A cask of gold at rainbow’s end
Wendy Toerien finds why our liquid gold holds equal allure for international and local palates
SOUTH African brandy is rightfully hailed as a national treasure. Brandy flows through the centuries-old annals of our country’s history. It’s been the stuff of local lore, literary inspiration and a national psyche that has seldom failed to show an incorrigible spirit under the quickening effects of the African sun. Now in modern times it has gone out and conquered the world by raking in the most prestigious accolades at international spirits showcases.
The third annual Standard Bank Fine Brandy Festival, hosted in partnership with the SA Brandy Foundation at the Sandton Sun from 5-7 May is a rare opportunity for brandy connoisseurs, brandy quaffers and complete novices to see what all the fuss is about… and you’ll find reasons aplenty.
First up is the simple fact that SA produces the world’s best brandy. This year’s festival theme “South African brandy: the world’s finest” is no mere marketing speak. Take a stroll down the festival’s “2010 Brandy Walk of Fame” and you’ll be introduced to no fewer than 12 South African brandies that have walked away with the Best Worldwide Brandy trophy at London’s annual International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC), regarded as the global liquor world’s most recognised quality assessment.
In a watershed year for South African brandy, the new SA Brandy Act of 1990 introduced two new categories of brandy to the existing standard “blended” brandy. It was pioneered by local distillers to meet demand for brandy as a thirst quencher in the form of a long, cold drink with a mixer. But now came “potstill brandy” and “vintage brandy’.
What this did was recognise brandy’s extraordinary versatility. It gave meaning to the term “liqueur” brandy. And it made the world (and doubtless the proud Cognaçais) sit up and take notice. What this year’s festival aims to illustrate is what connoisseur and quaffer alike should be made to realise: that, of all the world’s brandies, SA’s exponents are perhaps the most deeply rooted in the traditions of excellence, distillation and maturation methods, and stringency of quality regulation followed by the wine growers and distillers of the Charentes.
There is a rider, however, best expressed by brandy expert of international stature, Johan Venter, of Distell: “Cape brandy makers have moved beyond mimicking Cognac in style and are able to express a unique sense of place. Our brandies are distinctively fresh and fruity because they’re made from ripe grapes with excellent acids producing aromas and flavours characterised, typi- cally, by warm notes of sun-dried fruits: apricots and peaches.”
Look out for the Brandy Aroma Wheel at the festival to experience what Venter verbalises. Not just that, but also the phenomenal multi-layered sensory richness distillers extract during the artisanal process.
The year 1990 also saw the relaxation of local industry laws sti- fling private distilling for most of the 20th century. The response was immediate: the unleashing of creativity among many top fine wine farmers, both talented young vintners and long-established winemakers thrilled to be reviving a centuries-old tradition of private distilling on Cape wine farms.
Many of these hand-crafted brandies are not readily available on shop shelves and can only be tasted and bought at the cellars. In a festival first up-country brandy lovers can taste the alchemist’s art of the Artisan Collection, representing Van Loveren, Grundheim and De Compagnie. These can be tasted in Cinema Paradiso, an innovative salon privé experience.
Festivalgoers looking for the new and novel should pause at Oude Molen Distillery, lifting the lid on two of the new products at the show: Solera Grand Reserve, created in the Spanish Solera tradition as well as the limited release René Single Cask of which only 714 bottles are produced.
Not to be overshadowed by pot-still artistry, South African blended brandy is also of superior quality. Of course, our local tradition of enjoying “blended brandy” as an everyday drink gave rise to the oft-maligned but iconic South African “brandy and coke” combination.
The versatility of blended brandy has also been utilised to delightful effect by an enthusiastic young breed of mixologists.