Cape Brandy of South Africa

Cognac Martell Cellarmaster & Masterblender Christophe Valtaud conducts a tasting for CH’NG Poh Tiong


Cognac Journey

I first went out to Cognac about 30 years ago.

I was then wine consultant to Jardines Singapore (Hugh Johnson being consultant to Jardines International), and visited Otard which was the cognac they distributed.

Another time, I visited Courvoisier in Jarnac and stayed at their chateau. There was another trip where it was Hennessy and I stayed at Chateau de Bagnolet. Visiting Martell, I slept at Chanteloup.

More recently, last month actually, I went to see Bache-Gabrielsen, Frapin, and Martell. And last January 2022, to Les Antiquaires du Cognac, Hennessy, and Remy Martin.

Dutch Contribution

Cognac is of course a brandy.

The word comes from the Dutch brandewijn.

Great seafaring traders, the Dutch distilled brandy from wine to keep it from spoiling. You could transport more spirit than wine in a ship which made it a valuable trading commodity. The brandy were, of course, stored in barrels on the ship. It was soon discovered that the barrels altered, improved its taste.

Incidentally, Dutch engineers are also terribly good at reclaiming land from the sea. They helped Singapore create a lot of extra land during our country’s formative years.

It was also the Dutch who expertly drained the marshes of the Médoc and turned the Left Bank of Bordeaux into producers of some of the greatest wines of the world.

At the end of the 16th Century, France had approached the “United Provinces” (Netherlands) for help to drain swamp areas in France, including around Bordeaux. An engineer by the name of Conrad Gaussen headed the first project. By the end of the 17th Century, most of what we know today as the Médoc was drained for viticulture and farming.

South African Brandy

In that same 17th Century, brandy was first produced in South Africa. Not on dry land but out at sea.

Legend has it that in 1672, a cook onboard a Dutch galley in Table Bay distilled a thousand litres of wine into 150 litres of brandewijn. I don’t know how much brandy was left on that happy ship at the stroke of midnight but I think it safe to assume the crew and passengers were a very happy lot that spirited day.

Since then, South African brandy has never looked back. Together with Spain and France, aficionados recognise that South Africa produces some of the finest brandy on our planet. Two months ago in March, I received bottles from 12 members of Cape Brandy South Africa.

Broadly speaking, South African brandy is fruitier than cognac. It is more supple, softer, smoother, more generous on the palate. The grapes used to produce South African brandy are Colombard, Chenin Blanc and in some cases, Ugni Blanc. The main variety planted in Cognac after phylloxera in the 19th Century is Ugni Blanc. Colombard is also used but not Chenin Blanc, best associated in producing dry to rich, sweet wine in the Loire Valley.

As for age statements, in South Africa, VS has to be minimum 3 years (2 years for cognac); VSOP a minimum 5 years (4 years for cognac); and, XO a minimum 10 years (the same for cognac). South African brandy can start from 38 to 40% ABV (minimum 40% ABV for cognac). Both South African brandy and cognac have to be double distilled in copper still.

Boschendal XO 10 Years Old IMG Title

Peach, ripe apples, vanilla, citrus and hint of spice. Bright, fruity and with freshness. Silky smooth. Cognac-like although a touch sweeter. 40% AB

Joseph Barry XO IMG Title

Delicately fruity including young apricot, peach, Anjou pear and light raisins. Soft vanilla. Elegant and harmonious. Textural, smooth. Cognac-like. 40% ABV

Oude Molen XO IMG Title

Peaches and apricots. The fruitiness is elegant. Harmonious and smooth. Very good example of an XO. 40% ABV

Bayede XO IMG Title to IMG Title

Very XO on the nose. Restrained fruitiness including apricot, star anise, with a touch of sweetness on the finish. Smooth and supple. 40% ABV

Ladismith Klein Karoo IMG Title

Appley – Granny Smith and Golden Delicious – with a citrus note. Delicate honey and vanilla. Elegant, harmonious, and smooth. Over delivers as a VSOP. 40% ABV

Withington “Sapere Aude” VSOP IMG Title

Pears, figs, raisins, cinnamon, dried citrus peel. Layered and nuanced. Fruity, smooth, sweet and harmonious. Over delivers for a VSOP. 40% ABV

Alembic Mimosa 5 Year Old IMG Title

Ripe pears, apple cider, soft vanilla and smokiness. Fruity and bright. Just a touch sweeter than an equivalent VSOP cognac. 40% ABV

Die Mas Die Kalahari Truffel IMG Title

Raisin, figs, cinnamon, a hint of peach and orange peel. Vanillin sweetness/smoothness. 38% ABV

Tokara Stellenbosch XO IMG Title

Peachy and Turkish Delight. Very fruity. A touch sweet for an XO. 40% ABV

Upland Pure Potstill Brandy IMG Title

Peachy with a whiff of pineapples and a hint of toffee. Harmonious. 40% ABV

The Hunter IMG Title

Ripe pears, apples and cinnamon. Fruity, sweet and smooth. Medium-bodied. 38% ABV

Groot Constantia VSOP 2016 IMG Title

Oak, vanilla and spirity sweetness. Woody and a bit austere on the finish. 40% ABV

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