Beef and big reds are natural partners, and if you’re going to bother, no point holding back. That’s at least how Jean Engelbrecht, owner of Stellenbosch farm Rust en Vrede feels. Discussing good living recently, he made the observation that declining to eat the fat on a piece of sirloin is much like drinking wine made with staves. You get the idea but it’s just not the same. As the Rust en Vrede Estate Wine is about as big as they get, no wonder Engelbrecht’s outlook is expansive. Rest assured the Estate Wine has never been near anything as base and nasty as a stave. When it comes to wooding, the wine gets the full treatment, the various components of the 1999 vintage each spending 20 months in new oak.
The Rust en Vrede Estate Wine is big in flavour, but also big in price – although almost sold out, the ’99 sells for R200 a bottle off the farm. Given that 500 g of sirloin will set you back R50 or more at a decent steakhouse, some of us are forced to choose wines of more modest reputation when indulging our carnivorous tendencies.
Interesting then to attend a Chateau Libertas dinner at the Famous Butchers Grill in Claremont, Cape Town last night. Whereas trophy wines like Rust en Vrede might be beyond the reach of most, Chateau Lib suffers from a different problem: anybody who takes the subject of wine at all seriously sooner or later comes to view the wine as excessively commonplace and dull, despite its affordable price.
However, when tasting various vintages of Chateau Lib last night, I was forced to put aside any latent wine snobbery that I might have acquired of late. From the 1968, through vintages of 1978, 1980, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and up to the current release of the 2001, the wines all showed exceptionally well: never hugely complex but each offering a winning combination of appealing fruit, bright acid and sufficient tannins to complement a steak.
Though it was explained that the rationale behind Chateau Libertas is that the wine should have a consistent taste profile year after year, it was nevertheless insightful to taste different vintages of the same wine across such an extended span of time, as this revealed significant changes in winemaking style.
Cinsaut, for instance, has always been a key element in the blend, offering forward fruit and lightness of body. Recently, however, this variety has fallen into disfavour with growers, making it increasingly difficult to source grapes of good quality. It struck me as ironic that the good folk behind old favourite Chateau Lib should find themselves short of this grape, just when our more enlightened producers are experimenting with Cinsaut and other Rhne varieties like Mourvdre and Grenache.
Alcohol levels were also noteworthy. Apparently, the Chateau Libertas 1940 was tasted recently, impressing all as a “mammoth” wine. Notable was its relatively high alcohol of 14,5% by volume, something that would have contributed to the wine’s longevity. Turning my attention to the wines of the early 1990s, I noticed how relatively low the alcohols were, the 1990 in particular just 12%. In the case of the 2001 vintage, currently available, the alcohol level has crept back up to 13,5%, a result of the pursuit for full phenolic ripeness in the vineyard, no doubt
Produced for the first time in 1932, the wine was initially made in large 4000 litre vats, grapes sourced from very low yielding vines, which ensured sufficient natural tannins so as not to require much barrel influence. In 1982, however, small French oak barrels were introduced for the first time, in reaction, I imagine, to increased demand from consumers for more overt wood flavours.
The winemaking philosophy behind Chateau Libertas has always been that there should be harmony between wood and fruit. “The wood should be the floor you dance on, and not the curtain that obscures,” reflected Duimpie Bayly, the winemaker responsible for Chateau Libertas during the ’60s. Today, some 75% of Chateau Libertas is unwooded, but for the last two or three years, some of the blend has been matured in “plank tanks”, that is to say with staves.
Not particularly romantic, but effective in keeping the price down: the 2001 vintage retails for about R22 a bottle. Also, steak and red wine is a classic match, but the key component is less the red wine’s variety or even its flavour than its tannin level, because tannin cuts through the fat. With the total production of the latest vintage Chateau Libertas approaching the 3 million litre mark, it would appear the average South African believes this wine does the job as well as anything from Rust en Vrede.