MAY 2013 – South Africa’s national liquid treasure is for savvy investors with a discerning palate.
While the allure and appreciation of hard-to-find antiques, specialist art and fine wines continues to grow, there is an increasing awareness that South Africa is harbouring a treasury of liquid gold. Much as Cognac is recognised in Europe as a suitably elegant tipple for saluting one another’s victories, celebrating milestones and allowing yourself to enjoy the finer moments in life, so discerning South Africans are lining their cellars with our fine brandies, which compare with the best in the world, and in some cases are the best in the world.
The iconic golden elixirs produced in the modern era of the brandy industry are a far cry from the first ever brandy distilled at the tip of southern Africa. It was in the year 1672 on board a Dutch ship De Pijl lying at anchor in Table Bay that an assistant cook distilled 1 000 litres of Cape wine into 130 litres of brandy. He did a roaring trade with his rough tipple at taverns where thirsty patrons bartered used clothes for his brandy. Times have certainly changed and brandy, known the world over as the drink of heroes and kings, has come to be one of South Africa’s most prized liquid offerings, a true national product, and distilled according to arguably the most stringent regulations in the world. Now, foreign markets are also beginning to learn of South African world-class brandy, as international awards continue to confirm its consistently outstanding quality.
What further sets our brandies apart is that the best South African brandy is perhaps the closest of all to Cognac, adhering in most instances to the same stringent set of rules and regulations followed by the wine growers and distillers of the Charentes. While Cognac is a worthy role model, South African brandy masters are not out to emulate Cognac or any other brandy region, focusing instead on our own style. The discernibly South African character of our brandies is the result of our unique terroir and our own brandy masters’ individual approach.
Connoiseurs and those for whom pedigree is everything will tell you that a South African brandy has won the ‘Worldwide Best Brandy’ accolade at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in London eight times in the last 11 years. No mean feat, as the IWSC is hailed as the gold standard among global competitions, its trophies and medals respected as the most prestigious in the world. Judging is performed blind by panels of international experts and includes technical evaluation of more than 7 000 spirits and wines from over 80 countries. Over the past three years alone, the crown has come to the Cape without fail: for the KWV 15 Year Old, Van Ryn’s Collectors Reserve 20 Year Old and Joseph Barry 10 Year Old Pot-still.
The tipping point for the brandy industry happened when the SA Brandy Act of 1990 introduced two new categories of brandy (pot-still and vintage) to the existing standard ‘blended brandy’. These three styles recognised brandy’s extraordinary versatility and inherent quality, gave meaning to the term ‘liqueur’ brandy and made the world sit up and take notice.
A recognised, regulated style category, blended brandy was pioneered by local distillers in the mid-1900s to meet demand for brandy as a thirst quencher in the form of a long, cold drink with a mixer. The recent revival of cocktail culture has made blended brandies the drink du jour with the 20-something generation. The ultimate local brandy is the characterful Cape ‘pot-still’ brandy, a complex, fruity offering enhanced by the aromatics and flavours from the stipulated three years’ maturation in French oak barrels.
Vintage brandy, our closest Cognac relative, remains a specialist product of which around five are currently made here. These brandies are predominantly pot-still based, consist of a blend of separately matured eight-year-old brandies and wine spirit, and have a distinctive mellow, full-bodied, smooth character. There’s no denying that a brandy is only as good as the fruit and base wine used for the distillation, keeping in mind that it takes five litres of wine to get produce one litre of brandy. What makes the Western Cape so ideal for growing the calibre grapes needed for fine brandy is the long hot, dry summer days and mild, wet winters, combined with our fertile, alluvial soil on well-drained clay and shale bedrock. Couple these factors with our warm summers during ripening and the result is aromatic, ripe, full-flavoured pot-still brandy offerings that are generally more fruit-driven and intense in character, with a velvety, smooth texture.
For those looking to line their cellars or to surround themselves with the accoutrements worthy of their business and social status, the good news is South African brandies are an excellent value-for-money liquid investment with all the stature of their French Cognac counterparts. For instance, a Cognac XO is generally a minimum of 10 years old and will sell at anything from R700, often more. In comparison Van Ryn’s 10 Year Old sells for R240 and the Van Ryn’s Collection Reserve 12 Year Old (Worldwide Best Brandy in 2004 and 2005) is a steal at R450. The limited-release Joseph Barry 10 Year Old Pot-still (current Worldwide Best Brandy champion) can be had at R330 from the cellar in Barrydale, and retails at R420. Generally the VSOP Cognacs sell for around R450. Brandy prices also compare most favourable with whisky, where many of the single malts of the same age are sold at much higher prices; compared with international prices for these complex brandy offerings, there’s no doubt we should be focusing our investments on our home-grown brandies.
South African brandy also enthrals leading local chefs. For Margot Janse, the multi-award-winning executive chef at Franschhoek’s Le Quartier Français, recently voted one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World, a new area of possibility has emerged with the release of connoisseur brandies. She successfully matches smoked meats – salmon, bacon, smoked duck breast and pancetta – with well-aged brandy, while her famed pineapple sorbet picks up on the fruit and nut elements of brandy perfectly. Fellow überchef Reuben Riffel enriches marinated duck liver with Gorgonzola risotto and black mushrooms with brandy, and does a superb quail with a vanilla and vintage brandy-enriched sauce.
Kleine Zalze’s chef Nic van Wyk is another local food hero experimenting with pot-still brandies to add its diverse and complex mix of flavours to his creations. His tongue-in-cheek take on brandy traditions includes tobacco-infused chocolate truffles that mimic postprandial cigar and brandy moments, while chef Pete Goffe-Wood is known to add a generous dose of well-aged pot-still brandy to his famous Black Forest brownies.
Brandy and cheese are really good bedfellows, particularly blue cheese. An elegant, fruity young pot-still brandy paired with Gorgonzola and a sliver of fig preserve is a mouth-watering combination indeed. While chocolate has proven to be a challenge for wine, it finds a soul mate in brandy: a mature, robust brandy with dark chocolate is a match made in heaven. Creamy milk chocolate is a great flavour partner for pot-still brandy with vanilla overtones, while brandy with a strong citrus character served with orange-zested chocolate cake and freshly brewed espresso is a triple treat.
For those wishing to experience food and brandy pairings first-hand, KWV offers innovative brandy and chocolate tastings at the KWV Emporium in Paarl, while the exclusive Tokara restaurant, situated at the crest of the Helshoogte Pass in Stellenbosch, offers a selection of handcrafted chocolates paired with their own bespoke estate brandy. In addition to chocolate pairings, Van Ryn’s Distillery’s special tastings explore brandy matched with honeycomb, nougat, brownies and even sorbet.
Whether offered as a partner to a gourmet dinner, served as a soupçon with a sliver of speciality cheese or proffered simply in a snifter as a heady social lubricant, there’s no denying the elevated role that brandy has come to enjoy in South Africa. Viewed as the discerning aficionado’s drink, the complexity and quality of our local offerings are making the international arena stand up and take notice. Now is the time to invest in our liquid offerings on a short- and long-term basis – enjoy now, but be sure you put aside plenty for later.