Tim James: The splendours and miseries of Cape brandy

By , 26 September 2022



Oude Molen XO Cape Brandy – yours for R1 225 a bottle.

No category of the South African wine industry does better on international competitions than brandy – by a pretty long way, I’d say. This year, for the fourth time, the KWV was named the world’s best brandy and cognac producer at the International Spirits Challenge (see here), with a whole lot of awards in the “Brandy” category (significantly, presumably to maintain their mystique and certainly to ensure their lucrative participation, cognac and armagnac are judged separately from the rest of the world’s brandies).  In this competition and in others, including the Wine and Spirits Challenge, KWV and Van Ryn are frequently triumphant.

All this success and undoubted brilliance and extraordinary value for money compared with cognac, and yet important statistics reveal a pretty depressing story about Cape brandy. Internationally, despite all the awards, it’s pretty insignificant. The latest figures I can find, for 2017, show exports of some 750 000 litres – though I don’t know where it goes. To put this in perspective, over 220 million bottles of cognac were exported in 2021 (98% of total production) according to the official Cognac website.

Locally, Cape brandy is a growing disaster story. In 2000 nearly 42 million litres of brandy were consumed – vastly more than any other spirit. But the general decline had already started and it continued: In 2021, that figure was down to something over 27 million litres, less than gin (growing a lot in recent years), whisky and vodka. Production has declined correspondingly.

One of the most startling figures I noticed on the Cognac website was an infographic that showed South Africa as a key emerging market for cognac, with 3.3 million bottles of the stuff sold here in 2019 – a figure not far short of 10% of the volume of local brandy consumed. Even if some of that is re-exported to other African countries (as I’d guess might be the case) that seems remarkable – but it does fit in with what I see in my local bottle stores, which probably stock no or very little imported wine (apart from champagne), but all have at least a handful of at least lower-level cognacs.

Most of those (VS or VSOP, and occasionally the grander XO cognacs) cost a great deal more than the more expensive local products and don’t compare in terms of quality. (Higher-level cognac is another story; although very much pricier, the really grand, very old cognacs are incomparable, and if you want to test this, you can quite easily find a bottle, at Makro say, of one of the world’s greatest spirits, Remy Martin Louis XIII, in its splendid decanter, for about R75 000.) Largely, it’s a matter of prestige and story, I suppose.The story of South African brandy is not really one suited to a new generation of moneyed drinkers, but the famous French brands – as with smart whisky – are safe status symbols.

It occurs to me that Cape wine producers are lucky that, as yet, the same sort of thing has only just started to affect status-conscious wine-drinkers, and at a time when local wine does have some sort of lustre that’s lacking in local brandy. All I can do, as I’ve done before, is to suggest that more people explore the splendour of the top local brandies: the big names of KWV and Distell (notably Van Ryn), medium-size producers like Oude Molen and Joseph Barry, and a good number of estate brandies, led by Boplaas.

An interesting development in the generally rather lacklustre local marketing of brandy has been the growth in use of the main cognac categories for local brandies and the grouping of some serious producers under the Cape Brandy rubric. Hopefully this will prompt a useful and revelatory comparison with cognac. The categories, based on the barrel-ageing of pot-still brandies,  have now been officially included in the Wine and Spirits Act as follows, following the French system except for the lowest category, which demands an extra year of maturation here:

  • VS [Very Special; these cognac names in English, for historial market reasons] : for any pot-still brandy (effectively three years maturation)
  • VSOP [Very Superior Old Pale]: pot-still brandy matured for at least four years
  • XO [Extra Old]: matured for at least 10 years
  • XXO [Extra Extra Old]: matured for at least 14 years

Perhaps unfortunately, these categories are only used for a fairly small number of local brandies, with Oude Molen I think the largest producer involved, though the number is growing – I noticed that the very appealing Withington Voorkamer has now declared itself a VSOP (with 5–7 years of maturation). But the truly big guns, KWV and Van Ryn, are still silent in this regard. Or not quite: I see that there is new packaging for the KWV 20 Year Old, keeping the age designation but prominently adding “XXO” to the label. Could it be the first indication that they will shift to the internationally recognised system and thus try to participate in this element of cognac’s prestige?

It’s rather more than unlikely that Cape brandy will ever compete significantly with cognac – though as I claimed above it does so in quality at the lower and intermediate levels. For one thing, quite apart from historical and cultural aspects, size matters greatly. Cognac has 270 cognac houses; it has the equivalent of 1.9 billion bottles currently in oak barrels, and incomparable infrastructure and maturation conditions. Especially for blending aged brandies, size and infrastructure are important (on a different level it is why the largest producers in the Cape can generally offer better quality than the smallest, and much more cheaply too). I have a book that tells me that the aforementioned astronomically-priced Remy Martin Louis XIII, aged more than 50 years on average, is made in a “limited edition of 10,000 bottles a year”. Do the arithmetic….

It’s hard to achieve that. But for the price of a cheaper Sadie wine you can buy KWV 10 or 12 year old or Withington Voorkamer. For the price of Columella, try Oude Molen VSOP. Etc. For the price of a bottle of Vilafonté C you can buy almost any top local brandy you want – and it’ll probably be magnificent. And, unlike wine, it’ll be a joy to sip for as many months longer after opening the bottle as you might wish.

The South African brandy industry is arguably the second-greatest in the world (though I imagine the Spanish one is much larger and more lucrative). Excuse my hectoring tone as I insist that it’s worth saving. And don’t think that it is not being severely damaged already at the higher level. A few years back, bloody Distell abandoned production of one of the country’s greatest brandies (certainly my favourite), the Oude Meester Souverein 18 Year, and others have gone too. So do your bit – one bottle at a time, as they say.

  • 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.


5 comment(s)

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    Greg Sherwood | 30 September 2022

    I recently tasted a great line up at the Veritas Tasting here in London featuring Van Ryns 12 YO, KWV 10YO, KWV 15YO and the KWV 20 YO XXO. All were exceoptional and were you to try and match the quality with French Cognac, you would have to pay double or triple to even come close to this Pot Still Brandy quality. Like so many categories in SA, consumers and industry marketers are quite spoilt… and this often results in laziness on the whole.

    George | 27 September 2022

    ‘The Wine Society’ in the UK which offers so many excellent South African wines (established & cutting edge) doesn’t offer a single brandy produced outside France. Their SA buyer, Joanna Locke, is a great enthusiast for Cape wines. I’d guess no one from Distell etc has even bothered to approach her re SA brandy. Thanks for such an enlightening article, Tim.

    Stuart | 27 September 2022

    No mention of the Tokara story???

    GillesP | 26 September 2022

    Hello Tim. Great article again and you are 100% correct in all aspects. I have worked for the greatest cognac houses and also been selling french and South african brandy for many many years. The level of quality in South African brandy is unbeatable at the lower and medium level. I think we all know where the problem is. The local players have never managed to market the quality of their product internationally because they have been chasing their tails for decades at discounting their product to retain or grow market share in the local market against each other. Distell who has the biggest share is the biggest culprit in bringing down the whole industry .

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