Accounts of wine can be a report of privilege and pleasure. The privilege can arise from being more or less rich or usefully connected, or be at least partly earned – or a combination of these and other factors. Talking or writing about marvellous or rare wines is a dubious business open to the charge of mere wankery. But very few are totally privileged, so everyone can envy as well as be envied (if it comes to that) and there is – or can be – something to be learnt or vicariously enjoyed, in accounts of others’ experiences. That’s part of taking seriously this bizarre and wonderful game of wine.
You’ll gather that I’m apologetically introducing an account of some special bottles…
The main report is of a comparatively democratic acquisition – there might still be a few, quite pricey bottles available. But first I must go back eight years, almost to the day. On 12 April 2011, I wrote an article about innovation in the Swartland. One account was of a hot Saturday afternoon, on a sort of roof-space balcony on the Sadie Family winery, with some barrels and demijohns of wine that had already been out there for a year or two, exposed to the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
The wine was mostly from very ripe Chenin, with some Verdelho. Winemaker Eben Sadie said that it took him a while to work out the right sort of wine to subject to the attack of the elements. The 2009 grapes had been pressed and fermented to about 16% alcohol and the barrels put, still with 8 g of residual sugar, out onto the roof-space. With the 2010 vintage, some wine was first put into glass demijohns – as is done with some sweet, fortified wines in places like Banyuls in the south of France. Madeira is another wine that is matured with exposure to heat – but it too is fortified, and not left in the open. Eben was already calling it sonwyn, or sun wine.
The wine in its exposed barrels continued to ferment during its first year, and a degree of vintage blending took place. When I tasted the 2009 from barrel and the 2010 from demijohn that autumn afternoon in 2011, it was completely dry. I wrote that “Somehow the ageing, apart from deepening the colour tremendously, has brought out the acidity (though it’s not as searing as Madeira), and the element of oxidation from barrels which are losing plenty of liquid through evaporation has brought out some intriguing flavours without making the 2009 wine taste significantly oxidised.”
And I noted the experimental nature of the sonwyn: whether it would ever be made commercially available was uncertain. It was bottled after some four years in the exposed barrels. I tried it again then, and it was so compelling that I asked Eben to give me a bottle to take to Neil Beckett, editor of World of Fine Wine, whom I was soon to visit in London.
Now, after another four or five years in bottle, the wine has been released (the label actually indicates that it was released in 2018 – I suspect they just forgot to actually do anything about it for a while both before and after the label was printed). Only 580 bottles were made. Beautifully packaged – uncertified, so no vintage or variety or origin declared, and not to be exported. Apart from a few cases to Wine Cellar in Cape Town (who had to pay the full price asked), they were offered in cases of three for R975, in an early-morning email to a mailing list. (Also being released was another experimental wine, a 2010 mourvèdre: Cabo de las Tormentas, made with Raúl Pérez, Spanish winemaker.)
By 10am, I believe, the wines were all gone, and the number of disgruntled would-be buyers piled up. Fortunately, I’d been uncharacteristically decisive and got in just in time. I can look forward to drinking this remarkable wine once again. No hurry about it – it’ll probably last forever, after what it’s been through.
I had already decided I needed to get out to the Swartland – for the first time this year. So I collected my precious Sonwyn when I had dinner with Eben, his wife Maria and younger son Xander (soon to leave for a work stint on an estate near Madrid; older son Markus is studying at Elsenburg). We drank too much wine, of course, including two bottles which especially deserve mention: both from 1945, the grapes picked in blood-soaked and tormented Europe in the last months of the war.
The first was a Loire chenin, a demi-sec from the great house of Huet. I’ve had even older bottles of Huet, and this was predictably fresh, delicate, lovely and profound. Later, another white wine, from Federico Paternina in Rioja. It was labelled as a Cepa Chablis – apparently, it was still common for Riojan wine to make this kind of cultural cringe gesture to France – but it was based on the viura grape, not chardonnay. In aroma and flavour not like old white Riojas I’ve had before – or like any other old wine, in fact. Closest to madeira, perhaps, though not in structure, being notably light and dry. Very different from the Huet; less brilliant, no doubt, but fascinating and eminently drinkable at 74. I suspect that the Sadie Sonwyn will make that age if anyone has the fortitude to resist it and be generous to a future generation.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.