Brandy by the snifter8th Feb 2017
As South Africans we are often very proud of our achievements, but sometimes we just seem to have a blind spot.
And in one of those blind spots is our truly world-class brandy industry. Yes, really. Don’t feel bad because you didn’t know about it. You’re not alone. Most South Africans, when they think of brandy, look at it as part of the one, two, three brigade – one litre brandy, two litres Coke and a three-litre souped-up Cortina. Or, at the other end of the scale, there are those who buy a bottle of cheap brandy once a year to put in the Christmas cake.
But, hey, did you know we make the best brandy in the world? Yes, eat your heart out, Cognac, Armagnac and the rest of France: South African brandies are dominating the podium at top international competitions, and Van Ryn’s Distillery in Stellenbosch leads the pack in worldwide recognition, having claimed the Worldwide Best Brandy trophy a record 12 times since 2001.
I drove out to Stellenbosch to see what all the fuss was about, and the minute I walked into Van Ryn’s Distillery I understood. The air was redolent with the enticing bouquet of fine brandy, and it lifted my spirits immediately – no pun intended. Honestly. I felt like I was floating through a box of liqueur chocolates. It was hard, but I resisted the urge to taste because I was driving home, so next time I’ll definitely take an Uber.
I was still admiring the aroma when Marlene Bester strolled in from the distillery with a huge smile on her face. She’s South Africa’s only woman master distiller, and she clearly enjoys her job. So, rather than doing a formal interview, we chatted while she showed me around. And that’s when I discovered that there’s brandy – and then there is … brandy! The stuff your mom burns on Christmas puddings, and your uncle sloshes into Coke is – well, yes, it’s brandy, but it’s not … brandy!
OK, seriously, in South Africa we have some of the most rigorous brandy labelling legislation in the world. There are officially three types of brandy: blended brandy, vintage brandy and potstill brandy. Every brandy, even the cheapest blended kind, must contain 30% potstill brandy. It is this requirement that makes our brandies – all of them – so good. The obvious reason is that it ups the quality of the cheaper blends, but it also offers an economically sustainable way of siphoning off any potstill brandies that are not absolutely superb. Hence it takes away the financial temptation to blend potstill brandies from even slightly less than perfect constituents. A brandy that wants to earn the potstill label must be a 100% brandy that has been batch-distilled in a copper vat, and matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years – similar requirements to those for a Cognac.
South African potstill brandy is traditionally made from high-quality Chenin blanc and/or Colombar varietals grown specifically for brandy production. These are used to make a base wine which is then distilled twice in a copper potstill. It has to be copper. And this is where it gets really interesting. They make a fire – yes, a fire – under the pot, feed the wine in and send the resulting vapour through a series of pipes to cool down and distil. The first bit to come off is called the head, and that’s discarded because it can be a tad volatile. Then comes the heart, which is kept, and then the tail, which is also discarded. The heart is distilled again, and the heart of that second distillation is put into oak casks to be matured.
Maturation is a much-studied but little-understood process that involves science, magic, alchemy and the placation of angels. The spirit interacts with the wood, drawing its colour and aromatics from the oak, but it also interacts with the air outside the barrel as some of the brandy evaporates into the air – for the angels. Distillers have experimented with ways of minimising this loss, and many of these methods have worked, but the resulting beverage has been decidedly substandard. If you deny the angels their share, Marlene explains, the brandy will be pretty darn ordinary if not downright horrid. So, even if you put the exact same spirit into barrels that are virtually identical, each one will mature differently, depending on where it is in the cellar.
After three years, the brandies are tasted and assessed. Some barrels that are identified as having the potential to be very special are left to mature further, while the rest will be used in a number of ways. The better ones will be carefully blended to create a potstill brandy with the unique properties associated with the label, so that connoisseurs can instantly identify it.
Of course, there is another way of distilling brandy: continuous distillation. Unlike potstill distillation, which is done in discreet, carefully controlled batches, continuous distillation is just that – a continuous process of feeding in the base wine and getting out a somewhat less refined wine spirit that can then go one of two ways: into vintage brandy or into blended brandy.
Vintage brandy must contain at least 30% potstill brandy that has been matured for at least eight years, and 70% wine spirit that has been matured for eight years. The resulting brandy is pretty respectable, but obviously not the same as a potstill.
Lastly, blended brandy must contain 30% potstill brandy and up to 70% unmatured wine spirit. This is the stuff you mix with Coke, orange juice or ginger ale, soak fruit in for Christmas cake, or add to your coffee round the campfire. It certainly has its place, but it can’t really stand alone.
For real enjoyment, there is nothing to beat a beautifully blended potstill brandy – the bit that the angels have left us.