Generally believed to be the oldest surviving wine brand in South Africa, the iconic Chateau Libertas celebrated it’s 80th anniversary this month.
It’s a wine surrounded by history and wonderful stories – some of them true.
Back in the early 1900s there were no big commercial wineries in South Africa. The strange thing is that Johannesburg was one of the world’s biggest consumers of French wine, and Champagne in particular. Wealthy mining magnates sopped the stuff up by the mega-gallon.
Enter a very flamboyant character by the name of Dr William Charles Winshaw.
Born in Kentucky, USA, he was a medical doctor, also a Texas ranger at one stage and an explorer who paddled down the Tennessee River in a canoe, accompanied by a hobo.
In 1900 he met a man who was supplying horses and mules to the British Army in South Africa and took on the job of accompanying a consignment of 4000 mules to the Cape.
Once here, Winshaw fell in love with the Cape and decided to settle here.
After a failed attempt at launching a grape-juice company, he decided there was a desperate need for an easy-drinking red wine to accompany good food. His first attempts were made in his kitchen, then he bought the Stellenbosch farm Oude Libertas, and established the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, which was to produce many of the wine brands that are household names today.
His home, La Gratitude, in Stellenbosch’s Dorp Street, is now the site of the Big Easy restaurant and was the settling forbthe wine’s 80th anniversary celebration. Winshaw’s grandson, John, and great grandson, JP, were present at the event.
The first Chateau Libertas was marketed in 1932 and the brand has been produced every year since then.
A very privileged group of tasters was treated to a selection of old Chateau Lib from across the years. Undoubted star of the day was the 1940 vintage, still full of flavour and freshness after all that time.
Tradition has it that wine lovers should stand up, out of respect, when they drink a wine older than themselves.
Only a small handful of tasters (myself included) remained seated for this historic gem.
The rest of the tasting consisted of one wine from each subsequent decade – 1857 (not as good as the ’40), 1962 –still alive and pleasing, 1978 (fresh and light and easy-drinking still), 1982 (a good year that garnered many gold medals for Chateau Lib) and finally 1994 (packed with vibrant red berry flavours and still young.).
It was interesting to hear those early vintage that had kept so well contained a good proportion of Cinsaut, a grape that has largely fallen into disuse. Former winemakers explained that the Cinsaut, which is rather light in body and colour, was usually crushed and some of the free-run juice tapped off, leaving a more concentrated must for use in the Chateau blend.
Today’s Chateau Lib is still Cabernet Sauvignon based, but with the addition of Merlot and other varieties, as the blenders see fit. Cinsaut is no longer part of it, alas.
It’s still one of the most underrated and under-priced red wines on the South African market.
Photograph: Chateau Libertas