Liberator Wines is the brainchild of Englishman Richard Kelley under his alter ego Rick. After I was kindly sent a couple of bottles to try by Irish distributor Boutique Wines I was interested in finding out more about the operation.
Much of the detail below is sourced from an interview he did with my friend Lee Isaacs aka WineMan147 – you can watch the whole thing on his website Freestyle Wines.
Richard Kelley MW
If you were to choose a hypothetical background for a Master of Wine, you probably wouldn’t dream that he or she came from a family of teetotallers. However, for Richard Kelley MW that was precisely the case – his parents didn’t drink at all. Leaving school at 16 might not be expected either, but the following nine years he spent as a chef makes perfect sense; food is often a gateway to wine.
Fast forward to the end of Kelley’s MW studies and his thesis was on the importance of temperature control in red wine making in the Old World versus the New World, with South Africa used as the New World example. Two weeks after finishing his MW course he moved to South Africa to live and work, initially for a six month contract which ended up lasting seven years. He even met his expat Welsh wife in the Republic. He built up a fantastic network of contacts down there and of course receives respect from his MW qualification.
The premise of Liberator Wines is that some talented winemakers have a special wine in their cellar but don’t know what to do with it. The wine could be in barrel, tank, or bottle, labelled or not labelled. Kelley terms them “vinous orphans looking for a home”, and rather than being blended away or sold as bulk wine they are allowed to shine. The producer gets a better price and the consumer gets a good wine at a good price.
Each wine – or “episode” – gets a different label which reflects the story behind it. After all, as Kelley notes, consumers respond to storytelling, not pH levels. In this regard I think there are strong parallels with Pieter H Walser’s BlankBottle wines (though of course they are all vinified and matured in house).
The wines are sourced from some of the best winemakers in the country – Eden Sadie and André van Rensburg are given as examples – though their identity is sometimes kept off the label. Quantities also differ for each episode, ranging from a single barrel (30 cases) up to 1,600 cases. The sources, styles, varieties and price points can all vary, but the wines will always be under the Liberator label and be from South Africa.
It took five years to get to Episode No. 5, but the pace has since picked up considerably. Kelley now has winemakers contacting him (“we have something you might be interested in”) rather than him having to hunt for everything.
Below are my notes on two Episodes I tried earlier this year:
Liberator Wines Episode 29 Chenin No. 5 2019
As the fifth Chenin Blanc release, the name Chenin No. 5 came easily, of course riffing on the name of Coco Chanel’s iconic perfume. The source of this wine is a closely guarded secret (“a very good address”), and given how good it is that’s no surprise. This is classic South African Chenin, true to its variety and location. The nose shows a combination of fresh and baked apples with a hint of honey. The orchard theme continues onto the palate where stone fruits such as peaches also shine. There’s great texture here – this would make a superb and versatile food wine – with fresh acidity that cuts through the fruit and honey sweetness. The finish is dry but not austere.
Interestingly this is one of the Liberator wines chosen for release as “Rick in a Tin” – great for picnics and a midweek sip.
- ABV: 13.0%
- RRP: €19.50
- Source: sample
- Stockists: boutiquewines.ie
Liberator Wines Episode 24: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
If you tilt your head sideways you will notice the French term “Le Merle Noir” – meaning blackbird – after which the black skinned Merlot grape is supposedly named. This being the 24th Episode, the third line of the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” sprang to mind:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
This is a 100% Merlot which, to my great surprise, was harvested over 12 years ago; the vintage is written on the back label but not the front. Opening the wine reveals a Nederburg stamp on the cork, so the origins of this wine are very much not a secret.
The wine pours almost an opaque black, with only faint hints as to its age at the rim; if you know the age you might spot the reddy-brown rim it but it doesn’t pop out to the unknowing eye. The nose has intense aromas of plum, blackberry, blackcurrant and vanilla – really enticing. The palate showcases all these notes on the tongue, with a touch of leather and perhaps a slight hint of volatile acidity. The tannins are present yet supple and there’s enough acidity to keep the fruit from running away with itself.
In style I would liked this wine to a top-notch Saint-Emilion satellite village wine – perhaps a touch more extraction than is common from the vast majority of wines from Saint-Emilion proper but arguably better balanced than some of those wines are nowadays. This was an excellent, tasty drop.
- ABV: 14.0%
- RRP: €33.50
- Source: sample
- Stockists: boutiquewines.ie
Too often these days there is often a choice between well-marketed but lower quality wines on one hand versus well-made but obscure wines on the other. Liberator Wines does both things well; the story of the company is interesting, the labels and wine names are original and the wines themselves are excellent. The two wines tasted are both great value, tasty wines…of the two it’s the Blackbird which really excels.