Legend of SA Wine – Chateau Libertas
Chateau Libertas is a Stellenbosch wine, launched in 1932 and has been released uninterrupted every year since then – a unique achievement for a South African red blend.
On how it became the focus
“Old man [Dr William Charles] Winshaw was fairly determined that the old brand was to continue,” says Dave. “He said we must have a flag-bearing wine, but it has to be accessible pricewise, to the regular drinker.
“When I got involved with Farmer’s Winery, Chateau Libertas was the icon. In those days, every cellar had a big brand, but none of them had a brand that bowed and scraped like Chateau Libertas. We really and truly didn’t know at that stage what we had.
“A lot of folks just accepted that Chateau Libertas was there. Nobody thought too much about it until Bill Winshaw (Junior), had the whole sales team down from around the country. When he rounded them up, he put a bottle of Chateau Libertas in the middle of the photograph so we should understand that this was more important than any. I think, we always just thought Chateau Libertas was the main thing.”
On the blend
“The 2019 vintage was a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz-based blend with a little malbec and petit Verdot,” says Bonnie. “Some years there’s only Bordeaux cultivars. We have very good quality shiraz vineyards here, so we like to add some.”
“[In deciding on the blend] we have to build the same puzzle every year, but the pieces are different. That’s just the challenge of winemaking. The quality is different, the grapes are different, the climate is different, the ripening season is different. We know where we need to end, but the pieces are never the same. It’s like building a puzzle.
“It’s very stressful. We set the bar very high for ourselves, but I think blending is as important as the winemaking process and I think as a team, we’re quite strong at blending. We can take components and we know where we need to get to. Every year is quite a stressful process.
“[The grapes come] mostly from Stellenbosch. The Petit and Malbec this year from Malmesbury and Darling areas, but the rest was all Stellenbosch.
“Depending on the volume available, we probably blend about 150 000 litres a year now. The volume did go up because we’ve launched the two-litre BIB (Bag-in-Box).
“[The wine’s price point makes it] accessible to everyone. It’s a privilege to have a good quality red wine that is available to everyone. Everyone can afford to buy and experience it.”
On producing it
She continues: “The grapes come in and we ferment everything separately. We press and keep everything separate. I don’t like to pre-blend and then take it to wood because a very big part of the wine’s final aroma and the quality is at the end of maturing.
“We keep it all separate and use different types of oaks – mainly French, a bit of American for a bit of sweetness, not too much. After a year of maturing, we then taste all our batches and put a blend together. We would go to marketing to say we have X number of litres this year. This is what we’re happy with. We’re not willing to lower the quality to produce a bigger volume.
“I’m sure my boss would like me to say it’s all about percentages on a board, but the label just says ‘red blend’, which leaves the table open to us.
“We’re a very strong, opinionated team. So, the blend doesn’t just happen in one day. It’s a bit of back-and-forth like two old bulls, myself and the other winemakers. We’re lucky. We get to be creative. Like I said, we know what the puzzle needs to be; we just have different pieces to build it.”
About the name
“When I first got involved with Farmer’s Winery, the idea of having a ‘chateau’ [on the label] was opposed by many people,” says Dave. “They said we don’t do that in South Africa. We might have a cellar or whatever. So, it didn’t just happen, but people who wanted it, persevered and that’s what we got.”
“We talk about our wine as our children, so Chateau is one of our favourites,” says Bonnie. “I think sometimes, a forgotten gem. Over the years, we’ve worked really hard on the quality to sustain what the consumers are used to drinking and it’s a lot of pressure every year to ensure we get it right.
“Obviously, we were thrilled [about the 2019 vintage scoring 92 points in the Prescient Signature Red Blend Report by Winemag.co.za].
“We don’t really enter Chateau into many competitions or reports, and we’ve just worked really hard on the quality over the past few years. As a team we decided this year, we’re going to start putting it out there and entering a few things. Marketing submitted it to the panel. Obviously, we were overjoyed and thrilled. I think there were some grumblings in the industry that felt we’d snuck in a different tank, but it wasn’t. It was a once off blend. We were very excited. We were very happy. It’s nice that a panel appreciates your hard work.”
Chateau Libertas overseas
“The first time I landed overseas was at a function in the United States. Some guy came over and said: ‘Have a look at this bottle. This is from people who don’t have Chateaus anywhere and they’re trying to upstage the French and they have this thing called Chateau Libertas.’
“I was taken aback to find Chateau Libertas in the States and it was in a very well-known shop. The guys who had the shop were so proud that they had a South African wine that was Chateau and it was like ultra-special.”
“At harvest time, you have the mistakes – tanks being too full, fermentations overflowing, pipes bursting, loadshedding. I think the first time we had loadshedding we were ill prepared.
When the power went off, the press was upside down and all the wine just ran out. There was nothing to pump it away, nothing to catch it. We lost 30 tons of Pinotage A, which trickled down the drain and there was nothing we could do.
“You have your harvest challenges, but I think I’ve been there a long time and we’ve had a lot of assistants come and go. It’s not a winning wine, it’s the winning team behind the wine. I’m very blessed to have a very strong and competent team with a lot of strengths in different areas.”
This feature was derived from an interview radio show host Martelize Brink did with Bonnie van Niekerk, winemaker of Chateau Libertas since 2007, and liquor industry veteran Dave Hughes.