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Wine industry prop is now a world standard
Wine industry prop is now a world standard

Wine industry prop is now a world standard

LIQUOR NEWS - Aug 24th 2016, 15:14

Wine enthusiasts, especially those whose preference is for small-batch production of handcrafted wines, conveniently forget for most of the 20th century the Cape wine industry would not have survived without the Cape brandy industry. 

In an era when it was necessary to have an institution such as the KWV to manage surpluses and shortages, it was also important to have a strategy to take up the unsold portion of the crop and turn it to commercial gain. Out of this emerged the premium end of South African brandy business, a segment that has grown in quality and presence, and is now one of the world's most widely recognised benchmarks.

In the very early days - the first few decades of Dutch settlement - poor wine was transformed into poor brandy for sale in the local taverns and to supplement supplies on the ships using the Cape as a midway point on the Eastern trade route. It was even a means of managing unsold wine surpluses. Because brandy is more stable than unfortified wine, less capacity is required for its storage, and keeping it tends to improve its quality: all other things being equal, aged spirit is better than raw alcohol.

The qualitative heart of Cape brandy

What played a major role in the improvement of Cape brandy was a decision built early on into the surplus management strategies. To even out the effects of seasonal fluctuation, a portion of the crop had to be distilled and subjected to extended maturation. All South African brandy had to contain at least 30% three-year-old pot-distilled spirit that had been aged in small oak casks. This so-called rebate brandy (thus named because it was entitled to an excise rebate to compensate for the higher costs involved in its production) became the qualitative heart of Cape brandy - the equivalent, if you like, of the malt whisky component in blended Scotch.

The method of production was based on the time honoured approach in Cognac - then, as well as now, the international benchmark (at least in the mind of the brandy-consuming public).

Pot distillation requires cleaner wine, free of sulfur as a preservative, and it retains and even concentrates the fruit characteristics that derive from the grape variety and the vineyard site. This is why the different appellations within the Cognac district of France have been carefully demarcated and how the great Cognac houses are able to manage stylistic consistency.

Until quite recently, the Cape brandy industry ticked along, working to its formula of 30% rebate and 70% neutral grape spirit. At a time when even the whiskey importers focused only on standard brands, there was no real motivation to create a meaningful premium offering. That all changed at about the same time as our first democratic elections - though it was the whiskey houses that made the first move and gained a great advantage.

Johnny Walker Black (and then Blue), as well as Chivas Regal, became the beverage of choice of the new elites, leaving brandy with an ever decreasing share of the lucrative spirits market.

Back in the game

It has taken time for the local brandy houses to build up stocks of mature spirit (the age declaration on the label is based on the youngest spirit in the blend). However, the main players are very much back in the game. Van Ryn's has won the International Wine and Spirits Competition's trophy for the world's best brandy seven times. Distell, whose brands include most of the country's top-selling brandies, now owns the Bisquit Cognac house, and in 2016 won the trophy for the world's best Cognac (for the Richelieu XO).

In addition, producers such as Oude Molen, KWV, and Backsberg have won world's best brandy trophies in highly regarded international competitions, while a number of wine farms, such as Tokara, Blaauwklippen, L'Ormarins, and Uitkyk, have entered the craft brandy business.
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