Last week I organised a tasting for the Sommeliers Association of South Africa (SASA) of some serious South African brandies and a few well-reputed cognacs. The point was to show how difficult it can be to distinguish between the two of them in terms of origin and quality, at fairly comparable ages: I showed a range of local potstill brandies ranging from about 5 years of age to 20 years – Boplaas and KWV representing the oldest, as well as representing the smallish category of estate brandy and the overwhelming category of big-producer stuff.
That ploy succeeded, on the whole. I asked for a show of hands as to origin for each of the brandies, and none was correctly identified by all as from South Africa or Cognac – generally the voting was pretty equal. Much the same with regard to preference – few of the examples were not the favourite of someone. Probably the most generally favoured of the line-up of 12 (3 cognacs and 9 brandies) was Richelieu XO Cognac, not the famous South African brand, but a small cognac house also owned by Distell; Richelieu XO recently won a major international competition, incidentally, and that seemed quite justified.
The Richelieu XO cognac costs around R1750 per bottle – as opposed to the R1000 you’ll hae to fork out for the likes of KWV 20 year old, and my own favourite local brandy, Oude Meester Souverein 18 Year Old. The younger cognac we included was Courvoisier VSOP, at a pretty hefty R550, but not a single person at the tasting listed it as a favourite.
Personally, I think you have to be pretty daft to buy the lower grades of cognac (VS, VSOP) in South Africa, when you can get really good local stuff – even 10 and 12 year old brandies – for a third or half of the price. (Incidentally, I’ve recently written an article on the subject for Good Taste magazine – no idea when it’s appearing.) But there’s a lot of cultural cringe when it comes to brandy-versus-cognac, not just from inexperienced drinkers who assume that cognac MUST be better, at least partly because it’s more expensive, but also from the sommeliers and restaurateurs who serve them – people who should know better, but don’t’ always.
Enough rant about that, and enough sticking up for the locals. What was totally missing from my little comparative tasting was an example of the really old stuff – 30, 40, 50 years old, ormore. The reason is twofold – one: those really old cognacs cost a fortune; two: there are no locals available for comparison. The Van Ryn Au.Ra (oh, how I dislike typing that sadly pretentious name!) was released a year or more ago, as the oldest commercially available Cape brandy, with the youngest component being 30 years old. It’s lovely brandy, hugely expensive and only a tiny quantity was made.
But today I had a real treat. Amongst the SASA tasters last week was Denis Garret, a splendidly eccentric Frenchman, with impressive credentials as sommelier and wine educator (and clearly pretty impressive on a motorbike too, given his past performances in international rallies).
Denis kindly invited me to taste some samples of the cognacs of the small, highly regarded cognac house of Lhéraud. The young ones, designed for cocktails and mixing, were fine; the 10- and 20- year olds were impressive but not mind-blowing, but the Grande Champagne 1979 (vintage cognac is rare, but this house clear makes something of a specialty of it) was totally revelatory to a novice about the finesse and fascinating complexity that great older cognac can offer. Much the same with the lighter-styled and equally brilliant old Camus – a blend that my host had himself put together in winning a grand blending competition (his prize was a dozen bottles of the cognac assembled according to his formula).
We also this afternoon tried some similarly oldish armagnacs – the country cousin of cognac – which would have been marvellous to me in any context other than what we’d already tried, but lacked the grace and finesse of the Lhérauds.
With any luck, Denis will find an importer for the splendid range of cognacs, armagnacs and calvados he wants to introduce to South Africa. Beyond my own wallet’s capabilities, but perhaps I’ll get some more sips….
As to really old Cape brandies – well, as stocks of excellent old brandy start becoming available to the blenders (as they will, given that ambitions were really only kindled from the early 1990s on, which is also when estate brandies became legal), we should start having more really old brandies, and it is going to be fascinating to see just how good they are.
I wish I thought I’d be around to see what a fine 50-year-old Cape brandy tastes like, but it’s somewhat more than unlikely. And perhaps when my dust has long been scattered, there’ll be even older, rare Van Ryn or Oude Meester or Boplaas brandies, and they’ll be magnificent and comparable to equivalent cognacs. I hope so, and now happily raise a glass of Souverein to the prospect.