Two splendid French products of the grape – two ranges, in fact, and at least three different grape varieties; two lunchtimes at two restaurants.
In chronological order, the tasting of Bisquit Cognac came first. Appropriately so, perhaps, as I am still somewhat in love with brandy (I have a sadly emptying glass of superb local stuff in my glass as I write – Oude Meester Souverein).
The producers of cognac don’t like their product being called brandy (Cape producers have no choice) for reasons I’ll leave up to your imagination – and up to the imaginations of craven organisers of events like the International Wine and SpiritsCompetition who are (like all competition organisers) less interested in fairness than in profits. The IWSC has for some years now allowed Cognac to compete in a category of its own, while South African brandy (with regulations at least as tight as the great French appellation, and rather similar provisions) must muck it in with the rest of the world. If anything gives me contempt for the hugely profitable IWSC, it is this sort of decision.
But Cognac unquestionably produces great brandies – sorry, great cognacs – with Bisquit among them.
By the way, pointing to the problematic category of “brandy” – do you know which is the largest brand of “brandy” in the world, and which country makes it? No, you probably don’t. It is McDowells, marketing between 60 and 70 million litres per year. Indian brandy (which has nothing at all to do with grapes, of course, like most brandies outside Europe and a few other countries like South Africa). India is the largest brandy market in the world. Second is the Philippines. South Africa is seventh. The South African market is about 45 million litres annually – two-thirds of McDowells.
Cognac does just fine, internationally (while South African brandy, the only generic version deserving and getting any respect from the cognacais, is internationally neglible), and Bisquit is the sixth-largest Cognac house – though far behind the top four – and owned for few years now by Distell.
The Bisquit cognacs are very fine, especially the more serious labels: the VSOP and the XO. Frankly, the Bisquit VS should have trouble competing against local ordinary brandies like Klipdrift Export at a quarter of the price, but I was rather surprised to learn that all these cognacs sell quite well here (of course they have Distell marketing them, which helps, and cultural cringe does the rest). The excellent Bisquit VSOP, though, is around R500, which is only about double what many local equivalents would cost. The gorgeous XO, refined and fiery and subtle, is about double the price of exquisite Oude Meester Souverein or Van Ryn’s vintage brandies. But brand counts, of course, especially among the more bling-oriented buyers.
I’m less bullish about the claims of local bubbly versus the best French stuff (though I’d back Colmant and the best from Graham Beck, Villiera and a one or two others up to a point, and would turn a patriotically blind eye to some of the stuff from, eg, Cabrière, whose Belle Rose tasted recently was, frankly, pretty dreadful stuff by any standards).
But a second recent lunch was to celebrate and welcome the latest releases of Pol Roger, that eminent champagne producer. I am not a champagne fanatic, and think it generally the most overpriced of any category of wine, but go as far as saying that I am always delighted when someone else pays for a good bottle. And (apart from stratospherically-priced Salon), what better brand than Pol Roger?
No-one at the lunch, including the presenter, seemed quite sure of the prices of the Pol Rogers, but it clearly comes into that category of “if you need to know, you probably can’t afford them”. The non-vintage and the Brut 2002 and the Brut Rosé 2002 are undeniably lovely, but the Blanc de Blanc from the same great vintage is spectacularly so, and made me wish that I was rich enough to buy it by the case.
I was less tempted (even theoretically!) by the top wine, the cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2000 at an even more absurd price. Perhaps this wine is now a little closed, and will blossom forth in years to come, but at this tasting it was not showing as well as either of the two (white) vintage wines, in my opinion. To be bought by the buyers of labels rather than of wines, perhaps
So, if I had about R700 to spend on a bottle of any of those mentioned above? I’d go for Oude Meester Souverein brandy, then Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc 2002. The latter I’d down in a sitting, the former would last, oh a week or two, but that’s a different game.
By the way, Pol Roger’s importer (the splendid Great Domaines, from whom I eagerly buy splendid burgundy at large but fair price) chose to present Pol Roger at Burrata restaurant in Cape Town’s Woodstock, where we had an excellent lunch. Distell for some obscure reason settled, for the Bisquit lunch, on Simon’s at Groot Constantia – which was as poor as I remember it from when I last dared to eat there some years back. (Why can’t our prime wine tourism spot manage to get a decent restaurant going? It’s an embarrassment, as things stand.)