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A Spirit for Winter

For Emile Joubert, there’s nothing like a fireside armchair in winter and a snifter of well-aged, top-of-the-range South African brandy – the height of sophisticated indulgence. But which one to choose?

The world of drinks is awash with spirited talk. Never before has there been such a reflective, luxuriously toned cacophony promoting the availability of distilled alcoholic drinks that have, through craftsmanship and singular focus, been taken to the ‘next level’. For the sake of offering the one thing that spirits drinks are made to offer, and that is pleasure. Thus, midnight-black tequilas aged for 30 years in oak barrels and almost treacly in texture are now prized well above this Mexican spirit’s more familiar mode of shots knocked back with salt and lemon. Rum, distilled from sugar-cane grown in the Caribbean and other exotic locations, is also rapidly losing its image of being limited to that of a long, cold drink diluted with Coke and glugged to the rhythmic sway of beach-parties.

Bon vivants and drinks experts are discovering aged rums that have, like tequila, been lying in wooden barrels for years. The bite of the spirit has been softened through time in oak, the colour has taken on a dark moodiness and the taste is complex, sophisticated and bathed in a heady sumptuousness.

The two most common spirits, whisky and brandy, have over the past two decades also seen a revival in the way they are presented to a market far removed from so-called old-school spirits drinkers. Bourbon and other American whiskeys promote their ageing and ostentatious packaging.

KWV is the mothership of South African brandy with a history of crafting a range of these golden elixirs for which it has become world renowned. Everyone seems to have a favourite KWV, whether it is 5, 10 or 20 years. KWV 15 Year Old Potstill Brandy is for me the finest expression from this brandy powerhouse. The blend’s youngest component is a 15-year-old cask-aged brandy, while the other parts may be substantially older. The result is a luxurious, decadent smoothness expressing classic Cape brandy notes of apricot, spice and mocha. This is the one for truly spoiling yourself with.

Those Scots of whisky fame are always digging up some lost mythical barrels to bottle under new ‘rare’ labels, ready for flogging for a few hundred thousand rand.

Despite the availability of Google Earth and GPS coordinates, ‘lost’ and ‘forgotten’ whisky distilleries are miraculously being discovered in the Highlands and on the Scottish coast, each unique back-story turned into a new label to feed the apparent bottomless market for Scotch whisky.

Here keen consumers are prepared to pay for story, individuality and that most dear of all consumables, rarity.

SPIRIT OF THE FRENCH VINE

Of the above spirits drinks, as well as gin and vodka, I have imbibed my fair share with appreciative joy and abandon. But in the end, my partiality always returns to the elixirs distilled from the fruit of the vine, namely brandy. Or as they are known for their respective places of French origin, Cognac and Armagnac.

Perhaps it’s just me, but there is something far more regal in a spirit that results from vineyards growing in specific soils and subjected to unique climatic influences than there is in a whisky – or whiskey – made from wheat, maize, barley and other grains guaranteed to thrill a muesli maker and sustain a horse. Brandy is special. It is but an extension of the wine world, holding in its warm golden soul the narratives of land and of climate, and of the seasonal vagaries that affect the condition in which each season’s grapes ripen.

Just like Champagne – French, of course – will always be seen at the pinnacle of sparkling wine from anywhere else in France or the world, so Cognac and Armagnac claim the top space in terms of distilled wine, aka brandy. Both these spirits originate from the south-west of France, with Cognac coming from the limestone-rich soils just north of Bordeaux. Armagnac is from the Gascon region in the south-western heartland, a region whose other revered offering is duck, goose and their fatty livers, also known as foie gras.

The reasons for Cognac and Armagnac dominating the brandy market in terms of perception, image and price is not surprising. I have seen the most loyal, patriotic South African brandy drinker go weak at the knees by just sniffing into a glass half-full of a 45-year-old Armagnac.

The aged blended Cognacs too, even from ubiquitous commercial brands such as Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Bisquit, are extraordinary in their purity and the unexpected delicacy they harbour, despite being a hefty 40% alcohol. This is great stuff.

As with French wine, tradition and provenance play a major role in the X-factor found in Cognac and Armagnac.

BRANDY IS SPECIAL. IT IS BUT AN EXTENSION OF THE WINE WORLD, HOLDING IN ITS WARM GOLDEN SOUL THE NARRATIVES OF LAND AND OF CLIMATE.

Both have been made in the two regions for more than 600 years and their production is strictly legislated in terms of origin of vineyards and grape varieties used, as well as distillation and ageing regimes. Add to this images of ruddy-faced Frenchmen in berets tending old, gnarled vines or sniffing a glass in front of an ancient copper pot-still, and the picture of authenticity is complete.

Over time, and because they are associated with a country responsible for the world’s greatest wines, Cognac and Armagnac have become seen to be – as far as brandy is concerned – the only game in town.

ON HOME GROUND

This reality places brandy producers from other areas of the wine-making world in an unenviable position.

They can make the best spirits from distilled wines on the planet – as South Africa has been recognised as doing – yet in terms of true recognition regarding image and provenance, if you are not Cognac or Armagnac it is nigh impossible to be even referred to in the rarefied atmosphere the French spirits find themselves.

Image isn’t everything here; it’s the only thing.

It is, however, fortunate for South African spirit lovers that brandy is in our blood. Having overseen the making of the first wine at the Cape in 1659, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) saw brandy being distilled from local wine in 1672.

Brandy became a necessity at the Cape. Not only for soothing the spirits of home-sick sailors stopping over on long hauls between Europe and the East, as well as warming Cape residents during the harsh winter, but also for the supplies of VOC explorers on their journeys of discovery into a new, untamed land. In his journal of 1685, Commander Simon van der Stel writes about an exploratory expedition into Namaqualand and of the great care being taken to preserve the stocks of brandy accompanying him and his men.

Brandy was also, apparently, a terrific social lubricant, allowing different cultures to get to know one another better.

SPIRITS, AND SPECIFICALLY BRANDY, ARE RESERVED FOR WHEN THERE IS A NEED FOR UNAPOLOGETIC PLEASURE AND COMPLETE EFFORTLESS RELAXATION.

When Van der Stel and his party chanced to meet an indigenous Khoikhoi group, the latter would slaughter and braai a sheep while the colonists got the party going by offering brandy all round.

This local love for brandy grew in tandem with the expansion of the country’s now world-famous wine industry, offering blended brandies for the perennially thirsty commodity market while at the same time valiantly pursuing excellence and distinction at the top end with ultra-premium products.

It is at the top end that brandy becomes, for me, extraordinary. I drink this not for refreshment as I do with a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay or for comfort during a late-night fireside conversation as I would a half-bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.

Spirits, and specifically brandy, are reserved for when there is a need for unapologetic pleasure and complete effortless relaxation. A leather couch in a cosy empty room with Chet Baker playing on the sound system. Quite often, a Montecristo torpedo cigar also burns, sending coils of earthy aromatic smoke into the air. And then, only then, will a bottle of good brandy be opened to add a final decadent touch to the sensorial experience and unfettered self-indulgence.

And despite my predilection for those beautiful drinks from Cognac and Armagnac, there is true excellence to be found in the luxury sector of South African brandy, where the intriguing diversity in expression of aroma and flavour is exceptional.

One thing local brandy is not is a one-trick pony. The crafters of this spirit are gifted not only in the art of distillation and selecting wood-ageing regimes, but also in sourcing the raw product, which would be the wine that has to undergo the fiery distillation process – twice – to achieve the pure spirit.

Colombard and Chenin Blanc are South Africa’s go-to brandy grape cultivars, to my mind the major reason for the quality of the country’s brandies. Both make high-acid, low-alcohol wines, as required for distillation, yet have the natural sunny character to impart a floral, fruit essence to South African brandies at any level of sophistication and price point. Cognac and Armagnac are largely limited to the Ugni Blanc variety, although various Cognac producers have in the past few years taken to planting Colombard, deeming Ugni Blanc to be less expressive.

The magic of Colombard came my way by means of a brandy from Die Mas in Kakamas, Northern Cape, and with the Die Mas Kalahari Truffle Potstill Brandy. Despite the reference, the brandy has no Kalahari truffle flavour component, the name of the local delicacy just being employed for some marketing verve. The brandy is double distilled from pure Colombard wine and aged in old oak barrels for between five and seven years.

Aroma plays a greater role in the appreciation of brandy than it does of wine, and there are for me few scents as comforting and reassuring as that of a good brandy. The Die Mas Potstill delivers with an evocative fragrance of firewood smoke and tilled earth, the primal aromas lifted by drifts of dry flower and citrus peel. Take a small sip, allow the liquid to warm on the palate, and notes of bitter chocolate combine with cuts of lime, green apple and mocha. There is a lot going on, but the brandy – here at 38% alcohol – has something delicate about it, fragile and very clean. A wonderful spirit.

Chenin Blanc, the other grape used in most of the country’s brandy production, tends to make a brandy with the vivid flavours and aromas of Colombard but with a slightly more muscular structure. Tokara, the spectacular estate at the top of the Banhoek Pass, is known for its internationally lauded wine range, but it also makes an incredible pot-still brandy distilled from Chenin Blanc grapes growing on the farm. Tokara XO is aged for a minimum of 14 years in old French oak casks and, to my mind, is one of the Cape’s foremost brandy offerings – one I would take to a battle in Cognac any day.

On the nose the brandy charms, almost coyly so, with nectar-filled summer flowers offset with a slight exotic spiciness. The presence on the palate is firm and confident, yet exceedingly polished and well-mannered. Of course this is a heady spirits drink, but flavours of citrus, dates and apricot give an impression of conviviality and inviting moreishness.

I sip this brandy between cigar puffs, adding one cube of ice that, once melting, unleashes broader, expansive flavours.

SOPHISTICATED AND DELICIOUS

It would probably have a Cognac producer choking on his eau de vie, but more and more South African brandy producers are using wines made from red grape varieties for brandy distillation. And with spectacular results. The obvious difference between ‘red’ and ‘white’ brandies lies in the lift of tannin found in the red varieties.

Premier Stellenbosch wine estate Rust en Vrede uses Cabernet Sauvignon from its Helderberg property for making its Estate Brandy. After double distillation, the spirit is aged for at least 14 years in French oak barrels that had previously contained Cabernet Sauvignon wine. The result is truly riveting.

This Rust en Vrede brandy is bottled at 38% alcohol, and thanks to the rounded tannins on the base wine and the ageing regime it is incredibly soft, smooth and extremely drinkable. There are notes of leather and spice, and layers of complexity that include dried sultana, apricot and Christmas mince pie with a slight perk of ground coffee. This is a prime example of a good brandy’s ability to offer sophistication and splendour as well as downright deliciousness.

Another great and expressive pot-still brandy from red grapes is The Inventer Barrel Aged Pot-still XO Brandy Rosso, made by master distiller and legend Johan Venter.

For the Rosso, Johan makes the base wine from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes sourced from the Stellenbosch region and ages the distilled spirit in French oak for a minimum of 10 years. Skill and time deliver something spectacular, with flavours of stone-fruit and fynbos on the palate, as well as an intriguing salinity that lifts the brandy into another realm – one I have not yet encountered in South African brandies, but have in some Cognacs from the Grande Champagne region.

… IN THE END, MY PARTIALITY ALWAYS RETURNS TO THE ELIXIRS DISTILLED FROM THE FRUIT OF THE VINE, NAMELY BRANDY.

Despite the current talk of spirits, the fact is that alcohol – especially drinks high in it – is sailing into troubled waters. Alcohol consumption worldwide is declining, rapidly, as older people become more concerned about their health and younger people are less interested in the drinking culture.

However, I predict that there will always be room for drinks of refined luxury, wines and spirits that through their respective traditions and histories, quality and offering of life-affirming joy, will always be in demand.

A bit of ‘me time’ contributes to wellness, undoubtedly. And if that me time includes a small glass of something as fulfilling, satisfying and delicious as a