Chateau Lib, beauty and the slag heap

Joan Collins had views on wine – well, at least one view, inextricably linked to her views on Joan Collins. I quoted it to a winemaker friend recently and he admitted that Joan was one of his earliest adolescent fantasies, “and she was probably already 60 by then!” Which nicely supports Ms Collins’s point: “Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.”

Joan-Collins(That’s Joan in the pic alongside, aged anything between 11 and 72.)

Another of the actress’s philosophical musings is worth quoting for its relevance to the vast majority of wines: “The problem with beauty”, she says cleverly, “is that it’s like being born rich and getting poorer.” Most wines are generally as close as they get to beauty in their first year or two. The rest of their existence, until it ends in someone’s gullet, is degeneration all the way, as fruity flesh starts falling off to leave the bones (acid, tannin) distressingly exposed.

A few wines get more beautiful for a shorter or longer time – though I’d rather use a word less suggestive of surface, and say they get more complex and interesting, even more fascinating.

This is something which can be experienced as emotional as well as sensual, in fact, the mere existence of great old wine is wonderful to at least some winelovers.

They remind us, these fine old bottles, that wine is a living thing and sometimes profoundly so. For the reverential, it is no light matter to take one of the few remaining bottles of a 1940 wine, open it and pour it. This was done recently at a remarkable tasting in Stellenbosch to celebrate the 80th birthday of Chateau Libertas. There are no known bottles from the 1930s (when this stood almost alone as an unfortified South African wine) still in existence.

The grapes that produced the 1940 Chateau Libertas were ripening as Hitler’s troops prepared to goose-step through northern Europe. In 2012 they lived again in the glasses of those privileged to be present – but started to fade a little after perhaps an hour in contact with the killing air from which the wine had been protected for 72 years.

A remarkable wine it was – deep-coloured, vibrant and vital, still possessed of some sweet fruit, finely balanced with fresh acidity and firm integrated tannin structure, to give a delicate intensity. If evidence were needed to prove that Cape vineyards are capable of world-class greatness, this wine would be a persuasive witness.

We sampled vintages from each of the succeeding decades, and it was a most remarkable procession of old but still vital wines – even if none was (for me and some others at least) quite as splendid as the 1940. Next up was a slightly faded but graceful 1957 – but one of the two bottles opened was much better than the other, which is always a possibility with old wines.

These old Chateau Libs were all blends of different varieties (as the current version is too, in its much more modest way) – nearly always with cabernet sauvignon dominant, taking in different amounts of cinsaut, shiraz and pinotage. The elegant, refined 1962, I thought, could have been from Bordeaux. It surely wouldn’t be shamed by being included in a line-up of survivors from the greatest of all the world’s cabernet-growing regions.

Another great region was suggested by the 1978, which had the most beautiful of perfumes (rather Burgundian; the influence of pinotage, I wonder?). To taste, it was harmonious and charming – just a little astringent as the fruit grew dimmer in the glass after an hour or two.

With the 1982 we were getting into the modern era, when Chateau Libertas had become just another big-brand wine for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (forerunner of today’s giant, Distell). It always had been intended as an ordinary, big-brand wine, in a sense, but by the 1980s the situation of South African wine had changed greatly. There were a lot of estates producing ambitious red wines, and the best fruit was no longer available for the likes of Chateau Lib.

What’s more, farmers were no longer content with the tiny yields off unirrigated bushvines – the sort of grapes that produce contentrated, fine wines. If the 1982 we tasted was undistinguished, the 1994 was almost dreary. Still alive, yes, but who cares when it’s just another pretty ordinary wine? The merlot that had now become part of the blend is probably partly to blame, adding the combination of weedy greenness and sweet ripeness that high-cropped merlot specialises in.

That said, the 1999 was very much better – a most attractive wine still at a not exactly youthful 13 years old. But it will not thrive for much longer.

Today’s Chateau Libertas, bearing the horrible modernising revamp of the old label that Distell have inflicted on it, is a pleasant enough and very good value cheap wine. Sadly, you can’t extrapolate from the 1940 version and hope that the 2010 will be magnificent in 2072 – I promise you it won’t.

Incidentally, it might be worth noting that the Chateau Libertas label was born just one year before Joan Collins. There’s eloquence in both parties, but only Joan can put it all into actual words: “I don’t buy into you’re on the slag heap when you’re 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or whatever.” Indeed, but not always; sometimes you are and when you’re not it’s cause for celebration.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 22-28 June 2012

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