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Staying power in a bottle

© Cape Times Friday 15th June 2012
Did you see the Queen’s Jubilee Concert the other weekend? I don’t know about you, but I found it slightly cringeworthy – all the presenters trying to crack their usual jokes without breaching the doubtless strict guidelines, all the young guns trying to pretend they gave two hoots about the Royals and most of all, the sight of all the old fogies trying to pretend they’ve still got ‘it’ and can rock the night away as if they were still 25 years old. To be honest – most of them can’t (especially Cliff Richard), but a couple of them do actually still have some ‘va-va-voom’, and who did it best, the ones who handled the crowd like the old pro’s they are and the ones that actually did come across as really rather cool, were the ones that have actually been old fogies forever. I’m thinking of people like Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey who were singers from my parents’ generation, yet somehow, these two performers have weathered every storm going to come out at the other end as pretty darned cool at the end of the day.

Not quite at the Queen’s 86 years, but nonetheless still going strong and still pretty darned cool, is South Africa’s own Chateau Libertas. This wine is celebrating its 80th birthday this year which is quite a track record for something originally intended as a digestive drink! Dr William Charles Winshaw was the man behind SA’s most popular blend and it was originally intended as something to be enjoyed with food as opposed to the sweet dessert wines which made up most of South Africa’s wine industry at the time. Winshaw was an American with a particularly colourful past including being a Texas ranger, a British soldier and a mule wrangler, but he became increasingly interested in wine as part of a healthy lifestyle, and in 1932 he created Chateau Libertas as a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine. Such was its success that it became de rigeur for all special occasions, being served to the Queen, ambassadors and statesmen alike.

The 80th birthday party was held at The Big Easy restaurant in Stellenbosch, which was actually the Winshaws’ original home. At the party, some of the first winemakers of Libertas such as Duimpie Bayly, Wouter Pienaar and Jan de Waal recounted various entertaining and some slightly scurrilous tales of making the wine over the years. Apparently once bottled in old whisky bottles, since that was all that was available, unlabelled bottles of Chateau were supplied to South African troops during the Second World War – at least they claimed it had to be Chateau Libertas, because it tasted better than Tassies!

The birthday celebrations included a tasting of a wine from each decade of Chateau Libertas as far back as 1940 making for a fascinating illustration of how well some South African wines can age. The earlier wines contained large portions of Cinsault and almost certainly some port varieties as well which helped to keep the 1940 wine, in particular, incredibly fresh. The 1962 was utterly delicious and the 1994 was genuinely lovely, proving that current cellarmaster, Deon Boshoff and winemaker Bonny van Niekerk have some incredibly big shoes to fill going forward. It seems that far from being an old fogey, Chateau Libertas continues to reinvent itself every decade and now it really is the Tom Jones of the wine world – something everyone’s grown up with and, although there were times when we cringed a little when someone brought it along to dinner, over the years it has gained cool points for its staying power and crowd-pleasing abilities. So happy birthday Chateau Lib – let’s hope ‘You Can Leave Your Hat’ on for another 80 years!

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