There we were, kicking our feet in the sand and quaffing quantities of Graça at The Strandloper restaurant, Langebaan, as one does mid-week, when the reminiscing began.
It was an appropriate occasion for such recollections, marking 30 years of this talking, eating, drinking, laughing, singing, sharing, definitely for drinking, not thinking wine. Modelled on vinho verde, with a lowish alcohol and a light spritz, it will induce a remarkable sense of well-being, relaxation and the desire for another bottle. It’s said it is liked by those who prefer dry wine, those who prefer sweeter wine and even those who prefer red wine. Drinking it is only part of the fun; there was plenty of hilarity as associations with Graça were recalled. Beware the retailer who goes out of stock; he becomes persona non graça, while those following trucks transporting small bottles were warned ‘Baby on Board’. All Graça fans were friendinos and it’s definitely the only vino for langostinos .. and so on.
The people around at this time, apart from myself (!) who were involved with the style, making and marketing of Graça were Diumpie Bayly, Wouter Pienaar, Colin Frith, Brian Glass and others, and it was these still-youthful (if greying) gentlemen who were kicking around in the Langebaan sand with us and showing they still have pretty smart memories.
It didn’t take too long to test the memory bank further; soon stories started rolling, especially those which involved the fantastic media trips organised by the former Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (now Distell; as unfortunate as that name is for a wine as well as spirits company, it was a logical contraction of Distillers Corp and Stellenbosch Farmers Winery). Viz The Swirling Swigging Singing Safari (it appears adjectives were a speciality of SFW !), which involved a five-day indulgence starting at the Elephant Hills Hotel at Victoria Falls, and including a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi, a game drive in Hwange Game Park and finally a ride on the Blue Train from Zim to Pretoria. Interspersed with all this jolling was a roll-call of tastings of note, starting with a mini- vertical of Chateau Libertas – yes despite our friends, the protective French, it’s still a Chateau, albeit a mythical one.
So we reach my first South African great and memorable wine, one which does fall within the 30 years since I’ve been paid for drinking. On 18th August 1995 at Victoria Falls the first vintage poured at mini-vertical of Chateau Lib was 1940, the eighth vintage of this Cape classic; we nearly didn’t move on to the ’59, ’63, ’70, ’82 (750ml & mag), ’86, 91 or ’92, that ’40 stopped us in our tracks. But as we were warned there were 59 cases of wine to drink before Tuesday, a move on we had to make.
At that time, cabernet, cinsaut and shiraz would have been in the blend, the first variety becoming increasingly important in the later 1970s. My notes began ‘Genie in the bottle.’ This genie released a bouquet of sweet, mint-edged age but no portiness, then elegant sweet and rich fruit; great form and precision with remarkable length. It has the patina of age but is still very much alive. I also noted it had aged better than many and is older than most present!
So, what else did 1940 mark? The first full year of WWII. In South Africa the Herenigde Nasionale Party is formed, the Union of South Africa declared war on Italy, the Royal Navy cruiser, Renown and aircraft carrier, Ark Royal arrive in Cape Town. (Gosh, my father might have been on the Renown, as I know he came to the Cape en route to North Africa). Then Kitch Kristie, who coached the Boks to victory in the 1995 Rugby World cup, was born. Writers and poets such as HIE Dlomo, V W Vilakazi and Peter Abrahams were active; it was also the start of the decade when Herman Charles Bosman and Alan Paton rose to prominence.
Believe it or not, I had been privileged to taste this 1940 three years earlier, at the celebration of the wine’s Diamond Jubilee, this one held on more local turf, at Oude Libertas on 6th August 1992. This time it was last in the line up, preceded by ’89, ’82, 78, 67, and ’59, an interesting study in the evolution of the wine’s make up. Again that ’40 performed impeccably. Despite a dark mahogany rim, the centre still held to a bright ruby. This time the bouquet was of iodine (salty seaweed), the flavours fruit-ful, not merely sweet; it had a good structure and was very much alive. I see we were told it was matured in Port pipes, as was the ’59. For the techno geeks, its analysis reads: 14.18% alc, RS 2g/l, TA 5.75 g/l, pH 3.4, F/S02 15 and T/S02 61
I very much doubt there’ll be a third time lucky. Three bottles of Chateau Libertas 1940 were sold at this year’s Nederburg Auction for R14000 to Spar Eastern Cape (Eastern Cape? Who on earth would fork out over R4600 in that neck of the woods?).
Never mind, my two opportunities have left indelible and glorious memories on my taste buds. It’s also a reminder that the history of great South African wine didn’t start in the 2000s.