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High Spirits on Route 62

High Spirits on Route 62

Take your time on the R62 through the Western Cape Karoo. There are some Brandy Homes out there that call you to sit back, relax, and get a taste of some of the finest tipple… 

Words: Marianne Heron

Pictures: David Morgan

untitled shoot-050-EditSome things belong together – chicken and egg, love and marriage – but angels and spiders? Their affinity never occurs to me until we decide to visit the six Brandy Homes, as they call the distilleries on Route 62. The name Home speaks for itself – each distillery along the way invites you to relax and enjoy some of the country’s very best brandy.

As a tour it also is a great way to savour the story of South African brandy, one that stretches from its introduction to the Cape by the Dutch in the 1650s, to its proud position today, with a winner of the top international prize for the best brandy in the world for 11 out of the past 14 years.

Our journey begins among the majestic mountains and vine-carpeted valleys that lie to the east of the Hugenot (Du Toitskloof) Tunnel. This is brandy country, ‘annerkant die berg’ (other side of the mountain), where hot, dry summers from Worcester to De Rust are ideal for producing the golden spirit.

Our first stop, Klipdrift, stands on the site of the farm in Robertson, where Kosie Marais created Klipdrift Brandy in 1938, the brand now part of the giant Distell group, largest brandy producer in South Africa.

The huge bar and tasting room are ultra cool but, weirdly, the collection of wall clocks behind the bar have all stopped at two minutes past eight in the morning. Apparently this is the very time that the first drops of distillate were drawn from Klipdrift’s pot still by Kosie.

“People here often don’t realise that there are different brandies,” says Klipdrift public relations officer Jaco Elias. He explains that three types of brandy are made in South Africa: blended brandy – familiar as the brandy and Coke student tipple; pot still brandy containing a minimum 90 per cent pot still brandy aged in oak for at least three years; and vintage – made by only a handful of distilleries here, all containing varying amounts of brandies distilled in a copper pot still.

Our main focus is on the world-class, pot still brandy, made in the same way as Cognac. Last year (2015), Van Ryn in Stellenbosch, one of 22 Brandy Homes in the Western and Northern Cape Karoo, won the International Wine and Spirit Competition for the best brandy in the world, with their 12-year-old pot still.

Next we learn how to taste – no swirling (that’s for wine), and no need to warm the glass because in this climate the brandy will become too volatile. Nose the aromas about five centimetres above the glass then take a small sip to allow your palate to become accustomed to the spirit, and hold it in your mouth to allow the aromas and flavours to unfold. And do they unfold, as apricot tones give way to vanilla and caramel in the smooth Klipdrift Gold, a blend of nine pot stills, and one of four tasting brandies here, with flavour-enhancing fudge chocolate or savouries.

untitled shoot-073Part of the charm of the Brandy Homes on Route 62 is that they are all very different. Kingna Distillery, once a fruit-packing shed, takes its name from the river that runs along the flank of this farm and wedding venue, in a pretty valley lined with orchards near Montagu. What started as a hobby distilling for home consumption turned serious in 2008 when Norbert Engel and his brother-in-law Ruan Henlun started their boutique distillery. “It’s a way of adding value to what you produce on the farm,” explains Norbert.

In a corner of the distillery, a centuries-old Cognac pot still imported from France is dwarfed by the current still. After KWV took control of the wine industry in the 1920s, very few distilling licences were granted. Any marketable brandy had to be supplied to KWV and pot stills were meant to be destroyed. (Surprising how many have survived).

Ruan, a self-taught brandy maker, runs through the wheel of brandy aromas – toasted, fruity, muscat, sweet, smooth, spicey, herbaceous or woody. “But I don’t tell people what they are tasting, I like them to find out for themselves,” he says.

I find layers of intriguing aromas in their five- and eight-year-old pot still brandies, the final note in the eight-year-old reminding me of violets. Kingna’s brandies are distilled from a base wine of colombard and chenin blanc grapes. Patting the American oak barrels in the maturation cellar, Ruan says, “Wood is magic when you put in the brandy. It looks almost like water, and every year the oak adds more aromas and colour.” The real alchemy in brandy making is in the blending, secrets that brandy masters hug close to their hearts. Says Ruan, “What’s important is to have the product consistent from one year to the next.”

At Barrydale Cellar, a Brandy Home on the outskirts of the southern Cape town of Barrydale, both town and cellar take their name from Joseph Barry, legendary trader and brandy baron in the early 1800s. Barrydale Cellar is not currently distilling as the venue is being renovated, with plans for a restaurant and craft brewery, but tastings of Barrydale pot still brandies are still offered.

untitled shoot-020-EditWhen KVW relaxed its monopoly on the wine and brandy industry, Carel Nel of Boplaas, Calitzdorp obtained the number one distilling licence in 1989, allowing him to produce estate brandy. “We were the first,” says Carel proudly. His daughter Margot Nel, now Boplaas’ brandy master and winemaker, who learned her skills from her father as he learned from his father Daniel, adds, “It is also part of our rich history – we have been distilling brandy since 1880.”

It’s harvest time at Boplaas and the farm’s colombard grapes for this year’s base wine – for blended and best-selling eight-year-old brandies – have just been pressed. Generally, grapes for distilling are harvested earlier for a higher acidity and lower sugar content, which produces the best flavour, explains Margot.

There’s a saying that to make brandy you have to be hals-oor-kop verlief (head over heels in love). “You need to be,” says Margot, whose first brandy will be bottled this year. “You have to wait such a long time, three years for vines to fruit and up to 20 years for brandy to mature before you get your money back.”

Also, a considerable volume of base wine ends up as a relatively small amount of brandy, with loss through distillation and the ‘Angel’s Share’, where the brandy is lost through reverse osmosis in oak barrels. This is where spiders come in, sharing the intoxicating fumes with those angels in the cellar.

Just before Oudtshoorn appears a distiller’s dream not to be missed. Dys Grundling is the sixth generation
at Grundheim Wines, where the family has been making wine and spirits since 1858. “My grandfather used to have six stills on the farm,” says Dys, who is in the middle of harvesting colombard grapes for Grundheim’s flagship 100 per cent, nine-year-old pot still and blended brandy.

These days, Dys uses the huge former gin pot still his granddad bought for a song, and fires it with alien wattle. “It takes twice as long as the steam method,” says Dys, who believes that his method gives better results. He is also bubbling with enthusiasm for brandy matured in red-wine barrels, which have then been used for maturing port before the inside of the barrels are shaved and toasted.

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“The brandy market is difficult at present. If you are small you have to be creative to get into the market,” says Dys, who has been experimenting with new ways to use his passion for distilling, by making Calvados and varieties of schnapps, including an absinthe made from wild plants like fennel. And what is his secret for making brandy? “Slow distillation, patience and don’t use rubbish base wine.”

At Mons Ruber Winery near De Rust, blue smoke drifts from the chimney of the venerable pot still (repaired in 1936). Owner Rade Meyer is three weeks into his eight-week harvest, and is busy in the cellar with the crushing and pressing of Muscat d’Alexandrie (hanepoot) grapes for the base wine of his brandies.

Rade and his farmer brother Erhard are the third generation of Meyers at this farm, where brandy has been made since the 1850. In the tasting room, once a toll house dating to 1938, and before that a hotel in 1857, you can see an earlier chapter of family history in pictures of Basie and Rolanda Meyer with King George VI, the Queen Mother and the princesses when they visited the farm in 1947. Basie was one of the first back into the ostrich business after its booms and busts, and Rolanda’s elegant ostrich creations are also on display there.

It’s as heart-warming as brandy itself to see how, over the last 25 years since controls over the brandy and wine industry were relaxed, South African distillers have claimed back the long tradition of brandy making, and given us world-class spirits.

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Handy Contacts

Brandy Making

  • Grapes are pressed and their juice fermented before the first distillation of the base wine into low wine. The second distillation is used to separate the head and tail, which are discarded from the middle third, or heart, of the brandy, with its fruit and floral aromas.
  • The brandy is then matured in oak barrels for at least three years before being blended and bottled.
    n Brandy is either pot still brandy (minimum 90 per cent pot still matured in oak for a minimum of three years, bottled at 38 per cent alcohol by volume), blended brandy (30 per cent pot still brandy mixed with unmatured wine spirit, 43 per cent alcohol) or vintage (30 per cent pot still, maximum 60 per cent wine spirit matured for at least eight years).

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