Opinion

Producer Profile: Liberator Wines

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

Richard Kelley MW
Rick the Chenin Evangelist (source: Liberator Wines Twitter)

 

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.

Liberator Wines

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

The Liberator Episode 29 Chenin No 5 Chenin Blanc

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.

Liberator Wines Episode 24: Four and Twenty Blackbirds

The Liberator 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Wine + Music

The Frankly Wines & Friends Wine & Music Series #14 – Lee Isaacs

In these unusual times, we all need a lift from time to time. As a change to my usual wine reviews I’ve decided to start a fun and irreverent series on matching wine and music. The basic idea is that I give participants:

  • A piece of music –> they suggest a wine to go with it, with an explanation
  • A wine –> they suggest a piece of music to go with it

It’s all for fun, so please don’t slag off anybody’s taste music (or wine!) Thanks to Michelle Williams for the inspiration – she has been matching songs to wine for years on her Rockin Red Blog.

For the 14th episode of The Frankly Wines & Friends Wine & Music Series we head back to England with the irrepressible polymath Lee Isaacs.  Not only does this bloke live and breathe wine, he also has a fabulous collection of shirts and plays a mean axe!  By axe I mean guitar (and probably other instruments, knowing Lee).  If anyone was the most apt person to write a guest post in this series, it’s Mr Lee Isaacs.

Now I’m not a diehard aficionado of The Stones, but their standout track for me is Gimme Shelter.  This is the group that absorbed The Blues through imported LPs and ended up taking it back to the Americans, both in their own music and the limelight they shared with Blues legends.

Lee spreads the gospel about wine over several social media platforms – which gives us mere mortals an opportunity to enjoy his shirts and his music – but he’s also generous in praising other communicators including Katie Jones, so I thought this would be the perfect wine to pick for him.


I was chuffed when Frankie asked me to write a piece matching wine and music for his site, for two main reasons. Usually the only form of writing people ask me to do for them is filling in those legal forms the prevent me from playing the guitar within a ten mile radius, but also because wine and music are two of my greatest loves in life. They are both uniquely subjective and conjure up emotions and memories beyond our control. They have the power to weaken us at the knees or make us feel like anything is possible. Wine and music both have an incredible power over our soul and…I’ll stop; you get my drift.

The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter

Frankie’s opening musical gambit came in the form of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, from their 1969 album (also their best) Let It Bleed. The song sees Keef playing a portentous riff in open G while Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton trade ever darker lyrics about an impending storm of violence. This is The Stones at their very best; more than just dirty, grimy (so wrong, it’s right) blues, but deep and searing social commentary. The song is the death cry of 1960s peace and love and a dark vision of the dystopia that lay around the corner. It could have been written yesterday. Mick’s refrain of ‘If I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away’ could be any of us right now. It opens gently enough with an inviting, almost light, blues motif but it quickly builds to something much more brooding and enveloping. By the end of the song you need a breather, a chance to reflect on exactly what it all means.

But what wine to pair with this greatest of Stones tracks? Malbec may well be a superstar today, but that’s not always been the case. It was not Argentina’s most planted variety until 2006. In fact, previous to that it had been a bit of a workhorse, a variety that had yet to find it’s truest expression and was in danger of fading away without some shelter. That shelter was provided by Nicolás Catena Zapata. He gave it shelter by taking it as high as he could, planting his Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary at a breath taking altitude of 1,500 m.a.s.l. This was a call to arms for other producers to not only revisit Malbec but also to take on the challenge of high altitude grape growing. Nicolás saw a hard future ahead but made a stand and changed Argentine wine forever.

This Malbec is just as brooding and intense as Mick & Keef’s lyrics. It opens with a violet scented perfume while some subtle mineral notes invite you in before it quickly builds with deep black fruit and cassis flavours. Before you know it, you’re awash with dark chocolate, coffee, smoky vanilla and earthy spices. But then there’s a refrain; the violets and minerals reappear and bring you back from the blackcurrant precipice as you realise that perhaps there’s more to everything than it first seemed. By the end of the bottle one can only sit and reflect.

Domaine Jones Fitou

Frankie took his opening gambit and doubled down with the classic ‘Fitou Strategem’ first used by Francis of Gaul all those years ago. It’s a fine call as I’m a fan of the inimitable Katie Jones and her magnificent wines. It’s well documented that Katie met with some rather unfriendly locals who doubted her commitment & motivations. This only further emboldened Mrs Jones in her quest, and today she makes characterful wine with a huge sense of place. Katie takes a central theme for each wine she makes and then slowly and confidently builds to a wonderful driving crescendo.

This Fitou is a blend of Grenache, Syrah & Carignan with some of the contributing vines being over 100 years old. This brings to the wine an incredible concentration of deeply structured figgy, spicy and smoky fruit. There’s a wonderful rusticity to the wine; it’s filled with garrigue, warm herbs, roasting meats and the most alluring black fruits…all supported by melt in the mouth tannins and a fine seam of acidity. It feels like this wine, its style, its flavours, its structure…it feels like its always been here. Every time you drink it, you wonder why you drink anything else.

Led Zeppelin also met with some backlash. Indeed it’s the very origin of their name. They remained steadfast, and, building on the history that lay before them, they built something new and wonderous. It’s easy to get caught up in Stairway but Led Zep IV’s When The Levee Breaks is one of those tracks that is absolutely magical & timeless.

It is of course driven by the eternal, powerful & mesmerising drum work of John Bonham. That sound, that rhythm…it’s always been here, since the beginning of time. Jimmy Page eschews the standard I-IV-V blues tradition, instead opting for a modal approach. He takes a central theme and builds, builds, builds, to an incredible and long lasting crescendo. This song has history but also incredible depth and sophistication. Like Fitou it’s often overlooked in favour of more prestigious and well known names…but this just keeps getting better and better. Every time you hear it, you wonder why you listen to anything else.

Lee Isaacs

Lee has been around wine since the age of 5 and when he turned 18, he passed up a place at university to study law and politics in favour of working in the wine trade. His bank manager has still not forgiven him. An Oddbins refugee, he ran one of the UK’s best indies for 5 years before becoming Head of Education for Oxford’s oldest wine school. A WSET Diploma holder, Lee has taught and lectured all over the world for MWs and MSs. Widely travelled, he specialises in Argentina, a country he visits almost every year, and Italy, a country he has travelled around extensively. Published by a variety of media, Lee continues to educate, entertain and immerse himself in the world of wine, running around 100 tastings every year (pre-Covid obvs). He now works for a multinational business in training, buying and marketing. When not doing something with wine he can be found failing to play the guitar and writing dreadful stand up comedy.


The Frankly Wines & Friends Wine & Music Series
No. Guest Name Music to pair Wine to pair
14 Lee Isaacs The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter Domaine Jones Fitou
13 Sharon L Souls Of Mischief –  93 ‘Til Infinity Penfolds RWT
12 Tim Milford Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man Nyetimber Classic Cuvée
11 Mags McKee U2 with BB King –  When Love Comes to Town Pittnauer Zweigelt Heideboden
10 Cara Rutherford The Cure – Just Like Heaven Suertes del Marqués ‘7 Fuentes’
9 Melanie May The Cult –  She Sells Sanctuary Sipp Mack GC Rosacker Riesling
8 James Hubbard Gary Moore – Parisienne Walkways Penfolds Bin 707 Cab Sauv
7 Paul Moran Underworld – Rez Suertes del Marqués Trenzado
6 Nirina Plunkett Jamiroquai – Space Cowboy Club Remix Wolfberger Crémant d’Alsace
5 Penny Sadler Fleetwood Mac – Dreams Bollinger Special Cuvée
4 Jim Dunlop The Beatles – The Long And Winding Road Man O’ War Valhalla Chardonnay
3 Avril Kirrane McMorrough Norah Jones – Don’t Know Why Joseph Cattin Riesling Reserve
2 Tim of Soliciting Flavours Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings Viña Tondonia Blanco
1 Sinéad Smyth Stardust – Music Sounds Better With You Mullineux Syrah