Eben Sadie and Columella
A vertical tasting of Eben Sadie's remarkable Columella wine, from South Africa's Swartland wine region, starting with the first vintage (2000) 


Eben Sadie is one of South Africa’s most respected and high profile winegrowers, and I have written about him at length before (see here and here). With the 2009 vintage, Eben has now completed 10 years of Columella, his red wine, and the one he started out with back in 2000. He came to London to present a full vertical of Columella to date – a tasting not to miss. In this write up, much of the content is in Eben’s own words. He’s a really thoughtful winegrower, and it’s worth hearing what he has to say.

‘The nice thing about a vertical is that everything is on the table,’ said Eben. ‘You are all professionals. I can lie a little bit here, but not too much!’ He added, ‘The guys that produce wine have great difficulty in telling the truth. You will all have your opinion, but for me the important thing will be the conclusion that I have made; what I have learned. What I have learned from the first 10 years is much more important than what I have actually done in the first 10 years.’

In his first vintage, 2000, Eben made just 17 barrels of wine. But it’s only thanks to a UK wine merchant that it ever got bottled.

‘I still remember it. Two to three years before this when I was in London with Spice Route, I met Roy Richards,’ recalls Eben. ‘One thing that struck me about this gentleman was that I thought he could really taste.’ So when Roy was on holiday in South Africa, Eben called him up when he heard he was out, and he asked him to taste the wine. ‘At that stage I had the 17 casks of 2000, and I didn’t I have a pound in the bank to get the casks into bottle. There was just no way that I could get this wine finished. He came to the cellar. I had the blends out, and he was sitting there tasting the wine and he took forever.’

‘He was sniffing and swirling and taking his time. I was like a cat, up and down, and in and out of the cellar. After a long while he said that it was pretty decent. I just needed somebody to affirm that it was what we had been setting out to do. There and then he bought in advance: it is the only wine I have ever sold in advance, and the only way I could ever get the Columella to bottle.’

Roy Richards took out a ‘with compliments’ slip from Richards Walford and wrote a contract, signed it, and a week later paid for the wine. ‘I could then take that money and buy bottles and corks,’ says Eben. ‘England was my first customer and I am very grateful for that. Those are the kind of events that make things happen.’

‘In the cellar of the Sadie family there is a white wine and a red wine. It isn’t that we have 200 barrels every year and then after 18 months we select the best 14 barrels and bottle that. For me this is a little bit like playing cards. The way I understand wine is that you start from the vineyard and you set out to make wine from the viticultural side.’

‘I decided to work in the Swartland for three or four main reasons. It is not the best known region in South Africa, but it is definitely the area with the most interesting soils. It has the poorest soils, no water (no irrigation) and it also has the highest per capita of old vineyards in the country. And there are not a lot of people. It is an area that can produce incredibly high quality fruit. We wanted to just harness all this and bring it together.’

‘I am not a guy who sits in my office with a test-tube and then I blend this and that. That is not how I understand wine. If I taste my wine and I feel that it needs more acidity, then I’ll plant a grape variety with more acidity, I’ll plant it at high altitude and I’ll plant it facing south, rather than blending or adding acidity. This vineyard will become the responsible party for acidity in the wine. If a wine needs fruit then I’ll plant a variety that brings fruit to the wine. This is a proactive way of farming; a way to secure the quality in the wine for ever and ever. All the other strategies—where often wines are made after the vineyard—I don’t feel is very progressive.’

‘Columella is a blend of five different soil types. The first and most important soil is from the Paardeberg mountain (horse mountain) in the region, which is very young granitic formations and decomposed granite. On decomposed granite, we find that the fruit of the red wines is spicy, herbal and garrigue like. We have quite a lot of our vineyards in these granitic soils.’

‘The second mountain is the Riebeek mountain, which is a formation of red slate/schist. This is a slate formation with a high level of iron in it. It is the kind of soil you will find in the Douro, the Roussillon mountains, or Priorato or the northern Rhône in Côte Rôtie. This is an important soil for us gives freshness, red fruits, brightness. The vineyards here don’t get too ripe: you can pick at 13.5% alcogol and you have bright, red, fresh fruit and good acidity.’

‘The other soil I work with is an alluvial soil. It is the kind of soil that you find in Pessac. These are soils that weren’t born here, but were moved by water, so they are flat. These have high levels of minerality. The wines are our most soft-spoken wines, but in the blends they deliver a lot of minerality.’

‘Then we have two sites that are deep red clay soils, like the terra rossas in Australia. These are heavy clays with lots of iron, and they make for massive structure and big tannins. I don’t like too much of this in the wine because it gets to abrasive, but it is a great base. We try to keep this to 15% of our vineyards.’

‘The last, of the more important soils is argilocalcaire, a clay loam chalk formation. It is very rare in South Africa, and is mainly in the Robertson area, but we have identified seven hectares on the coast. It makes the most amazing wines. The most purple, violet wines: the kind of characteristics in Syrah that we find incredibly attractive, and the characteristics we only find in Syrah when it is grown in a continental climate.’

‘In total we have eight vineyards. We bring grapes from all our soils in, and the only thing we do is sort out any raisins. I have 25 girls and we sort out every berry. I don’t like sugar: not in coffee or food, or wine. I don’t like jam. The threat in my area of South Africa is not rot or disease or unripeness, but over-ripeness and sweetness. By eliminating any raisined, over-ripe grapes we improve the freshness of the wine incredibly.’

‘We have a long maceration on the skins of seven to eight weeks. We do one pigeage a day by foot for the first 10 days, and then when the solution gets to liquid with a pigeage stick, once a day. I don’t want to over-extract. We press in a basket press and then the wine spends 24 months in cask before bottling unfined and unfiltered.’

‘The thing that affects acidity in the Swartland is rainfall. If we don’t have rain somewhere in January then we don’t have acidity. You need that rain just to have enough moisture for the vine to get the fruit properly ripe. If you don’t have that rain, all the processes happen too fast, and the vine runs out of energy. The most important chemistry in a vine is the Krebs cycle, which is the cycle in which the vine breaks down acid. This is where it gets its energy. If that cycle is going too fast, you break down way too much acid. If our vines don’t have that rain and it feels stress, it starts to push too much acid through that Krebs cycle. The Krebs cycle for a vine is like drinking Red Bull. It takes the acid out of the berries. My interest in wine chemistry died 15 years ago, but my interest in the vine’s chemistry is ongoing. I want to understand the plant. Winemaking has to be simple: we haven’t changed the winemaking in the cellar for 10 years, because if you make everything different you can’t read the vineyards. For me it was important to get a zero line in the cellar, and then we can get a reading.’ 

Sadie Family Columella 2000 Swartland, South Africa
‘The first vintage, 2000, was a phenomenal vintage in South Africa,’ says Eben. ‘The problem is, I didn’t realise it at the time. I only realised years after how perfect these grapes were.’ There was a little bit of rainfall just before vintage. This wine has the lowest percentage of Mourvedre in it (95% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre). At this stage the Mourvèdre was too young and imbalanced. This has 35% new oak. ‘It is drinking well but it could age three or four years more. I like to drink my red wines while they still have fruit.’ Fresh dark fruits nose is gravelly and bright with berry fruits to the fore. The palate is firm and quite tannic with just a hint of earth and spice. Nice spicy structure with a hint of gravel and appealing berry fruits. Ripe but well balanced; still quite fresh and angular, but with elegance. 92/100

An aside on oak

‘Charles Back wasn’t afraid to invest in Spice Route. In the four years I was there, I had the privelege to run an extensive oak campaign, to find out what oak will work in the Swartland. When we built spice route there wasn’t a single winery working with this sort of ageing. I got to learn a lot about oak. The conclusion from four years of work was that we realized that for the Swartland the best barrels are 225 litres with at least five years of seasoning. Most barrels are only seasoned for 24–36 months. And then you don’t toast the barrels: you just heat them to get the staves warm to bend them. In some instances we even did barrels where we just steam bent the staves. We work with very low toasting. At the beginning we tried everything.’

‘The barrels are always getting better and better like the corks. There are so many great alternatives now. I love to see stelvin screwcaps on my neighbour’s bottles. I won’t use an artificial cork, but I appreciate everyone who does because it is pressurizing the cork industry to wake up. With the world economy where it is the barrel industry is in dire straits. Their sales are dropping. Two things could happen. Either we’ll see the elimination of very small players, which will be sad. Or people will start cutting corners to stay in the game, so one has to be very careful. The best barrels were made from 2000–2008: you almost couldn’t find a bad barrel. It will be challenging to see what happens now.’

‘I have begun to dislike wood. But it is because of where I am. I was in Burgundy and the northern Rhône last week tasting the 2010s, and the people making wine in continental climates can really use wood and complement their wines. But for us, working with very mature fruit, it is more difficulty. The barrel is essentially an incubator for ripening the wine. You ripen the wine in the wood. For us, with a Mediterranean climate, where the grapes are inevitably mature, the last thing we need to do is mature the wine more in the wood. The tannins are mature. What we have to do is move away from oxygen and protect the fruit and freshness of the wine. So I am moving away from wood. Also, on a generic profile across the world, people are moving away from wood. I think it will be an interesting move because we will taste more wine.’

‘If you look at a vineyard that is 100 years old, why in the world would you put these grapes into 100% new wood, and make this wine taste like a tree that grows in France for at least 10 years of its life? 80% of consumers will taste the tree in France and not your terroir, because most people drink the wines before they are 10 years old. So I have moved completely away from oak.’ 

Sadie Family Columella 2001 Swartland, South Africa
The driest year to date in the Swartland. There is normally 450 mm rainfall annually in the region; in 2001 there was just 250 mm. Eben did three green harvests, because the only way to encourage the vine not to use the acidity of the fruit is to decrease the crop. The wine is more concentrated, and Eben decided to use more new wood with this: it’s 70% new wood, 15% Mourvèdre (since this vintage every wine has had this much). 14.1% alcohol. Rich, vibrant sweet blackcurrant and plum fruit nose with some tar and gravel. The palate is dense and structured with lovely earthy spicy notes under the dense blackberry fruit. Rich and tannic with some earthy notes and good acidity. Structured and intense. Very rich. 92/100

Sadie Family Columella 2002 Swartland, South Africa
‘Following on from the dry 2002, we have the wettest year I have made. We had rain the whole season; we were sitting waiting for grapes to ripen. This doesn’t usually happen in Swartland. It is the most austere wine, but it has always been a complex wine that doesn’t really look like any of the other wines we have made. This is the only wine which I still feel today I haven’t got my head around. We dropped the new wood down to 20%.’ 13.8% alcohol. Aromatic with fresh black cherry and blackberry fruit. Fresh with nice spicy, earthy, tarry structure. Some warm, rounded, earthy aromatics, with gentle spiciness, finishing mineral and quite spicy. Rich, complex and alive: drinking well now. I’d drink soon. 93/100

Sadie Family Columella 2003 Swartland, South Africa
‘In Europe it was a hot year. What happened in Europe happened in South Africa but not to that extent. It was just a warmer year for us. It was much drier than 2002, but we had a wet winter after 2002. It was one of my shortest harvests ever, and all the parcels just ripened really fast. This is a wine that I didn’t like for at least three years in bottle, because it was always a bit riper and heavier; more extracted and powerful. But it has calmed down in bottle. The tannins were so ripe we didn’t use too much new wood, even though it was concentrated. I am grateful we didn’t leave it longer on the skins, and that we didn’t use more new wood: this wine wants to be a monster.’ 14.3% alcohol, 30% new oak. Ripe, sweet and aromatic on the nose with perfumed black cherry fruit. Lush and pure. The palate is nicely ripe and elegant with lovely pure cherry and plum fruit and a nice mineral, gravelly freshness. Lovely purity of fruit. Ripe but saved by the acidity. 92/100


On vines and yields

‘Of the eight vineyards we use there are four which I still have to do a green harvest with. They are younger and the vines are a bit optimistic about what they think they can ripen. It is like when you are a young guy, you go out and have two bottles of Jaffelin Aligoté, and then you have another 6-pack of beer, and then you go and have a bottle of whisky. But when you get older you go out and just have a bottle of Burgundy. A young vine is the same: its roots are growing every year, and this is the big difference between young vines and old vines. In an old vine, the root growth is stagnating, in a way. It is still going, but you have a main root system with new secondary and tertiary roots forming annually. A young vine’s roots grow for the first 16–18 years, depending on the soil type, quite dramatically every year. Each year the roots grow, the vigour on the leaves gets more. But every leaf you get on the top is also a leaf that needs maintenance. It is respiring and transpiring. This is why young vines don’t have this equilibrium. You always have to bring it back a bit for the first 18 years at least. For us, green harvest is not difficult. On the young vineyards we just leave one bunch per shoot, and we have eight shoots per plant. So we have eight bunches, and a bunch of Syrah in the Swartland is 100 g. If you go to Stellenbosch a bunch of Syrah is 180–220 g. This I have 800 g per plant. Yields are 12–22 hl/ha. I never get more than 22 hl/ha. If I got to 25, the cellar would burst. If we step over 22, something gives. I now have high density vineyards, they still don’t get into the Columella blend, but they are fantastic. We make 12 000 bottles of Columella, and we don’t want to make more. We also make 12 000 bottles of the white.’

‘With 25 girls sorting out every berry, we throw away between 8–15% of the grapes each year. In 2003 we threw away 15%, and in 2004 we threw away just 5%.’

Sadie Family Columella 2004 Swartland, South Africa
‘This was the first vintage that had the same characteristics of 2000, and this time I recognized it. From the beginning this has been one of my favourite wines. It’s the sort of vintage you could live with every year. It is also one of the years where I did the least sorting.’ Real elegance and harmony here. Nicely balanced with cherry and plum fruit. Ripe, textured and elegant. Harmonious, with smooth tannins. Purity and finesse despite good concentration; a ripe, pure, elegant wine. 94/100

At harvest, our grapes can ripen by 0.5 Brix in a day, which is 0.2% alcohol. In Burgundy, it would take five days to do this. In one vintage we did 0.2 in a morning, with a severe heatwave, and there is water in the soil. This is the worst combination. It is better that there is heat and no water, because then the vine shuts down. I always thought that going into a heatwave, it would be better if there is water, but in our climate it is better if it is dry. The vine tries to fight the heat if there is water. Until 2009 I was picking on taste, but from 2009 I am picking on taste and analysing. We took a decision that we never want to make wine over 14% alcohol. It is a decision; it is not a stylistic thing.

Sadie Family Columella 2005 Swartland, South Africa
A good winter was followed by rainfall in January. It was a great vintage. 14.1% alcohol, 6.7 g/litre. 40% new oak. Beautifully aromatic. Lovely tar, floral and mineral overtones to the black cherry fruit. Very fine and expressive. The palate shows lovely ripe black fruits with some raspberry freshness and lovely structure and acidity. Fine, vibrant with nice spiciness. 95/100

Sadie Family Columella 2006 Swartland, South Africa
‘We go back to a vintage like 2004, with more tea leaf, earthy flavours. 2000, 2004 and 2006 are climatically linked. Perfect rainfall, sunshine, ripening.’ 14.2% alcohol. Dense and firm with some earthiness and tarry structure. Showing some evolution already. Dense, rich, warm and spicy. Quite earthy with some structure. Distinctive style: oxidative? 90/100

If you farm well, it is incredible how many things run perfectly. Put a lot of organic material in the soil, work the soil, don’t spray. I put lots of straw and organic material on the rows, and work in compost in the sides. Never overcrop vines. We always choose good sites. We don’t pick over-ripe. We don’t pick under-ripe because we want to make a 13% alcohol wine. If I want to make 13% wine I have to sell up and move to Burgundy, or the northern Rhône. But I want to make wine where I am: it is my country and my heritage. Then all the stuff just starts running. When the vineyard is out, everything is out.  

Sadie Family Columella 2007 Swartland, South Africa
Just before harvest there were 6 days of 46 °C each day. It rained in January and the vines had water and heat, which is a bad combination. A lot of water and a lot of heat doesn’t work. The grapes were picked 10 days earlier than normal. ‘The tannins were completely green, but I couldn’t wait for this magic term phenolic maturity. We had to cut our losses and get the grapes out of the sun. We picked all the grapes in 3 weeks: my fastest harvest. The tannins seemed to be so premature I had to work with new wood and oxygen. It was the best decision ever in my life. For the first time I realised the importance of experience in one place.’ 14.1% alcohol, 48% new wood. Sweet, lush and beautifully aromatic nose. Floral with blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. The ripe palate shows sweet black fruits with lovely purity of fruit with nice freshness. Lovely bitter plum character. Has ripeness but edges. Lovely. 94/100

The problem is I was born a little bit too late. I should be 80 now. Because I then would have been able to drink some of the wines of the 40s, 50s and 60s, especially in Bordeaux. But I don’t buy Bordeaux any more. I think they have a hard job. They have big properties and there is a lot of money involved. If you sell 300 000 bottles at 800 Euros ex cellar... They can give me a big Chateau and a Ferrari and I am not interested. But they are so consistent and professional they will always survive. They don’t mess around. 

Sadie Family Columella 2008 Swartland, South Africa
‘After 2007 I decided to pick 2008 earlier. I really love this wine. 2007 changed my mind.’ 20% new wood. 14% alcohol. Very lush, smooth, pure cherry and blackberry nose. The palate is pure and fresh with lovely berry fruits. Fresh, elegant and smooth with lovely definition. Nice intensity with good structure and acidity. Very pure, taut and delicious. 96/100

Sadie Family Columella 2009 Swartland, South Africa
The first nine wines, 2000–2008, were made the same way. From 2009 the wine is made differently, with 12 months in barrel and then 12 months in large oval foudres, with 68 mm thick wood. The goal is to protect the wine, because as the vineyards are maturing, tannins are getting smoother and ripeness is being reached at lower alcohol levels. The other change is the increased proportion of stems used, now around 35%. 13.8% alcohol. Lovely sweet elegant aromatics of black cherry and plum fruit. Nice definition. The palate is lighter: quite elegant with supple, bright, pure cherry and berry fruit. Youthful and expressive with fine minerally structure. Real elegance with a fine, sappy greenness. Very serious but approachable now. 95/100

'For the next 10 years we will work with 20–40% whole bunch. When you start working with stems it brings a very interesting dynamic. Because the stems contain mass but not sugar, the temperature of the fermentation drops a degree or two. This mass is not contributing as a fermenting element. We have vineyards where the whole tank is not destemmed. Of the eight parcels, five get destemmed and three are 100% whole bunch ferment. 2009 has less colour. The stems also absorb colour, leaching the colour of the wine. These days everyone wants to make more powerful, impressive wines, so whole bunch is an unfashionable move because your wine looks weaker. For many people, colour is an important property of the wine. I’ll lose some colour to gain freshness and purity. The wine has more vibrancy and life in it. Where we work in South Africa, the biggest flaw is our wines are often too ripe. It’s good to get our wines fresher and more vibrant.'  

A short film from the tasting:



Part 1: Dinner at Callie's on the Porseleinberg
Part 2: Lammershoek  
Part 3: Photos of Lammershoek
Part 4: Intellego

Part 5: Testalonga
Part 6: Eben Sadie and a Columella vertical tasting
Part 7: Mullineux Family Wines
Part 8: Tobias/Bryan McRobert

Wines tasted 05/11  
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