Brandy has been made in South Africa since the late 17th century. The practice was inspired by, and was roughly contemporary with, the development of the Cognac industry in France. Unlike its French cousins, however, South African brandy is not well known in North America. That’s unfortunate, because South Africa makes some of the world’s greatest brandies.
Joe Micallef investigates.
The Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias reached the tip of Southern Africa in 1488, after having first sailed into Table Bay where present day Cape Town is situated. Table Bay was the last major anchorage before reaching the Cape. The juncture of the South Atlantic and Indian oceans is prone to storms, so Dias named the southern tip of the African continent the Cape of Storms. The Portuguese king, John II, later renamed it the Cape of Good Hope because it heralded a new route to Asia.
The Dutch dominated the trade in alcoholic spirits during the 17th and 18th centuries. Dutch merchants were responsible for introducing Cognac around the globe, as well as creating the New World’s rum industry. The Dutch, who had rolled up most of Portugal’s overseas empire, were also the largest traders between Europe and Asia.
Alcohol had two uses on long sea journeys and was in high demand. First, it was often added to water to kill any harmful organisms present. Secondly, it was added to wine to help preserve it. The bacteria that turn alcohol into vinegar thrived in the hot humid hold of sailing ships; quickly transforming a barrel of wine into vinegar. The bacteria, however, couldn’t live in wine whose alcoholic strength was 20% or greater. Adding spirit to wine was a way of preserving it on long sea voyages. This practice was the origin of many of Europe’s fortified wines.
The Dutch arrived in South Africa when the Dutch East Indies Company dispatched Jan van Riebeeck to set up a supply station in what is now Cape Town. The location was roughly halfway between the Dutch Republic and Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. It was intended to provision Dutch ships making the roughly year-long voyage to the East Indies.
Wine was first made in South Africa in 1659. Brandy distillation began in 1672, when an assistant-cook aboard a Dutch East India Company ship in Table Bay distilled 1,000 liters of local wine and produced 130 liters of brandy. The unaged spirit, termed firewater, sold out quickly to local merchants who found myriad uses for it. Almost three and a half centuries later, notwithstanding some fits and starts, the South African brandy industry is still going strong.
The industry’s regulatory structure was modernized in 1995, triggering a boom in brandy production. Since then, South African brandy producers have won the coveted International Wine and Spirits Competition’s Worldwide Brandy Trophy, for the world’s best brandy, a total of 16 times—more than any other country.
South African brandy is a distillate derived from locally produced wine. To be called South African, the brandy must be produced from wine made from domestic grapes, and must be distilled, matured and bottled in South Africa. While the industry has been strongly influenced by Cognac, it also differs in several important respects.
South Africa’s wine producing regions are warmer and dryer than Cognac, resulting in much higher sugar levels in the grapes used in the base wine for distillation. Cognac’s base wine is usually a round eight percent alcohol by volume (ABV) versus the 10% to 12% ABV in South Africa.
Roughly 95% of the wine distilled is made from chenin blanc or colombard grapes, two varieties that are naturally high in acidity. Since sulfites can’t be used to preserve wine intended for distillation, the high acidity helps to protect the wine from spoilage.
Grapes destined for brandy production are usually picked earlier, to increase acidity, than those intended for table wine production. On average, however, the base wine in South Africa comes from riper grapes than in other brandy producing areas.
The higher sugars are believed to impart more fruity flavors, especially ones of stone fruits like peach and apricot, to the resulting brandy. These flavors are often markers for South African brandy.
The contrast between the base wine in the two regions is dramatic. Cognac’s base wine is highly acidic. It tastes like unsweetened lemonade and is undrinkable. South Africa’s base wine, on the other hand, is usually very drinkable, even if it is otherwise an undistinguished table wine.
There are a number of other differences in the production process. South African stills are slightly different than Cognac’s Charentais stills and are usually larger. The stills utilize steam coils rather than being direct fired as in Cognac. Maturation is faster in South Africa, and the amount of evaporation from the casks is higher. In some areas, the low humidity means that more water than alcohol is lost, and the alcoholic strength of the spirit rises as it matures.
South Africa produces three types of brandy: pot still, blended and vintage. Pot still brandy is the result of a double distillation of the base wine. Once distilled it is aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks not exceeding 340 liters. Both French and American oak casks are used.
To be called pot still, 100% of the brandy must have been produced from a copper pot still. Pot still brandies must have at least 38% ABV, although most export versions are at 40% ABV.
Blended brandies consist of a mix of pot still brandies and neutral grape spirit that is produced via a column still. In South Africa, all column distillers are required to use a six column still. Alcohol is produced at a strength of 96.4%.
Blended brandies must contain at least 30% pot still brandy. The grape spirit is added unaged. This is a lighter style of brandy. It lacks the aromatic intensity or depth of pot still brandy, and is intended for use primarily as a mixer in cocktails and often served chilled. Since it is usually diluted, it is bottled at a minimum ABV of 43%.
Vintage brandies must consist of at least 30% -80% pot still brandies and a maximum of 70% grape spirit, both of which have been aged at least eight years. In addition, South African regulations now also recognize “estate brandies,” which are entirely produced from grapes to bottling by small producers on their estate.
Most of South Africa’s brandy production is consumed internally or in Africa. The UK was, historically, the largest export market. UK mail order firms typically have the broadest selection of South African brandies available abroad. Distell, KWV and Oude Molen, the three largest producers, all export to the US. Though very well priced they are often hard to find. Duty free shops, especially in Europe, also occasionally carry South African brandies.
Grundheim is a small producer who has been South Africa’s National Brandy Champion six times. The brandy isn’t exported. It’s hard to find even in South Africa. Tiny quantities are produced on an old, wood fired pot still. The brandy has a pronounced oily texture featuring notes of honey, dried fruit, especially peach, cinnamon and other tropical spices, along with a hint of vanilla. It’s exceptionally smooth. Grapes are picked at an incredibly sweet 27 brix, resulting in a must that has more than 310 grams of sugar per liter.
KWV is the second largest brandy producer in South Africa, with an annual production of around 15-million liters. The company obtains base wine from 60 different cooperatives and in addition buys grapes, which it vinifies itself, from an additional 52 vineyards.
All of its production is based on chenin blanc and colombard grapes. Like most South African producers, the first distillation lasts around eight hours. The second distillation lasts for about 14 hours. The heart cut, the portion of the distillate that will be aged and bottled as brandy, begins at around 80% alcohol, and continues until it reaches around 60%.
The spirit is casked at 70% ABV, typically in either fine grained Limousine or coarser grained Tronçais oak casks. After three years, the spirit intended for additional aging is transferred into older barrels. A combination of new and older oak casks is used, as well as casks that formerly held wine.
The core range consists of a 3, 5, 10, 12, 15 and 20 YO pot still brandy. The 12 YO consists of a blend of 12 to 14 YO brandies. The 15 YO is a blend of 15 to 18 YO brandies, and the 20 YO is a blend of brandies between 20 and 32 YO.
All of KWV’s brandies exhibit distinctive notes of stone fruit, especially peach and apricot, along with elements of strawberry jam. The brandies are smooth and satiny, with an obvious palate weight. South African brandy producers typically use worm coil condensers. In addition, the water in the condensers is warmer than in cooler climate regions, the result is that fewer fatty acids are separated from the distillate, producing a heavier, more viscous spirit.
Brandy producers are also allowed to add a small amount of sugar to the brandy when it is bottled. This is common among brandy producers worldwide. In South Africa, for example, up to 15 grams of sugar per liter can be added. In Cognac, the permissible amount is up to 20 grams per liter. Most South African producers add between four and eight grams per liter. The added sugar adds to the palate weight and gives the brandy a hint of sweetness.
The 12 YO, first produced in 2013, has been a consistent medal winner in international competitions. It is smooth and satiny, featuring flavors of dried stone fruits, figs and nuts, along with aromas of dried flowers and wood spices.
The 15 YO exhibits the typical rancio characteristic of a well-aged brandy. It is exceptionally smooth and waxy; exhibiting flavors of citrus and stone fruits and new leather, along with a very slight pepperiness. This is far and away the best brandy produced by KWV and among the very best brandies in the world. At a price of around $50 US, it is also an exceptional value.
The 20 YO offers a pronounced aroma of orange zest and dried flowers, along with light notes of cinnamon and other wood spices. It has a slightly waxy texture with notes of new leather, but they are less pronounced than in the 15 YO. The brandy is smoother and lighter than the 15 YO and is drier on the finish. This is a much more refined brandy than the 15 YO, though the 15 YO is more enjoyable.
In addition, KWV also produces Imoya, a no age statement (NAS) blend of brandies that can be up to 20 YO, as well as Nexus, a very rare 30 YO pot still brandy.
Backsberg is an estate brandy. A legendary producer in the 19th century, it restarted distillation in 1991, using a traditional Cognac still. Production is limited to only a few hundred cases a year.
Most South African brandy is distilled on the lees. This adds to its smoothness and texture. Backsberg is one of the few producers that does not distill with lees. The resulting brandy is lighter, floral, and emphasizes green fruit aromas of apple and pear. The style is more Cognac-like, think Martell, than the typical South African brandy.
Distell is South Africa’s largest distiller, producing a wide range of spirits. It’s best known for its whiskies and brandies and for its Amarula cream liqueur based on the indigenous marula fruit. The company produces brandy under the Klipdrift, Richelieu, Viceroy and Van Ryn brands. Its top brand, Van Ryn, consists of a core range of 10, 12, 15, 20 and 27-year-old brandies.
The wines intended for distillation into Van Ryn are drawn from all over the Cape region. They are distilled with a higher proportion of lees than other Distell brandies resulting in their trademark smoothness and palate weight.
The Van Ryn 12 YO is a notably smooth, satiny brandy with a pronounced palate weight. It offers flavors of stone fruit, citrus and dried apple, along with elements of cinnamon and other wood spices. There is a hint of ginger pepperiness, which builds toward the end and then fades quickly. The finish is exceptionally long, smooth, with a touch of sweetness.
The Van Ryn 15 YO, on the other hand, is less fruity and more floral, giving it an overall Cognac like character. It’s also very smooth, offering up notes of caramel, dried fruit, along with some stone fruit and dark fruit, especially fig, date and a bit of prune. There are also hints of vanilla and a bit of wood spice on the finish.
The 15 YO has been awarded the Best Brandy trophy in international competitions nine times in the last 10 years. Both the 12 and 15-year-old Van Ryn are among South Africa’s top brandies and easily rank among the world’s best.
The 20 YO Van Ryn shows less fruit and slightly more red fruit jam notes, with just a hint of strawberry. This is a smooth, waxy, well-integrated brandy that offers up flavors of brown sugar, candied apple, cinnamon and almond, along with rancio notes of new leather and a bit if marzipan.
The 27 YO was a limited-edition bottling released on what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100 birthday on July 18, 2018. The 27 years refer to the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison on Robben Island.
The 27 YO was assembled from the finest and rarest stocks that Distell possessed. It features pronounced citrus and orange zest, along with dried apricot and peach notes. There are also some mint and licorice elements, along with cinnamon and other wood spices. It’s exceptionally smooth. Only 250 bottles were made.
Oude Molen Cape Brandy makes a 3 YO VS, a 5 YO VSOP and a 10 YO XO brandy. It is among the most Cognac like of South African brandy producers. The 10 YO is waxy, with aromas of furniture wax and new leather. It features notes of stone fruit, especially peach, and licorice. The finish is long and smooth. An average of four grams per liter of sugar are added to the brandy, contributing to its smoothness and palate weigh.
L’Ormarins, the main estate of Anthonij Rupert Wyne, produces Sagnac, an Armagnac like brandy produced from a single distillation using a contemporary still from Armagnac. The brandy is based on colombard and ugni blanc grapes. Following distillation, it is casked at a 60% ABV and aged for six years in French oak casks that previously held chardonnay wine.
Sagnac has a slightly candied note and is sweeter than Armagnac. It is very smooth and soft, offering up notes of dark dried fruit, especially prune, caramel and nuts, along with some elements of mint. It can occasionally be found in the US.
South Africa has a long and historic brandy making tradition that places it among the world’s great brandy producers. Stylistically it lies between the more floral Cognac and the dried dark fruit flavored Spanish and Armenian brandies. It’s aroma and flavor profile emphasize stone fruit flavors of peach and apricot, along with those of green fruits like apple and pear. In particularly warm years it can even veer into more tropical fruits. Although heavily influenced by Cognac’s traditions, South African brandy is uniquely its own, with a style and production practice that are characteristically South African.
It also represents one of the great brandy values, offering exceptional quality for the price. It’s a pity that it isn’t more readily available internationally. It’s definitely worth seeking out and if you can find it, buy it. You won’t be disappointed.
I have been writing and speaking about wines and spirits for 20 years. Along the way I became a winemaker, Oregon Pinot Noir; a judge for various international competitions, among them the Irish Whisky Awards and the International Wine and Spirits Competition; wrote a book on Scotch Whisky: Its History, Production and Appreciation and working on one on Tequila. I also earned the Diploma in Wines and Spirits from the WSET. Have tasted a lot of wines and spirits, from 200-year-old ports to centuries old Cognacs to many of the world’s oldest whiskies. I also write about the dusty, forgotten places of the world, the ones that reek of history and whose stories still resonate in the 21st century. The rest of the time I cover international politics. An eclectic combination to be sure, then again, the state of the world would drive anyone to drink. Sláinte