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Golden finesse and fire

By |  September 2 2015

South Africa’s current success in international brandy competitions seemingly sits easily with a longer, more intense tradition of distilling wine than is found in any New World country (and unmatched in most Old World countries, too).

Some 350 years of making brandy on the one hand, numerous International Best Brandy awards in the past ten years on the other: The connection is indeed there, but the continuity is not obvious. For much of the 20th century, in fact, South Africa showed little ambition to produce truly fine spirits, while Cape brandy from previous centuries was usually described in terms that don’t suggest the building of a noble tradition. "Pernicious" is possibly the adjective most frequently used by aghast contemporaries describing the stuff back then, but John Barrow reached for other excoriations in his Travels into the Interior of South Africa (1806), where he characterizes its typical production thus:

The filth that is usually thrown into the still with the refuse of the wines is disgusting; and the imperfect process is not sufficient to destroy the extraneous and disagreeable taste communicated by the loathsome materials. Dirty old storage barrels would have added little in the way of agreeable nuance.

Birth of a brandy culture

Brandy was first made in the little Dutch settlement at the foot of Africa (on a ship in Table Bay) in 1672, 13 years after the Cape’s first grape harvest. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was pronounced by its triumphant producers to be "delicious"; and if it was indeed made from wine, even poor wine, as is reported, the chances are that it was superior to the brandies made from "the dregs and husks that remain over from the last pressing" that another attentive European visitor sampled in the 1770s. At the genteel level of drinking, it was, one suspects, only inquisitive visitors who ventured to sample "Cape smoke," as it came to be called in English (the name probably derived from the Dutch Kaapse smaak, meaning "Cape taste"). Otto Mentzel, in the 1730s, was one such visitor, and he noted that even a third distillation and the addition of "spices and other flavouring" and sugar didn’t much help, for "it retains an unpleasant taste which makes one shudder."

Neither the Dutch East India Company, which administered the burgeoning colony until the first British occupation in 1795, nor the British, to whom the Cape Colony was formally ceded in 1814, showed much interest in improving local brandy. This while increasingly paying anxious attention to the quality of Cape wine, much of it generally of poor quality, too, though this was a time when Constantia was a favorite of the rich and famous of Europe. For a shortish period, indeed, the company attempted to prohibit local distillation, protecting its own profits as the sole importer of foreign goods, including liquor. But anyway, those who could afford not to shudder preferred imported spirits-mostly French brandy, which is also what the fussier dealers used to fortify wine, both for local consumption and to prepare exports for their arduous sea voyage.

The poor, however, drank the cheaper local version once it had become available in the settlement-sailors and soldiers on docked ships, struggling agriculturalists, and other locals, including slaves. Whether imported or domestic, brandy had been an essential part of the Cape settlement’s life, and of systems of social control, from the start. At the school for slaves that had been opened in 1658, for example, the charmingly titled "comforter of the sick" Pieter van der Stael dispensed Christian instruction in the morning and tobacco and a tot of brandy each evening. Otto Mentzel later noted that slaves on farms were given a matutinal brandy before going to work on the land. The notorious "tot system"-effectively dosing workers with alcohol to keep them dependent-has a long history. The name by which the practice is better known in South Africa-the dop system-in fact hints at "dop brandy," dop being the word for the "dregs and husks" from which it was overwhelmingly made.

For a long time-until communications improved in the mid-19th century at least-commercial wine production was confined to areas within reasonable traveling distance of Cape Town by ox wagon over the roughest of roads. Many wine farmers would have established stills as soon as they could afford it, to provide for their own needs, as well as to sell brandy to dealers from Cape Town. As would-be cattle and wheat farmers moved deeper into the interior, they would take a small barrel of brandy with them if they could, and try to maintain a stock; apart from the consolation and opportunities for hospitality thus availed, brandy, usually infused with herbs and the like, served a medicinal function, and a considerable number of homely treatments are known, for everything from colic to diphtheria. Brandy and tobacco were also used for bartering with the indigenous pastoralists whose land was being slowly appropriated. Reports of travelers to the interior of the country are replete with references to brandy, indicating just how much a part of the settler culture it had already become. Petrus Borcherds wrote in 1801, for example, of grapes being grown in the northerly Bokkeveld area, "not fit to make wine, but much brandy is distilled, which is bought with avidity by the more distant farmers, and is also largely used for home consumption, mostly in little drams called sopies." Thus a brandy culture grew.

When, in 1826, the Cape Wine Trade Committee made a rare effort to encourage better-quality distillation, 1,000 copies were printed of the guide they published (750 in Dutch, 250 in English) and distributed to wine farmers. There were few commercial distillers, and the print run reveals how widespread small-scale distillation had become. Almost exactly a century later, when private distillation was effectively prohibited in South Africa, there were perhaps 3,000 farm stills-some inland ones distilling "brandy" from fruit other than grapes, of course. (Fiery, high-strength home-distilled spirit made from peaches and other fruit is generally known in South Africa as mampoer, while the grape equivalent is called witblits-Afrikaans for "white lightning." Licenses are more easily obtainable now, and the tradition lives on in a small but culturally significant way.)

While the tradition of farm distillation grew, the 19th century saw more commercial distilleries established to supply the market-hopefully (but certainly not inevitably) with betterquality product. Many of these were pioneers of the handful of companies that came to control brandy production in the 20th century (amalgamations eventually led to today’s reigning nearmonopoly), and some names survive in brands, including Van Ryn, Collison, Sedgwick, Santhagen, and Barry & Nephews.

Production of brandy grew prodigiously, consuming an ever-greater proportion of the wine-grape crop. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 created a useful market for cheap hard drink at a time of severe slump for the Cape wine industry, thanks to perennial overproduction and the ending of colonial preference in 1861, when even a penny-pinching British wine lover could turn with relief to the vineyards of France. In 1895, for example, around 1.5 million gallons of brandy are recorded as being produced in the Cape Colony, fully a quarter of the volume of wine. Unfortunately for the Cape farmers and distillers, the discovery of gold in Johannesburg (in 1886, the same year that phylloxera was discovered in a Cape Town vineyard) did not provide a new market, thanks to exorbitant duties and local distilling interests there.

Basis for a high-quality industry

It was, however, a grain distillery in the north that unwittingly acted as an agent in the final transformation of the Cape’s rustic brandy tradition into an important industry modeled on Cognac’s. In a bid to improve spirits quality in the Transvaal, skilled distillers were brought from Europe, including René Santhagens, a young Belgian born in Batavia, educated in Europe, and possessed of both qualifications in chemistry and experience in Cognac (where he’d also acquired an aristocratic wife and an alembic still, both accompanying him to Africa). The British war with the Boer republics, and major political and economic problems for the distillery, prompted his speedy return to Europe. Santhagens had presumably seen in Cape Town, however, the abysmal standards of wine distillation and perceived some potential for his own career. In 1903 he returned to the Cape, found employment as winemaker and distiller, and after five years he bought the Oude Molen property on the edge of Stellenbosch town, establishing himself independently -and successfully, it would seem-in the distilling business.

Santhagens, well connected and well respected, was to be crucial in formulating national legislation about brandy in 1924, involving practices and controls that were the basis on which a high-quality industry was to be (slowly) built. There had been little state regulation of the industry until then, although, importantly, a law in 1909 had for the first time distinguished between "wine brandy" and other "colonial spirits"-the latter being brandy made entirely or partially from husks.

The 1924 legislation about brandy was part of the momentous Wine and Spirit Act, which gave the recently formed farmers’ cooperative, the KWV, enhanced legal status. Brandy was becoming a central component of the KWV’s effort to stabilize markets, involving as it did distillation of a substantial part of the excessive poorly vinified grape harvest. Farmers were assured a minimum price for even the worst of their wine, but they had to pay what must have been for many a big cultural price: the end of the tradition of farm distillation. Thousands of farm distilleries were prohibited; just a few were granted distilling licenses, provided they used the prescribed pot-stills, but the spirit had to be delivered to the KWV. Inevitably, there was resistance to all this, and moonshine lingered on. Tales abound of ingenious contrivances and of ludicrous and despairing tussles with excise men and inspectors, but the authorities implacably went around disabling the mostly small, mostly dubious-quality stills on unlicensed farms. Even today it’s easy to find, alongside old farm buildings in the Cape winelands, derelict stills, perhaps irremediably punctured, or with their heads removed.

It was thanks to René Santhagen’s Cognac experience that the 1924 regulations could be based on the production of the great French brandy. In the early years, however, only 25 percent of the final product necessarily came from double distillation in an alembic still (as distinct from the continuous Coffey stills that produced virtually pure, neutral spirit, and for which the quality of the distilling wine was comparatively unimportant). But the Charentais pot-still, of specified size and shape, was the only non-continuous distillation method permitted. Rules were drawn up for the preparation of distilling wine, which had to be approved before delivery to the KWV: There was to be no more poor-quality wine or "loathsome materials." The use of additives (sweetening agent, bonificateurs, caramel) was controlled, as was the type of oak maturation required. Incidentally, even the neutral spirit component in South African brandy was required to derive from grapes-unlike in Europe, where (outside Cognac) it could, and often did, come from beet sugar, a freedom that obtained until European standardization caught up with the practice and ruled it out of order in 1990.

Some of the KWV’s spirits went into its own brandies and fortified wines destined for exports; and much of the excess into a range of products-from perfume to motor fuel. In the mid-1980s, Michael Fridjhon remarked in his book on the South African liquor industry, Conspiracy of Giants, that "the KWV and its members do not constitute so much a wine industry as a spirits industry or, at best, a grape industry whose two main products are distilling wine (grape spirit) and wine." It must be admitted that, at this stage, despite the provisions directed at quality, there was no thoroughgoing attempt to build a brandy industry that could compete on any terms with Cognac. By far the greatest proportion of distillation was in continuous stills, conducted with increasing expertise; South Africa had the first six-column still erected outside France. Nonetheless, the rigorous bureaucratic control exercised by the KWV over all aspects of production, allied with provisions like the legal prescriptions for making pot-still brandy, and for the minimum three-year maturation of all brandy in small oak barrels, gave a basis for greater ambitions to be later realized.

Fuller understanding and higher quality

The last quarter of the 20th century saw more experimentation directed toward fuller understanding and higher quality- including, for example, the effect of greater humidity and lower temperatures than are easily obtainable in South Africa, by lodging some barrels of fine brandy in a cellar below the distant Thames! Legislation also changed. All brandy after 1981 was required to contain a minimum of 30 percent pot-still brandy alongside neutral wine spirit; and a crucial revision was made in 1990 when the minimum alcohol level was reduced from 43% to 38% ABV-top pot-still brandies now generally range between 38% and 41% (compared with Cognac’s 40% minimum). The same year saw the introduction of a new official category, pot-still brandy, for those with at least 90 percent distillate from a pot-still, though pure pot-still brandies had been marketed since 1987. The pot-still category now forbids any addition of wine spirit.

Another significant change was the abandonment of the monopoly over distillation in 1990, although a license is required and spirits production is closely monitored by the authorities. The category of estate brandy caters for brandy grown, made, and bottled on one property. Backsberg and Boplaas were the pioneers, but the number of wine estates now producing brandy continues to grow, as does the quality, though even the largest of these brands is proportionately minuscule.

It was the large producer-wholesalers that became the overwhelmingly important producers of brandy in the 20th century. The local market was denied to the KWV by its charter (though it continued to sell young brandy and spirit to the merchants), and estates were either prohibited from distilling at all or at least prohibited from maturing and marketing any distillation. Meanwhile, a process of amalgamation produced the huge company Distell, with an even greater control over the brandy market than over the wine market.

The KWV’s reversion, since the 1990s, from its days of overweening power to being a mere (though very large) company means that its brandy products may now again be sold within South Africa-the most important market for South African brandy, especially at the top level. Distell and the KWV are both unwilling to give any details (about virtually anything, whether it’s the amount of new oak that they use in brandy maturation or their sales), but between them they market by far the overwhelming majority of South African brandy, under a variety of brands-often with very distinctive profiles. Distell must have something over 80 percent of the market, and the KWV about 10 percent (and KWV also owns 30 percent of Distell, to keep things in the family). It must be said that this concentration has been an unequivocal good for the South African brandy industry in terms of quality-thus far, at least- though it has presumably limited the number of brands.

The tasting

And so to the blind tasting of Cognac and South African brandy held in London in late 2013, which gave results both gratifying and disconcerting: gratifying (sufficiently if not exorbitantly) to the South African Brandy Foundation, which had organized it, and disconcerting to me as the journalist who’d come to glean what he could from it.

I went to London with two basic questions that I hoped would be resolved by offering 15 Cognacs and 15 brandies to a panel of four experienced tasters-three English and one South African who is an established judge on international spirit competitions. First, I wanted to know the extent to which serious South African brandy matched Cognac in terms of quality; and second, what the differences between them were.

The tasters were offered a roughly equal mix of Cognacs and brandies, 30 of them divided into two classes: VSOP Cognacs matched with brandies ten years old and younger, and XO Cognacs with brandies over ten years old. They were presented randomly within the two classes; tasters knew only that there were examples of each in both groupings. Scores out of 20 were recorded, and for each glass the taster was asked to state the place of origin. It is, incidentally, worth pointing out that the selection of South African brandies undoubtedly included many of the best but also some that (in my own opinion) should perhaps not have traveled to London in a representative capacity. The Cognacs were all well-known names (and their total cost to the organizers rather frightening).

Neal Matheson and Dave Broom both knew South African brandy fairly well; Nick King, a little less so. Dave Hughes, the South African, obviously knew his "own" stuff better but was well acquainted with Cognac. Significantly, none showed any prejudice in terms of quality expectations: High and low scores were given pretty equally to glasses they identified as South African and Cognac.

Overall, Cognac topped the scoring in both categories, but the results were fairly close. For VSOPs, the Cognacs scored an average of 15.3 out of 20, and the brandies 14.9. The gap was larger for the XOs, with Cognac’s average being 16.5 and brandy’s 15.6. However, KWV 10 Year Old Brandy was joint top-scorer in the VSOP class, and Van Ryn’s 12 Year Old was only fractionally behind the Cognacs leading the XOs.

The extraordinary (to me) element of the tasting was the general failure of the tasters to distinguish origins correctly. Not a single Cognac was identified as such by all four tasters, and few by three, while four South Africans were correctly identified by all (including the high-scoring KWV and Van Ryns), and another good handful of them were recognized by three.

Neil Matheson was not surprised by the identification failure. While the quality of serious spirits production has increased greatly everywhere in recent years (he would have expected to find more faults in both brandy and Cognac ten years ago than he did at this tasting), individuality is correspondingly lacking, he suggested. Dave Broom concurred:

"The target consumer of these products is expecting big, sweet brandies, and the industries are internationalizing-there is some convergence, some loss of individuality." Clearly the process that is sometimes too easily called "Parkerization" in wine has its equivalent in spirits (though not glibly attributable to the influence of one powerful critic). It is undoubtedly true that the overall standard of ambitious South African brandy has increased greatly over the past few decades, to the point where, as Nick King said, talking of his impression of the tasting, "there is a consistency of high quality." Professionalism rules production. Broom puts the general rise in the quality of serious brandies down to attention to detail and the quality of oaking. Specifically with regard to South African progress, he alluded to a new "deeper understanding of flavor."

Origin and process

But what of terroir? Neil Matheson seemed to sigh as he suggested that origin is comparatively irrelevant for spirits: "The substrate is much less important than other factors"- essentially, elements of the distillation and maturation processes. In fact, Cognac and South African pot-still brandy (the highest of the three legal categories available) show more similarities than differences in the broad brushstrokes of brandy production. The base wine for both is carefully produced to strict requirements, and is double-distilled in similar alembics (while Spanish brandy, for example, is distilled only once)-though the liquid in Cognac is heated directly by flames, and in South Africa by a steam-jacket.

The grapes for the vast majority of South African brandy are Chenin Blanc and Colombard, together giving the same proportion as Ugni Blanc does to the harvest in Cognac, and rather riper and lower in acidity than Ugni.

Pot-still brandy must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak (generally the same French oak used for Cognac), while the minimum for VS Cognac is two years, with higher grades requiring a minimum of four. Both, of course, often greatly exceed these minima. But there are other significant differences in maturation. For historic reasons of ease of regulation, South African pot-still brandy must remain untouched in small oak barrels for the three-year period, while the Cognaçais can start blending at an early stage, subjecting the young spirit to a more complex regime of oaking-moving between new barrels and old, barriques and foudres. It is possible that the French have the advantage here, and certainly South African brandy producers are experimenting in this area (among others).

Maturation conditions also differ in terms of warmth and, particularly, humidity: South African maturation cellars are typically drier and warmer. Higher temperature cycles do make for quicker maturation than in Cognac, says Brink Liebenberg, Distell’s head of spirit production: "Our brandies reach their optimum age earlier." Whether this makes for detectable differences of quality significance in the final product is debatable, but it is interesting to note that in this tasting it was in the younger class that the South Africans did best.

As to the question of different approaches to additives, this is difficult to ascertain, given the marked unwillingness of producers everywhere to talk of (or sometimes even admit) the flavorants (bonificateurs) and sweetening and coloring agents almost invariably added in accordance with regulations. Certainly, South African producers like to feel that their brandies, because of riper fruit flavors and sweet-fruitedness, need less in the way of added fruit extracts (and also of oak), and many are claimed to have none at all. They also suggest that their top brandies are generally sweetened to contain residual sugars of about 6 grams per liter, while Cognac is suspected of being more.

Most South African brandies are blended at just a handful of large complexes, from diverse origins within the Western Cape-all of them, in fact, apart from the small but growing category of estate brandies, which are required to come from a single property and must be made and bottled there, too. But while brandy origins are not categorized as meticulously as they are in the six crus of Cognac, the brandy houses do take terroir, and what can be expected from the base wines of different areas, very seriously.

Despite the overall lack of obviousness about origins at this tasting (and arguably, grappling with a biggish lineup is not the best way to discern subtleties), the London tasters did offer some suggestions as to what might distinguish South African brandies: "a rounded quality; notes of conserved orange," said Matheson; "marmalade and orange," agreed Broom; "with a breadth of character and a natural ripeness and sweetness," "a certain softness", added Hughes.

Notably missing from the London comparison were the long-aged spirits that are the great (and rare and expensive) glory of Cognac. So far, only one brandy aged 30 years (the youngest component; some were older) has been released, in a minuscule quantity: the excellent Au.Ra from Van Ryn. It’s pleasant and hopeful to think of barrels now resting in the Cape’s large storehouses as the more ambitious distillations of the 1980s onward age, and that they should one day contribute to genuinely old brandies, of golden finesse and fire.

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