While they’re certainly thin on the ground here in Australia, I’m a big fan of the wines of South Africa. I started this blog by writing about an entry level white, Goats Do Roam, and now as I approach my hundredth wine, I have one that is at the other end of the price spectrum, The Sadie Family Columella 2007.
In researching this wine, I think I’ve come across yet another iconic winemaker about whom I knew almost nothing, a bit like when I went to the Stephen Pannell tasting, and that despite having personally carried some of his wines back with me from South Africa almost two years ago.
When I was last in South Africa, the trip was all about the World Cup and hardly at all about wine. However, I did manage to swing by a wine shop and picked up a mixed case, largely consisting of wines I had enjoyed on my previous visit. However, the Chenin Blanc I wanted from Ken Forrester was unavailable. The merchant suggested instead that I try an unfamiliar wine, Palladius, which was a white blend. I picked up two bottles, brought them back to Australia, put them in the cellar, and never bothered to investigate what I had brought home. It turns out they are wines of The Sadie Family, made by Eben Sadie who I now know as the first celebrity winemaker of South Africa.
Eben Sadie worked throughout the world in the wine industry, before returning to South Africa in 1998 to work with Charles Back, who is best known for producing wines of The Spice Route and Fairview, makers of Goats Do Roam. (See what I did there? It’s all connected!) After very quickly making a reputation for himself, he started his own winery in 1999, initially using the Spice Route facilities, and produced the first vintage of Columella in 2000. He co-founded a vineyard in Priorat, Spain in 2001 where he produces a wine in partnership with Dominik Huber, a restauranteur from Munich. In 2002 he produced his first vintage of Palladius, and in 2003 branched out to produce Sequillo wines which are something of a more affordable second label.
I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do justice to Eben Sadie, having covered the dates and dry facts. Apparently he is something of a personality, and I think he’s relatively young, turning 40 this year. He’s considered a wine guru, having seen how wine is made both throughout Europe and in Oregon and then deciding he was going to apply that in South Africa. He’s been described as an enfant terrible by Tim Atkin MW in Decanter, a prophet by Jancis Robinson, and an artisan by Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof (who I’ve always thought of as an artisan, so he would know). He eschews the term winemaker, preferring the wine to be an expression of terroir, and therefore his job is to stay out of the way so that can happen, rather than trying to make that happen.
This is not a unique profile – many winemakers spend their early years working vintages around the world to return to their homelands and apply their learning. Likewise many winemakers have similar ideas as to non-intervention in winemaking and expression of terroir. It’s actually a pretty easy formula, but it really doesn’t explain anything, because there’s clearly something unique about Eben Sadie and his approach that isn’t evident in any of the articles about him that I’ve read or the documents released related to his wine. But there is absolutely something that sets him and his wines apart, and if I could pin it down I might like to follow in his footsteps. But experiencing winemaking in different parts of the world isn’t enough, nor is having the best intentions and practices. There’s something else, and I don’t know what it is, but he has it.
Columella, the wine, is named for Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who Sadie describes as the first wine writer. A first century agriculturalist, he authored De Re Rustica, a twelve volume work on all aspects of agriculture. The wine as a tribute to him is reflected in the entirety of the label being in Latin. This includes place names, which means Swartland from Dutch/Afrikaans turns into Nigra in Terra in Latin, then into something along the lines of Black Country in English, apparently to do with a native plant with a dark appearance after rains. The wine itself is a blend, with 80% Syrah being the core, along with 20% Mourvèdre.
Swartland is something of a new wine region for me, though having now just found it on a map, I drove right through it while I was on honeymoon. (I hope I can be forgiven for having had other things on my mind.) It’s north of Cape Town on the west coast of the country as part of the Western Cape Geographical Unit, and within that the Coastal Region. The climate is warm though mitigated by proximity to the Atlantic and very stable. It is a traditional breadbasket for grain production in its flat, open plains, with vineyards on foothills or along the river Berg. The area had been known for production of bulk and fortified wine, and it is home to the largest co-operative in the country, but there has been a recent trend toward high quality wine from smaller producers.
As to the particulars of The Sadie Family vines, they lease seven vineyards throughout Swartland. They do not irrigate, and roughly half their vines are trellised, with the remainder being bush vines. They have very low yields generally, and thin their crop further in dry years. Their soils are a mix of decomposed slate, decomposed granite, and sandstone and slate / clay mixtures. They hand pick into baskets, and then hand sort the grapes. After destemming, half are crushed, and then left to cold soak for two to four days. Fermentation is by natural yeast in open top wooden fermenters over three to four week with controlled temperatures, followed by additional maceration on skins for up to three weeks. After pressing, the wine is transferred into barrels using buckets rather than pumped, and gravity is used for other transfers. The parcels are eventually blended and mature in oak for up to two years, then bottled without fining or filtering.
In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a medium plus purple colour and slow legs with a bit of colour to them. The nose is clean and intense, but took ages to get this way – decanted four hours ago and was very closed at that point. It has notes of perfume, blueberry and chocolate. On the palate, it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, medium plus alcohol, medium minus soft tannins, and medium plus flavour intensity. It’s a rich wine with notes of chocolate, green peppercorns, blueberry, cherry, cola, and coffee. It has a bit of fruit sweetness to it – not to do with residual sugar, just fruit. It has long length with a herby finish.
This is an exceptional wine. It’s intense, long lasting, and well balanced – not overly tannic or alcoholic (though there’s enough), but with a solid punch of flavour and supporting cast. It has a very solid structure, but not one based exclusively on tannins. Yet it’s graceful – it allows appreciation if you stop to consider it in your mouth, but not overly obvious. It’s not exactly subtle, but somewhere in between – you’ll think it’s nice, but only when you stop will you appreciate it does it really reveal itself.