Tim James: Getting festive with brandy

By , 7 December 2020

I have it on good authority (the urgings of every supermarket I enter, for instance) that a Festive Season is nigh. A modest suggestion, then, for enhancing the festive mood: buy a bottle of good brandy, and start sipping. And I don’t mean cognac. If ever there’s a reason to abandon cultural cringe and drink local, brandy offers it – except at the highest level of extremely old spirits, where the Cape can’t (and scarcely tries, as yet) to compete with the ethereal fire of the finest old cognacs. But that’s stuff for millionaires – who, if they deign to shop at Makro, can buy a decanter of Rémy Martin Louis XIII for one rand short of R60 000. I could say nothing to that except stutter my envy. Makro offers three other aged cognacs for R40K and more, with the priciest local being KWV Nexus 30 Year Old, at a mere R24K.

But that’s not the level I’m talking about here, where I’m pushing brandies costing about R300 upwards, many of which compare favourably with cognacs at three times the price. Not that that stops the appeal of the showiest cognac brands to cultural cringers with a greater sense of image than of value, or even, perhaps, taste.

I’ve been here before with this suggestion that we should buy more brandy (well, that you should – I already do my bit), but somehow it hasn’t hit home, judging by the shocking paucity of serious brandies in most liquor shops, implying a sad lack of demand. Lots of the likes of Wellington VO, Klipdrif Export and Parow, pretty good in their own way, destined for a mixer and lots of ice (and the Parow almost worth getting for its packaging alone). But very little of the older, grander brandies.

Coming out of the early Covid liquor lockdown, when I’d been rather deprived of spiritous stuff, I had a yen for some of the great Van Ryns – especially the magnificent 12-Year-Old, one of the Cape’s (and even the world’s) internationally most awarded brandies: three times best in the world at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, three times at the International Spirits Challenge. You’d think its absence from the shelves would be because of shortage, but no, it’s more likely because of a shocking lack of interest. As soon as permissible, I took a trip out to the Van Ryn Distillery on the outskirts of Stellenbosch and bought three bottles of one of the greatest products of the Cape wine and brandy industry, costing less than, for example, a single bottle of (estimable!) Vilafonté Series C. What sort of a bargain is that?

If serious brandies – from some estates, most notably Boplaas, and from  KWV and Van Ryns, etc – are hard to find (though Makro does have quite a few available online), it is happily pretty easy to find one of the finest bargains around. KWV 10 Year Old is ridiculously underpriced, given the superb quality, usually at just under R300. In fact, look around, and you’ll find it at that price in a presentation box with two pretty decent glasses – effectively brandy snifters without stems. It’s almost enough to make me go some way to forgiving KWV for the harm they did to the South African wine industry in the 20th century (along with a little good, I suppose). Not that I use the glasses for the contents of the bottle. I prefer something a bit smaller and more tulip-like in shape.

Interestingly, the KWV box pictures the stemless glasses with some hefty blocks of ice chilling the brandy. Again, not the way I choose to drink fine brandy like this after dinner, but one must tolerate the preferences of others, whatever one’s doubts. And, while I’m recommending brandy to make you more festive as this troubled year draws to a close, I have to admit that the reality of room temperature in midsummer is something of a problem…. It’s too high for volatile spirits, really, though I confess I tend to not often engineer enough coolness.

Winelands tourists – those that there are in this strange time – will find estate brandies here and there, often beautifully bottled and often expensive compared with the likes of the products of the big players. And often good, too, and interesting; but some inevitably suffer from, at least, the smaller scale on which they’re produced (less potential for blending) and perhaps the lack of specific expertise. This can become obvious as the brandies start entering their second and third decades in oak. Backsberg, for example, offers a tiny volume of a 1991 distillation called Sydney Back First Distillation, which is undoubtedly fascinating, but lacks the freshness of younger versions.  Similarly, Kaapzicht now has a 20 Year version of its brandy, which has the refinement of age, but some will find that it shows rather too much in the way of oak-derived characters and too little fruit for balance.

Brandy is one of the glories of the Cape Winelands. Again let me plead that you give it a try, if you don’t already realise this. One great advantage of a bottle of spirits over a bottle of wine, of course, is that you don’t need to worry about rapid deterioration once opened. After enhancing the year-end celebrations, you can keep it till your birthday, if you have the willpower.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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