Change Agents

How a Kitsch Wine Launched a South African Renaissance

Lieberstein was a mass market South African brand that propelled a quality revolution

John Szabo MS By September 14, 2021
Vintage Lieberstein advertising. Image courtesy of Distell
Photo illustration by Pix

Imagine a wine brand so popular that even Big Beer would turn green and feel compelled to scuttle it by any means necessary. The most cherished wine of a generation of South Africans was that, but not only that. This kitschy brand also triggered unexpected and long-lasting consequences that would alter the course of the South African wine industry for generations to come. And it’s likely a brand you’ve never heard of: Lieberstein.

Launched in South Africa in 1959, this semi-sweet white blend was the biggest selling bottled wine in the world by 1964. Yes, you read that correctly: in the world. That year, Lieberstein’s creator, the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, sold 8.2 million gallons. By comparison, that’s almost twice as much as the wildly popular German wine brand Blue Nun, which was eerily similar in style to Lieberstein, at its peak of world popularity in the mid-1980s. 

Lieberstein recruited an entire generation of South Africans to the wine category with its marketing slogan “anywhere, anytime,” plus its addictive radio jingle “Lieberstein any time,” not to mention its easy-drinking, wide appeal and affordable price of 21 cents per bottle in 1963. Lieberstein came in a clear, one-gallon glass bottle, which was carried like a badge of cool, on the shoulder with one finger in the ear of the bottleneck, like an ‘80s boombox. It was the epitome of style and sophistication.

At the same time, Lieberstein inadvertently laid the foundation for the success of the South African wine industry in the 21st century. 

Lieberstein came in a clear, one-gallon glass bottle, which was carried like a badge of cool, on the shoulder with one finger in the ear of the bottleneck, like an ‘80s boombox. It was the epitome of style and sophistication.

Change agent

There was, of course, the technological leaps required to produce and bottle fruity, off-dry wines, developed by SFW, which trickled through the entire industry. There was also a profound effect on the varietal make-up of South Africa’s vineyards.

What few knew at the time was that Lieberstein was made from South Africa’s workhorse variety, Chenin Blanc, blended with Clairette. Indeed, at the time of its creation, nobody knew that Chenin existed in South Africa. It wasn’t until 1963 that the country’s most widely planted grape, known locally as Steen, was positively identified as Chenin Blanc.

“It’s a useful variety for bulk production,” explains Ken Forrester, a Chenin Blanc specialist based in Stellenbosch and one of the founders of the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa, adding that the grape can be abused by overcropping and yet it will “still maintain enough acidity for the wine to be decent.”

Just as the 1970s rise of white Zinfandel in the United States saved old Zinfandel vines from being ripped out and sparked a raft of new plantings, so too was Lieberstein’s success responsible for the collateral benefits of preserving South Africa’s old Chenin vineyards and encouraging a generation of winegrowers to plant much more of it. “In the 1960s, Lieberstein was the number one selling wine brand in the world,” says Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux wines, who sources fruit from many old vine vineyards in Swartland. “That’s why there was this huge demand to plant Chenin Blanc.” And the legacy of those plantings, and the even older vines that were saved, are directly responsible for some of South Africa’s most exciting wines today.

For much of its existence in the Cape, Chenin has been the Cinderella grape, always behind the scenes. Believed to have been one of the earliest grapes brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company in 1655, it was originally used, and still is, to make base wine for brandy production, a Dutch specialty, ensuring its widespread planting for centuries. Then came the Lieberstein phenomenon. 

At its peak, there were some 75,000 acres of Chenin Blanc planted, according to Mullineux, accounting for one-third of the country’s total acreage. But the grape went through a rough patch in the 1980s and 1990s, when the heyday of Lieberstein had passed and brandy consumption had dropped, while other varieties grew in popularity. Nobody thought it was suitable for anything but cheap bulk wine. When Forrester bought his Stellenbosch property in the early 1990s with some old Chenin planted, he was advised by the local extension office to rip it out and plant Sauvignon Blanc. “That was what the market wanted,” Forrester recalls. “And I just thought, here’s some 25-year-old Chenin in the ground, why can’t we make something out of it? Nobody was championing Chenin at the time”.

Sebastian Beaumont of Beaumont Family Wines in the Bot River region agrees, “You could sell 20 times more Sauvignon Blanc at the time than Chenin.” Beaumont, whose parents planted Chenin in the mid-1970s on the advice of experts, came to regret the choice, for a time. Now those vines are used to make Beaumont’s highly sought-after Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc.

Chenin renaissance

Thankfully, there were no Sauvignon Blanc-based equivalents to Lieberstein, or Chenin might have disappeared altogether. It’s still the most planted grape, and the Cape still has more Chenin than any other wine-growing country, including its birthplace in the Loire Valley. And perhaps most importantly, there is a wealth of old vines: almost 7,000 acres of the nearly 44,000 acres currently planted are more than 30 years old. One of the oldest known Chenin Blanc vineyards is the Mev A. Kirsten vineyard in Stellenbosch, planted in 1942, and made into one of the country’s best whites by Eben Sadie at Sadie Family Wines.

It took a generation from the end of the Lieberstein era for South Africa to realize that their Cinderella grape was a true princess. Chenin would eventually find its champions. They would draw on the vast resources of largely unirrigated, old bush vines and produce some of the most exciting wines in the Cape today. “The quality of the Chenin coming out of South Africa is really on this amazing exponential curve,” says Mullineux. And no young maverick Cape winemaker worth her salt doesn’t produce at least one example of Chenin, many of them extraordinary, and an astonishing value on top of it all.  

5 South African Chenin Blancs to try:

bottle of A.A. Badenhorst Secateurs Swartland Chenin Blanc 2020

A.A. Badenhorst Secateurs Swartland Chenin Blanc 2020 ($12)

Adi Badenhorst’s biodynamically-farmed, 70-acre  Kalmoesfontein farm on Paardeberg mountain is all old, dry-farmed bush vines, including the Chenin Blanc used for Secateurs white. Low yields, high-concentration, and purity make this a special bottle for the price.

bottle of Raats Family Original Stellenbosch Unwooded Chenin Blanc 2019

Raats Family Original Stellenbosch Unwooded Chenin Blanc 2019 ($14)

Bruwer Raats may make more impressive old vine and single parcel Chenins, but it’s tough to beat the Original Unwooded in the family portfolio for sheer value and pleasure. Unfettered ripe apple and pineapple fruit meld seamlessly with stony-flinty flavors. 

bottle of Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc 2019

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc 2019 ($16)

An extraordinary value from Forrester’s nearly 40-year-old vines on the Helderberg, given just a dash of oak influence, 20% aged in wood, to round out the Golden Delicious apple and pear flavors.

bottle of Mullineux Old Vine Swartland White Blend 2019

Mullineux Old Vine Swartland White Blend 2019 ($30)

Andrea Mullineux composes this fragrant, yellow flower and ripe pear-flavored old vine blend with Chenin Blanc taking the lead, complemented by varieties like Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, and Verdelho from a range of Swartland soils shales, schist, granite. It’s a marvel of complexity, wild fermented, and aged in mostly old oak.  

bottle of Beaumont Hope Marguerite Overberg Chenin Blanc 2019

Beaumont Hope Marguerite Overberg Chenin Blanc 2019 ($35)

Sebastian Beaumont’s small lot selection of fruit from the family’s oldest vineyards planted in the mid-‘70s, wild-fermented, and aged in 400 L French oak, 15% new. A wine of terrific depth and balance, creamy, yet framed by taut acids.