Cape brandy – the big and the good

Sheer size is always impressive. I remember the first time I went to a wine co-op after many years of effetely wandering around oohing and aahing at the produce of estate wineries with their barrels of wine – and seeing for the first time those million-litre tanks. It puts a different perspective on things.

But altogether you must pardon a bit of unwontedly excessive enthusiasm from me about Cape brandy, just now.

worcester brandy4Last week I was on a most enjoyable and illuminating brandy course offered by Distell. It was based at their Van Ryn distillery at Vlottenberg just outside Stellenbosch where they make comparatively small batches of their best pot-stilled brandy (and offer tourist visits which I warmly recommend – it’s fascinating, and you’ll taste some good stuff). Things are comparatively small-scale there – though the barrel storage facilities are pretty enormous, and there is the largest repair cooperage in the southern hemisphere (where they also look after older barrels for the wine side of Distell).

But the last day of the course they trundled us over to Worcester, to the country’s biggest distillery. I was a pathetic student rather than a journalist, so I didn’t even have a notebook to hand to take down some of the extraordinary statistics. Amazing figures, starting with how much wine they take in each year from the Breede River Valley for distillation (both specially, carefully made wine for the pot-stills which are quite demanding when it comes to quality, and the refuse of the wine industry which goes through a different, more industrial type of still to produce the neutral spirit which forms the basis of white spirits like vodka and gin, and a substantial component of the more ordinary brandies).

worcester brandy3So, no statistics I fear, but, believe me, the scale is enormous. Vast annual tonnages of grapes, vast daily tonnages of coal to boil vast volumes of water to produce the steam which heats the wine, prompting it to yield and concentrate all its fine essence in the distillation process.

The top grainy pic is of one of the enormous boilers producing the steam which is fed around the whole plant.

Second pic, even more grainy, is of one of the storage facilities where brandy, all brandy, must age – unmoved – for at least three years in oak barrels. It’s a space-taking and expensive requirement, as you can imagine (more on this below), but I’m including this bad pic in case anyone else has, like me, never before seen barrels stacked vertically in this manner. Because there is no “topping up” of the barrels despite evaporation of both alcohol and liquid, this is sometimes the easier option. I had to take the photo from just outside the door, as no electronic equipment of any kind is allowed into the stores (you must surrender cellphones), on the off-chance that a spark might ignite the alcohol-rich air….

Impressive, yes, but much else was impressive in my few days of introduction into this great and historic business of brandy-making.

worcester brandy1I’d love to spout on about it all, but let me limit myself to the most interesting thing I came to understand – just why South African brandies are as good as they are (I’ll leave it up to the Brandy Foundation and Distell to boast about how well they always perform in international competitions).

The basic reasons are quite simple. First, just accept that most so-called brandy around the world is not even made from grapes at all, but from … just about anything, mostly sugar cane. The world’s largest brandy brand is McDowells in India: nearly 70 million litres of it per year (compared with about 45 million litres of ALL South African brandy). Amongst a tasting we did of 14 international brandies was a Chinese brand, which would have been similar – and take it from me you don’t want it, and don’t know how lucky we are with Klippies.

Second, most brandy from Europe (but not Cognac), California, Australia, etc, is indeed made from grape, but…. But it is mostly made from neutral grape spirits from those industrial stills, rather than the more artisanal pot-stills (as shown in the two bottom pics). And the minimum oak-maturation period is a mere six months, compared with the three years here. Of course there are excellent exceptions in all those countries, but the basic rules are very lax compared with those here. Still lucky with Klippies – I promise you it’s streets ahead of basic French brandy.

In fact, it seems, it is only Cognac and South Africa with very tough rules about the stuff. All cognac comes from pot-stills. Here, brandy labelled as “potstill brandy” (most of the fancier brands, including most of the estate brandies) must now be entirely from potstill brandy (a shift from the 70% component they were obliged to have until standards were upped recently). Local basic brandy (Klippies et al), as well as the three years of oak maturation (and oak is vital to brandy flavour) must have a minimum potstill contribution of 30%. The grander local brands are remarkably competitive with Cognac – at mostly much lower prices.

Try it. South African brandy is great stuff. It’s come a long way from the “pernicious” Cape Smoke of the bad old days (though it’s nice to have that long and picturesque tradition). On average, on the whole, and judging by world standards and world competitions, it’s  better than South African wine.

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