The southernmost tip of the continent has made a rich contribution to the cultural life of the world: dolosse from East London keep Neptune at bay; keepy kraulys keep the Penguin pool clean while Prattly putty holds Nasa’s lunar modules together. Some of the best brandies in the world hail from SA, like the KWV 15 year old.
The first was distilled in Table Bay by the cook on board the VoC merchantman De Pijl back in 1672. Which comes as no surprise as the Dutch were first to discover the special properties of the sharp and acidic grapes grown around the town of Cognac in France that when distilled, release a spirit that Distell brandy boffin Caroline Snyman calls “the soul of the wine.”
It was Dutch know-how draining the marshes around Bordeaux that produced claret, the greatest of all French reds. As Oscar Wilde might have said, to have one French vinous icon discovered by a Dutchman might be an accident, but two is just plain carelessness.
Moslem domination of the land routes to the spicy riches of the Indies sent Portuguese and Spanish explorers west to the New World and south around the Cape of Storms. Brandy, distilled wine, was a vital trading commodity and comfort for those long nights waiting for mythological monsters like Adamastor to attack or the caravel to fall off the end of the world.
Wine was hopeless – the knowledge of sealing barrels with cork bungs, discovered by the ancient Greeks, had been lost somewhere in the Dark Ages (described by one wag as a millennium without a bath). The contents of barrels soon became oxidized and had little barter appeal to African slavers who had their own supplies of fresh palm wine.
Brandy was more compact, more potent and more robust. It was also responsible for the defeat of the French at Trafalgar. Britain had perfected the triangular trade: load up on slaves from the Gold Coast (11 million over three centuries with a similar number perishing en route to the disembarkation ports), ship to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations; profits back to Liverpool along with rum made from leftovers of the sugar production process with the rum then used to buy more slaves.
Rum also kept the sailors happy but was so vile it needed to be mixed with lemon and lime juice (hence the nickname limeys) to make it palatable. Vitamin C, added by accident, prevented scurvy which doubled the physical performance of British sailors as opposed to their Spanish or French counterparts who had rations of a bottle of wine a day – containing far less vitamin C – replaced with eau de vie and Cognac brandy on longer voyages, with no vitamin C at all.
Another Arab invention, the astrolabe, allowed intrepid seafarers to plot a course by the stars: astrolabe and alcohol opened up Africa. So no surprises then that when the Dutch East India Company decided to establish a revictualling station at the continent’s southern tip, the production of brandy should be high on the agenda.
Brandy distillation followed winemaking at the Cape in short order and today SA is the 5th largest producer of burnt wine – brand wijn – in the world, with a proud distillation tradition going back nearly four centuries. With pleasing symmetry, brandy is the 5th most popular spirit in the global bar while in SA it retains poll position, with around 40% of SA spirit spend going to the burnt one.
Historically, brandy has been a financial lifesaver for SA farmers. In years when the bounty of Bacchus left the cellar tanks groaning with unsold wine, the farmers’ co-op, KWV, would step in and buy-up the surplus, distilling it into brandy and providing the farmers with a much-needed financial lifeline. Today with the SA population demographic changing faster than the price of petrol, brandy offers another lifeline to producers. Farmers in the Klein Karoo are planting Ugni Blanc and Clairette Blanche like crazy to keep up with demand from those Brandy distillers with the Dickensian name Edward Snell and that mighty tanker of Co-op wine, Southern Cape Vineyards, were diverted from a rocky catastrophe by a timeous injection of cash from ever so ‘umble Mr. Snell.
While the stereotypical brandy drinker may be Oom Piet from Mataliel in a polyester safari suit with comb in sock, the truth is exactly the opposite. Stylish Sipho from Soweto and trendy Thandi from Thokoza have become the new brandy drinkers, as five minutes at the annual Soweto Wine & Brandy Festival would have confirmed.
We speak in the past tense here as brandy was so popular, wine producers exerted pressure and ejected the distillers to their own show which is now a fun fixture on the social calendars of Gauteng and the Western Cape.
St. Bernards used to be sent to rescue survivors of avalanches with a small keg of brandy attached to the collar around their necks in the days before personal GPS and the popularity of distilled wine among the Black Diamonds and Buppies of the New SA consumer scene, gives wine marketers an unbeatable calling card. And a most welcome one, with a burgeoning black wine-drinking scene the Holy Grail for SA producers.