SA's Oupa of red wines, Chateau Libertas, now 80

The wine believed to be South Africa's oldest red blend celebrates its 80th birthday this year. Chateau Libertas was launched in 1932, by an American medical doctor, adventurer and former Texas Ranger, who had gone into winemaking when he moved to Stellenbosch. Not a year has gone by since in which the wine has not been made.
Chateau, as it is affectionately called, occupies such an entrenched position in the history of so many South African wine lovers that it has assumed an almost iconic status. At a charity auction held in 1985, a bottle of the 1940 vintage was knocked down for R20 000.

Admittedly a gesture intended to garner publicity it nevertheless did demonstrate the esteem in which the wine was held. At last year’s Nederburg Auction, a trio of bottles from 1961 went for R20 000, the equivalent of R6 666 a 750ml bottle, while a six-bottle case of the 1965 sold for R14 000, and a six-bottle case of the 1967, for R8 800.

The origins of Chateau Libertas are as straightforward as the wine itself. Dr William Charles Winshaw wanted a wine to enjoy with food. It was considered good for the digestion and part of a healthy lifestyle. The problem was there wasn’t much choice on the local market in the years between the two World Wars and most of what was available was sweet and fortified. That prompted him to create for South Africans a tasty, lightly wooded dry red blend.

Whether it aided his own digestion or impacted on his health is hard to say, but he worked till the age of 92 and died when he was 96.

Born in 1871, Winshaw was a runaway from Kentucky, USA, who left home at 12. He liked to tell the story that he made his way down the Tennessee River in a canoe with an old hobo. He had many encounters, including meeting Buffalo Bill (aka Colonel William Cody) and at 22 became a Texas Ranger. That was before he went on to study medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. When he graduated, he settled in New Mexico and met a man buying mules on behalf of the British fighting in the Anglo Boer War. He reckoned the time was right to see some more of the world, so he took the job of accompanying the 4 000 animals on their journey to Cape Town. Once he landed, he was ready for action. He delivered the mules and joined the British fighting forces in 1900.

He loved South Africa and made the country his home. After practising medicine for some years, he turned his hand to winemaking, experimenting in his kitchen. Before long he was supplying a growing group of regular customers, prompting him to start the Stellenbosch Grape Juice Works in 1909. He did very well until an oversupply in a depressed market after World War I saw his business collapse in 1921. Undaunted, after a break, he started a new business, buying the Stellenbosch farm Oude Libertas and establishing Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW) in 1925. This venture proved far more enduring and was the birthplace of many South African wines that are still household names to countless South Africans today. Chateau Libertas was one of his favourites.

(SFW merged with Distillers Corporation in 2000 to create Distell.)

Winshaw believed that if he could produce something well-priced, well-made and accessibly styled, even people who weren’t accustomed to wine would see the appeal of his offer. He soon had 80 000 followers, who were buying his blend at a shilling a bottle.

An advertisement in The Wine Book of South Africa (1936), urged readers “When travelling by rail or motor (to) insist on being served” his special blend with their meals. He advised them to “please complain to the Management” if it wasn’t available and assured them that this was a wine “not to intoxicate but give just the right stimulation to the digestion needed by travellers”.

Chateau Libertas was such an ambassador for South Africa that when the British Royal Family visited in 1947 it was served at the official state banquet. It also made an appearance when Viscount Montgomery of Alamein came in 1954 and once again, in 1960, to honour British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of “Winds of Change” fame.

Originally conceived as an elegant Cabernet Sauvignon-based, wood-matured blend, Chateau Libertas is still made with the same objectives. However, these days it has more of a ripe berry fruit profile to suit contemporary tastes.

Those who have been involved in making the blend will attest that there has never been a fixed recipe. The overriding criterion has always been to remain loyal to the original intention of the wine: to please with an approachable, well-balanced and layered combination of fruit and wood and the structure to age. Cinsaut was a component of the blend until the turn of the century but with the dramatic reduction in plantings that is no longer the case.

The current blend still features Cabernet Sauvignon but also Shiraz, Merlot, Ruby Cabernet and even Petit Verdot.

Says Jackie Olivier, marketing spokesperson for the brand: “Everybody loves its open-hearted burst of juicy ripe fruit backed by a touch of wood. Smooth and delicious, it makes a great match with so many foods. Try it with smoked meats, hearty pastas, pizza, grills, roasts, casseroles, stews.”

The wine is sold nationally and retails for around R34 a bottle.