Pale reflection of a brighter past

Chateau Libertas is not what it was. What it is by no means bad, but what it was occasionally reached the level of wonderful.One of the more exciting old wines I’ve drunk was a 1940 Libertas a few years ago, still capable of giving much pleasure, even without the happy drinker’s thrill of looking at the vintage date and marvelling at the life of wine.

There are very few bottles left of that famous wine. But other rare vintages still appear on the Nederburg Auction – just last week a case of three bottles of the 1961 sold for R20 000 at this year’s event.

The 2010 vintage is somewhat cheaper, at about R35. Don’t expect it to be alive in 50 or 70 years, let alone to be worth a small fortune. But drink it now with some pleasure. It is based on cabernet sauvignon with some shiraz – just as the older vintages purportedly were, although they would have contained more cinsaut than anything else.

Chateau Lib has been going since 1932, which is significant as it predated the 1935 agreement with France to avoid using words and names associated with French appellations. This brand was given special dispensation to continue using “Chateau” – still without the usual circumflex over the first “a”.

To celebrate next year’s 80th anniversary of the name, brand owners Distell decided that the characterful, old-fashioned label should be abandoned. So, despite touches recalling the past, Chateau Lib is now as dully bland as anything else on the shelves – with some shiny gilt flourishes paradoxically making it that bit tackier than most.

Distell’s viticulturists and winemakers are doing better, fortunately, and there are few reds under R40 that can compete with big-volume Chateau Lib.

A new cheapish range from Distell is Place in the Sun (for which the designers have managed some handsome packaging). This is a Fairtrade accredited label, meaning that there’s some official concern with social upliftment and decent working conditions.

As well as a pallid, vaguely flavourful Sauvignon Blanc, there are three pretty decent Place in the Sun reds around R45 – Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They are as easy-going as one might expect, a little less vinous and more fruity than Chateau Lib, but charming enough. The Cabernet is the most serious, with a good bite, and the Merlot is the sweetest-fruited, with some obvious charry oak influence that is not unattractive – if you like that sort of thing.

Some producers seem to imagine (and presumably have their reasons) that people who spend under R50 on red wine have rather infantile tastes and want soft, ultra-ripe, sweetish stuff to go with the alcoholic whack. There are better and worse versions of this style but often the ultra-ripeness means that the fruit has suffered a lingering death and there’s no real flavour to the wine, despite a squishy impact. Take Groote Post’s Old Man’s Blend as a depressing case in point.

With similar aspirations, but much nicer and more genuinely fruity, is the tasty Starlette Pinotage from Franschhoek producer Allée Bleue, a big, cheerful oaf of a wine. There’s also an off-dry Starlette Rosé in similar vein. Incidentally, while I’m being rude about packaging, the overwhelming royal blue of Allée Bleue’s labels and capsules illustrates why this is a colour seldom allowed to dominate wine bottles.

Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, 24-29 September 2011

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