The home of South Africa's world-renowned vineyards is colloquially known as the winelands, but of course they're also responsible for that other international blockbuster: brandy. The situation may seem a little unfair to the makers of this fine and proudly South African amber spirit, but it's wonderful if you're looking for a rare and alternative wine experience of world-class tradition.
While craft distilling is driving the revival of what once was a stock standard occupation on most South African farms, history records that the first distillations back in the 1600s were for the making of brandy. Early versions were foul, but fast forward three and a half centuries and the world of South African brandy looks very different.
There are two main reasons why visitors should take the trouble to seek out local brandy distilleries: South African brandies are consistent champions at the world's most comprehensive competitions thanks largely to generations of knowledge and skill, and strict production legislation; and, the relative scarcity of distilleries themselves.
The latter fact seems incongruous. By volumes consumed, brandy has for long been a South African favourite while a vast number of grapes are set aside specifically to produce high quality brandy. History too has played a role, shaping a landscape where most big brands are concentrated in the hands of a few.
Visit, learn and taste
Still, visitors are welcomed at some 20 brandy distilleries – most of them small-scale craft operations - located around Stellenbosch, Robertson, Oudtshoorn and in the Northern Cape.
Among them, the most regular world champions - Van Ryn's and KWV - are both located within minutes' drive from Cape Town, along with Backsberg, Blaauwklippen, Tokara, Louiesenhof, Oude Wellington, Upland, Avontuur and Oude Molen.
Travel two hours and you can reach the home of Klipdrift in Robertson, Windfall, Sumsaré and Kingna. Outstanding visits also await at Boplaas, Mons Ruber and Grundheim – all situated within a short drive from Oudtshoorn; SCV Barrydale Cellar in the eponymous village; and, in the Northern Cape, brandymakers Die Mas at Kakamas and Bezalel in Upington.
Van Ryn's, KWV and Klipdrift are among the larger distilleries as amazing for their brandy excellence as the scale of operations. No less impressive are the remainder – fierce ambassadors of creative independence and diversity. In both cases, the science and art of teasing the most appealing aromas and flavours from grapes through distillation and maturation are revealed.
In every example, these distilleries are surrounded by vineyards; their stills, gleaming copper installations adjoining maturation chambers thick with the smells of maturing brandy. Their histories are riveting and most reward visitors who seek them out with truly memorable experiences. Boplaas for example, has a barrel from which brandy-lovers can bottle their own.
Best in the world
SA Brandy's claims of being the world's best are not made lightly – they've been rated so by diverse panels of spirits authorities.
Local brandies consistently top the list at the International Spirits Challenge (ISC), International Wine & Spirit Competition and World Brandy Awards.
Commenting on her experiences at IWSC last year, Dr Winifred Bowman – a Cape Wine Master and experienced brandy judge - observed how her international counterparts requested to be on the panel the day South African entries were judged because they have become aware of and want to experience the quality of the SA offerings. "Many of these international judges scored SA brandies even higher than their South African counterparts on the panel," she said.
San Francisco-based spirits judge and expert Steve Beal has been equally complimentary about SA brandy. "They deserve, and are receiving, long-overdue acclamation from the global distilled spirits world,” he said after South Africa's triumphant brandy performance in 2016.
In April this year again, it was Viceroy 10 YO that won the title of Best Brandy at the World Brandy Awards.
Among the industry's significant steps was made when KWV took the title of Best Brandy & Cognac Producer in the World at the 2015 ISC - the first time in the competition's 20-year history that a brandy and not a cognac, won.
A year later, South African brandies from Distell and KWV won both the ISC and IWSC trophies for Best Brandy as well as Cognac.
Brandy vs Cognac
The cognac/brandy relationship is important because it's a popular misconception that the two differ in composition and quality. Both Cognac and brandy are essentially made in the same way – distilled from grapes and matured in oak barrels. In our case, brandies are governed by stricter legislation that defines everything from alcohol content to maturation periods while in other parts of the world brandies can even include other types of fruit. Local brandy made in copper potstills is regarded as the ultimate expression.
What's in the glass is however, only part of the enjoyment of quintessential South African culture. In addition to being a popular social lubricant, the gift of brandy has long been the lynchpin of good relations in traditional families - even in the most rural areas.
Many a wedding has been settled with a future father-in-law through the advance of a good bottle of SA brandy.
Experience the SA brandy lifestyle
For the out-of-town explorer intent on getting the full picture, informative brandy tastings are offered at amongst others, Platform 62 in Ashton, Blaauwklippen Estate's brandy lounge near Stellenbosch, Karoo Vine in Ladismith and the Wine Village in Hermanus. A glimpse of the hip side of brandy is also on offer at Cause & Effect, a new "cocktail kitchen" in the Cape Town suburb of Gardens that opened in December. Brandy is a central focus of its cutting-edge, location-inspired cocktails.
There are also a handful of events where South African brandy diversity and excellence is showcased. Brandy producers and producer organisations such as the Cape Brandy Distillers Guild and SA Brandy Foundation often have displays at events such as the RMB WineX. A special brandy tasting took place at the Hermanus FynArts Festival in June while brandies have featured at the Chocolate Festival and may again do so when the event takes place on August 18, at Anura Vineyards outside Stellenbosch. The Robertson Slow Food & Wine Festival on August 3-5 also offers an opportunity to visit brandymakers, many of whom make a special occasion of it.
For music lovers, Backsberg hosts Brandy & Blues in its vat cellar on Fridays from May to July. It features live entertainment by some of SA’s most formidable blues artists and the estate's own range of brandies. June 29 this year saw the Blues Broers perform and will be followed by Piet Botha (featuring Jake Gunn), on Friday 27 July. The cost is R300pp. For reservations, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 021 875 5952.
The farm is famous for its long association with brandy. "With characteristic determination, the late Sydney Back set out to find the best methods to produce fine brandy equivalent to the great Cognacs of France, but with its own distinctive character," the estate website declares. "His perseverance and skill were recognised at the International Wine and Spirit competition in London, where his first brandy release won the Domecq Trophy for the Best Brandy in the World."