The Tabernacle at Distell’s Adam Tas production facility is spoken about in reverential tones – which is appropriate since it is the repository for some of South Africa’s most revered vinous gems. There are 18 000 bottles stored in the gloomy temperature controlled cellar which have recently been catalogued and given a general fitness checked with ullage levels and seals carefully scrutinised.
In my 20 year wine writing career I’ve only ever set foot in it once before – and that was in 2004 which was reflected in the Visitor’s Book. Dave Hughes and I had been asked to join a unique tasting held for some guests, notably UK wine writer Matthew Jukes.
The line up of wines was as follows: Flight One: Chateau Libertas 1940, Chateau Libertas 1957, Oude Libertas Pinot Noir 1979, Oude Libertas Tinta das Baroccas 1971, Oude Libertas Cinsaut 1971, Oude Libertas Pinotage 1972, Oude Libertas Pinotage 1973, Oude Libertas Pinotage 1975, Oude Libertas Pinotage 1978.
Flight Two: GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1968, Oude Libertas Cabernet Sauvignon 1971, Oude Libertas Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, Uitkyk Carlonet 1974, Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Fleur du Cap Cabernet Sauvignon 1987, Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 and Monis Port 1948.
To say it was a rare treat to sample these wines would be an understatement. Jukes pronounced himself “staggered” by the freshness of the 1940 Chateau Libertas and said had he tasted it blind would have guessed it as being from the 60’s rather than 20 years older. The wine of the first flight was undoubtedly the Oude Libertas Pinotage from 1972 – and it was poured from a 375ml bottle. Having been part of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW) at the time Dave Hughes was able to recount a few anecdotes. Firstly the Chateau Libertas from 1940 could often be found in “odd bottles” as Hughes put it. It was during World War II and new bottles were scarce – so bottles were recycled and even old whisky bottles were pressed into service! Of the Oude Libertas being in a half-bottle he recounted that this was because of the SA railways. They were big customers of SFW and the half bottle was ideal for service on trains throughout the country in those days.
The surprise of the second flight was how well the Uitkyk Carlonet and Fleur du Cap Cabernet Sauvignon 1987 performed with the latter being the wine of the flight. Beautiful freshness, good fruit, fine tannins and just so perfectly poised that it was amazingly good, evincing high praise from Jukes and others.
What was the purpose of the tasting? Well, it was two-fold. Distell’s marketing boss Carina Gous and Nederburg Auction manager Dalene Steyn were using it to not only demonstrate South Africa and Distell’s vinous heritage but also to use it as a taste tester. “The idea for this tasting is to identify some of the older wines which we have stored in the Tabernacle which we could potentially use as special lots for the 40th anniversary of the Nederburg Auction in a year or two’s time,” Steyn said. The thinking being that the wines which are still drinking well and of which there are sufficient stocks could be collated into special auction items.
So the potential exists for keen wine punters to get their hands on some of these rare gems. If and when they come under the hammer during the 40th auction, my advice would be to snap them up. They are truly superb – not as curiosities but as vinous history and as tangible proof of the sort of quality and longevity which South African wines are capable of.