Chateau Libertas: from one icon to another

Ninety years since its own launch, Chateau Libertas pays tribute to Duimpie Bayly, a man whose name will forever be linked to this icon of South Africa’s red wines. Emile Joubert reports.

Human legends are not immortal, but – as no one has yet disproved – legendary wines can continue into infinity. And surely there can be no more fitting a wine than Chateau Libertas to ensure that the spirit of one of the great personalities of South African wine – Duimpie Bayly – remains alive, if no longer in body, then in soul, in mind and in the emotions iconic wines are known to evoke.

LEFT: Duimpie Bayly. RIGHT: Each bottle of this once-off memorial wine was individually sealed with wax and is sold in a special box, making it not only a brilliant wine, but also a true collector’s item.

Duimpie made an indelible and incomparable mark on the South African wine landscape, a mark that was only truly recognised when he passed away last year. Winemaker. Friend. Storyteller. Larger-than-life personality. Scientist and proven expert on all things vinous. Charming and lovable raconteur with a razor wit, who touched the souls of all who had the pleasure of meeting and knowing him.

Of all the ways to honour his memory, no mark of respect could be more fitting than the one the Distell group has embarked upon: to conceptualise, craft and make available a once-off and limited offering of a bottled tribute to Duimpie in the form of an exclusive Chateau Libertas wine.

Just as Chateau Libertas, the red blend created by erstwhile Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) founder Bill Winshaw, has captured the hearts of South African wine lovers since 1932, it had been in Duimpie’s soul long before he began working at SFW in 1962.

“That wine was a friend from the time I began my studies at Stellenbosch University,” Duimpie told me during an interview for a profile I wrote on him a few years ago. “The house master at my varsity residence might not have liked this friendship, but Chateau Libertas was one of the wines that inspired me to follow a career in wine, one I had not considered when I arrived here from the Karoo.”

Only 2,800 bottles of the Chateau Libertas memorial magnum will be released.

The Chateau Libertas connection manifested itself in much of his professional life. “As an SFW winemaker and later the head of production, I ensured that Chateau Libertas never followed a specific recipe or formula. That would just not respect the vision of this wine,” he said. “It always had to be a charming red wine, meant for drinking as wine is meant to be – in relaxed surroundings, shared by people, preferably friends. And a wine that makes any meal delicious.

“We made Chateau Libertas with that in mind, although you can be sure that creating such a versatile and accessible wine was not always easy. Some of the best vineyards in the Cape provided the grapes for Chateau Libertas. Whether it was Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Cinsaut, Merlot or whatever was showing promise in the cellar, we were led by the values imbued in that characteristic label and the satisfying quality and experience the large numbers of Chateau Libertas lovers expected of it.”

As far as this special tribute Chateau Libertas wine is concerned, Duimpie would no doubt show that roguish, self-deprecating smile on learning that it is the brainchild of four ladies at Distell: head of the Nederburg cluster Kate Jackson, marketing manager Jackie Olivier, head of winemaking Andrea Freeborough and Chateau Libertas winemaker Bonny van Niekerk. All four had the opportunity to know and work with this mentor of so many of those involved in the story of South African wine. The project was led by Distell’s Albert Gerber.

“Of course no one could, or would, ever forget Duimpie,” says Jackie. “But with the Chateau Libertas tribute wine, we hope that it just adds to the joy of our memory of him.”

Bonny remembers Duimpie dropping  into the cellar, long after his retirement, to offer advice, see how things were going and just have a chat, since anyone who made wine was, in Duimpie’s eyes, a kindred spirit.

“Duimpie’s death last year has left an enormous personal and professional loss,” she says. “In our bid to honour him and his contribution and to remain faithful to what he taught us, we called on a number of wine stalwarts to give us input into blending the memorial magnum of Chateau Libertas. They are all people who, like Duimpie, have known Chateau Libertas for decades and understand what it represents.” These wine experts are veteran wine critic and industry commentator Michael Fridjhon, editor of Winemag Christian Eedes, and Bennie Howard, Duimpie’s former colleague.

The instincts of Bonny, her colleague Andrea and the three distinguished collaborators resulted in the tribute Chateau Libertas comprising 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cinsaut, both varieties sourced from vineyards in Duimpie’s beloved Stellenbosch appellation. The various parcels were aged for between eight and 12 months in a combination of French and American oak barrels, the used oak being a prime driver of accessibility in the softening of abrasive tannins innate to young wines.

Even before its release, this special Chateau Libertas wine had achieved iconic status because of the extraordinary individual it honours. As part of the tribute, the original and beloved Chateau Libertas label adorns the magnum (1.5L) bottle, its familiar warmly Gothic charm enlivened by that blood-red seal.

The launch was timely,  taking place on 12 October, Duimpie’s date of birth. It was entirely appropriate too, held in the exact environment and atmosphere he would have expected a glass or three of Chateau Libertas to be enjoyed: at a gregarious gathering of old friends, where tables were laden with platters of meat and copiously sauced pastas and the emphasis was on drinking the wine instead of studious sniffs and show swirls.

And the wine truly delivers, from the dark mauve hue, lying warmly inviting in the glass, to the deep satisfaction of a fruit-forward, sumptuously juicy red wine with a velvet-clad palate and a moreish finish. Looking at the bottle on the table, I swear I could hear Duimpie call out, “Pass that bottle, man, don’t keep the good stuff for yourself.”

A memorial wine to remember winemaking

Only 2,800 bottles of the Chateau Libertas memorial magnum will be released. A small batch of 750ml bottles will also be made available. These are sold via Vinoteque and will in future be available on selected auction platforms.

All proceeds will go to an initiative intended to honour the memory of Duimpie. Still in the planning stages, it will form part of a project of the University of Stellenbosch to restore
the historic Welgevallen farm buildings in Stellenbosch. The Duimpie Memorial Centre, to be housed in a section of the Welgevallen homestead, will encompass the collection, transcription and preservation of knowledge, history, stories and academic input involving the country’s wine industry. The archived material will be housed in a centre that can be accessed not only by members of the wine industry, but also the public.

Visit Vinoteque for more information.