshness confident in the knowledge that, with good work in the cellar, he can manage green tannins.

Sadie Family Columella 2008

A very deep colour yet lovely levity on nose and nimble palate with perfumed dried herbs, schist and liquorice notes to its juicy red and black berry and cherry fruit. Ruffled, taffeta tannins make for a long, textured schistous/mineral finish. A beautiful, intense, elegant wine. 14% abv.

Vintage: no notes, though Sadie says after 2007 he is picking on average 5 days earlier.

Other points to note: much less extraction in this year and, for me, it shows in the wine’s nimble palate. Just 20% new oak.

Sadie Family Columella 2009

Bottled 3 months ago this youthful wine has earthy, spicy (pepper & liquorice) savoury overtones to its cherry fruit and is seemingly drier/less fruitful. Fresh with ripe but present tannins it marks a change in direction (see below). Quite closed at the moment, but promising complexity and structure; just needs the skinny fruit to flesh out a bit with time. 13.8% abv

Other points to note: this year saw the introduction of 35% whole bunch fruit (Syrah) which, Sadie observes, results in a fresher more ageworthy wine because the stems impart acidity and also bring mass without sugar to the fermentation vat, which in turn reduces the fermentation temperature by 1-2 degrees centigrade. The impression of freshness is also reinforced by the tannins (from stems), which he says are spicier and “less overt and round.” (Incidentally, stems also result in a lighter wine because they absorb colour rather than give/fix it).

Going forward

Sadie says 10 years ago, he was making every wine differently and it was difficult to tell if it was the winemaking or vineyard impacting on the wine. He says what he has learned from the vertical is much more important than what he has done over these 10 years and, going forward, he intends to make the wine in a consistent fashion.

He will continue with the early picking regime and an element of whole bunch because, he points out, freshness is at a premium when you work in South Africa. Future vintages (including wines currently in barrel) will be aged for only one year in 225l and, during the following year, in foudres, which he says better preserves the fruit. He anticipates reducing new oak to just 10%. It’s possible he may add some Grenache to blend provided, he says, it looks like Pinot Noir not prune juice!

For my part, I can’t wait to see (and taste!) what the next decade holds.



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