Late last year, a $5 bottle of South African wine was auctioned off for roughly $6,000. Tucked away in the gap between those two numbers is a story of hidden treasure and a powerful forgotten heritage.
The Chateau Libertas wine brand is a household name in South Africa. But it’s the sort of household name that lives alongside Two Buck Chuck or Chuck E. Cheese. It’s a bottom-shelf supermarket bottle, surrounded by a gaggle of $5 critter wines.
But in 2018, a small club of winemakers called the Whole Bunch set up a wine tasting that showed the beleaguered brand in a whole new light. It was a tasting that served as a Judgment of Paris moment, turning ideas about South African wine on its head.
The demise of a classic
In 1932, a desire to copy the French was the motivation that launched one of South Africa’s most quintessential brands.
Kentucky runaway-turned-Texas Ranger-turned-medical doctor Charles William Winshaw — who allegedly escaped home by paddling a canoe down the Tennessee River — sailed from New Mexico to South Africa. On arrival, he joined the British troops to fight in the Anglo-Boer War, practiced medicine in peace times, and in 1925 also founded the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery.
Winshaw noted that there was almost no dry red wine being made in South Africa, particularly not the lightly oaked red blends that were imported from France. He decided to make his own wine under the label Chateau Libertas, initially using grapes from his own farm, but eventually from the extended Stellenbosch farming community. He sold Chateau Libertas as “a wine not to intoxicate, but to give just the right stimulation to the digestion.”
What began as a kitchen project very quickly garnered a customer base of over 80,000.
It became the wine of choice served to the British royal family on their visit to South Africa in 1947 and was also served to British World War II hero Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
By 2000, more than 5.8 million gallons of Chateau Libertas were produced each year; a significant amount in a country of only 43 million, most of whom preferred drinking beer. Today, the brand is owned by the South African drinks conglomerate Distell.
As happened to so many South African wine brands, the pressure to conform to the international style saw Chateau Libertas change. Like rambunctious siblings, the twin pressures of drinkability and affordability raced each other to the bottom, while supermarkets began using it as a loss leader.
And once a wine reaches the bottom shelf, it’s very difficult to convince people that it deserves to be anywhere else.
A mark of quality
What was unusual about the Whole Bunch tasting was that none of the winemakers were there to show their own wines. Instead, the lineup consisted of a range of Stellenbosch wines from the 1950s and 1960s. There were Lanzerac Pinotages ’61, ’63, and ’66, and the more famous Lanzerac Pinotage 1959, acknowledged as the world’s first Pinotage. There were the Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignons ’57, ’61, and ’66. And there was a Chateau Libertas 1957, a Cabernet-Cinsault blend.
Some of the wine world’s most influential voices were present, brought there by the Cape Wine Trade Show. It seemed odd to be wasting time on the past, pouring 50- and 60-year-old wines from rather tired wine brands. They couldn’t possibly be drinkable, could they?
But as the wines were poured, the room became quiet. Rumors abound that one man began to weep at the beauty displayed in his glass, though, as with all such stories, nobody will say who it was. But eventually, someone spoke.
It was the event’s co-convenor Greg Sherwood MW, who announced his 100-point score for the 1957 Chateau Libertas. A 60-odd-year-old bottle of apparent supermarket swill had scored South Africa’s first-ever perfect rating.
“I think what was most significant for South African wine was the revelation that we need not look to Bordeaux, Priorat, or the Rhone for our inspiration,” remarked sommelier and wine judge Higgo Jacobs, the day’s tasting convener. “The wines that should be inspiring us come from our own history. These nigh-on 70-year-old wines prove that South Africa’s fine wines can age along with the best in the world.”
But why is this a point that needs to be made?
Abrie Beeslaar, Kanonkop Estate winemaker, has an answer. “When we came back onto the international wine scene in the 1990s, we were insecure,” he said. “At the top end of the quality scale, we had forgotten what we were worth and underpriced ourselves. At the bottom end, we were just so happy to be there, that we would make any wine in any style, so long as there was a buyer. We’d forgotten what we were good at.”
Yet many of today’s premium Stellenbosch wines are made the same way the old Chateau Libertas was.
“New oak barrels only really entered South African winemaking in the 1980s,” says winemaker Lukas van Loggerenberg. “Before that, it was concrete and old oak. You had a purity of grape tannins that would preserve those wines.”
Raats Family Wines proprietor Bruwer Raats agrees. “We’ve never used more than 15% to 20% new oak, and we regularly ferment in open-top concrete fermenters, along with a range of older foudres. Our style has been moving towards those methods for a long time.”
“I think what was most significant for South African wine was the revelation that we need not look to Bordeaux, Priorat, or the Rhone for our inspiration. The wines that should be inspiring us come from our own history. These nigh-on 70-year-old wines prove that South Africa’s fine wines can age along with the best in the world.”
More great wines
In the wake of that groundbreaking 100-point score, the Chateau Libertas 1957 was auctioned by Strauss & Co. Fine Wine Auction in September 2021 for a record price of R91,040 or $6,000.
And yet, for all the building momentum and auction hysteria, premium South African wines are still widely viewed as underpriced. But this is unlikely to last. While the modern-day $5 Chateau Libertas is unlikely to inspire the same sense of awe as their 65-year-old ancestors, the current wave of Stellenbosch winemakers are making wines that will be well worth sharing with their grandkids.
5 Stellenbosch wines to try:
Tokara Director’s Reserve Stellenbosch Red 2019 (~$34)
This Cabernet Sauvignon-led Bordeaux-style blend hails from the Helshoogte subregion of Stellenbosch, in the foothills of the Simonsberg. It’s a delightful sensory conundrum, in that the front end is laden with soft and silky blackcurrant fruit, while the tail end carries exquisite but formidable slow-attack red cherry acidity and muscly tannins.
The whole affair is pleasantly complicated by aromas of cedar wood, fresh leather, cocoa, and fynbos — local herbs.
Mvemve Raats MR de Compostella Stellenbosch Bordeaux Blend 2016 (~$83)
A superbly plush expression of Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Hills, with all the brawn required to carry the generous waves of blackberry, mulberry, and cassis. The fruit elements are gilded with delicate lines of fennel, tobacco leaf, and cedar wood. The Bordeaux-style blend is the result of a large number of very select micro-parcels. “Perhaps two rows of Cabernet Sauvignon here, and a very distinct little corner block of Malbec there. It’s not exactly practical, but it’s the only way we can make magic happen,” explains Bruwer Raats.
Kanonkop Paul Sauer Red Blend 2018 (~$50)
This local hero is exceedingly graceful, with restrained cassis fruit, illuminated by vibrant red cherry acidity. Floral notes and green herbs float just above it all.
Vilafonté Series M Paarl 2018 (~$53)
An unashamedly New World expression of a Right Bank style blend. It’s a remarkably concentrated black fruit core of ripe sugar plum, black cherry, and blueberry; all wrapped in oak elements of vanilla, chocolate, and a hint of fresh roasted coffee.
Glenelly Lady May Stellenbosch 2015 (~$41)
Made of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon from a cooler east-facing block in Ida’s Valley, Stellenbosch, the Lady May presents a fairly plush blackcurrant element, complicated by mint, dried cherry, and cigar box. All wrapped up with ribbons of vanilla and cedar.