SA wine: No Two Buck Chuck

Lovely wines, affordable prices.

Sometimes it takes a look through foreign eyes for us to realise just how lucky we are in this country.

A friend visiting from America for the first time, certainly opened my eyes to the inherent value in so many of the entry level wines we have on our shelves, at what amount to knock-down prices.

Take, for example, Chateau Libertas, a red blend introduced for the first time in 1932, making it one of the oldest wine brands in the country, at 84 years of age.

A blend of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, ruby cabernet and petit verdot – at least that is what is disclosed for the 2010 vintage – it is never made to a fixed formula. Rather, it is crafted to satisfy a particulate style.

The result? A reliable consistency which ensures that year on year, if you buy a bottle of Chateau Lib, you know pretty much what you’re getting.

Crafted by the legendary Charles Winshaw, who started Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, Chateau Libertas.

“It’s about getting the balance right for a beautifully integrated combination of ripe berry fruit, elegant wooding and food-friendly refreshment” – according to the website created specifically for the 2012 celebration of the brand’s 80th year.

The grapes for Chateau Lib come largely from Stellenbosch, but also from Malmesbury and Darling, and Chateau Lib wouldn’t be the first – or the last for that matter – wine to tap into the munificence of Swartland fruit, to make a quaffable, easy-drinking wine that hits the shelf at a bargain price, around R42 a bottle.

There are cheaper wines out there, starting as low as R25 a bottle, and while some of them are more than drinkable, they don’t have the cachet of Chateau Lib and its contemporaries in the R40 to R50 price range, such as Two Oceans Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, or Boekenhoutskloof The Wolftrap Red, a syrah/mourvedre/viognier Rhone-style blend.

Boekenhoutskloof also makes an equally drinkable white blend and a rosè, which fly off the shelves with the same alacrity as does their red counterpart.

All of these wines are made in significant quantities, and they dominate a market space with what amounts to “sweet spot” pricing – a well-known brand, recognisable characteristics (easy drinking, approachable, consistent), and an aura of value for money, rather than cheap and cheerful.

Our visiting American friend Travis Gibbons, who plies his trade as a lobbyist in Washington DC, enjoys the fruit of the grape as much as I do, and he has tasted wines from all over the world.

In shopping for wine while Travis is here, I’ve tried to give him as wide a selection as possible to experience, and while we have drunk more expensive wines, much of what we drink each evening is in the R40 to R50 price range, which equates to around US$3 a bottle, which in Travis’s eyes is an absolute bargain.

But as Travis said when he tasted Chateau Lib for the first time last week, while enjoying a braai under the stars in Addo in the Sundays River Valley, “this ain’t no Two Buck Chuck”, an allusion to the cheap and cheerful eponymous Charles Shaw wine brand owned by American supermarket chain Trader Joe’s, which sold initially for $1.99 a bottle when introduced in 2002, and by its 10th anniversary, had sold over 600 million bottles.

It sells for $2.49 a bottle in California today, and up to $3.79 elsewhere in America.

Thinking back to my visits to America over the past few years, I recall that a halfway decent bottle of Napa wine would typically cost around $8 to $10 a bottle, a far cry from the equivalent $3 a bottle we’re paying here in South Africa, so let’s celebrate the fact that we can enjoy – responsibly of course – lovely wines at truly affordable prices, while supporting an indust- ry struggling to ensure sustainability.