In good spirits

An unforgivably long neglect was righted this past week when I, with a couple of other Platter tasters, visited Van Ryn’s Distillery and, under the excellent tutelage of Brink Liebenberg, was shown exactly why South African brandies do so well on international competitions.

Brink has an interesting background. He was an engineer in Gauteng, came to the Cape in 2001 and joined Distell as an engineer, found he had a nose for spirits and worked his way up the ladder to the impressive-sounding position he holds today, Group General Manager Distilling Production. That title covers much more than just the premium brandies, but it was premium brandies, with a few Cognacs and a French brandy thrown in for good measure, that we were there to taste; blind of course.

vanRynsDistillerThese varied brandies were put into context via a visit to the distillery and the angels’ cellar,  where the brandy is aged in barrel. In the photo of the distillery, you’ll notice the stills – and these are just some of them – aren’t all pot shaped. ‘One of our advantages over Cognac, is that we have the freedom to experiment,’ Liebenberg explains; ‘the French are bound by their laws, as much for Cognac as their wines.’ Flexibility extends to varieties used here; apparently viognier and some red varieties are also being trialled, a move which requires specific management of each vineyard.  For brandy, the grapes are harvested much less ripe than for table wine to retain good acidity; this, in turn acts as a preservative, as sulphur levels cannot exceed 20 parts per million due to off odours forming in the distillate.

From an environmental perspective, distilling isn’t the friendliest of products. All the stills are heated with coal transported from Mpumalanga; ‘Cheaper than electricity and the vapour that results from distilling is used to heat the next batch,’ Liebenberg tells us. Even covering the whole roof with solar panels wouldn’t create sufficient energy to heat the stills.

I have to turn to pen and paper, leaving my iPad behind as we enter the barrel cellar, a necessary step due to the danger of equipment containing batteries sparking a light in this area of high-octane alcohol.  After a fire destroyed a barrel room several years ago, such extra precautions are required.

It is a most delightful area to stand in, surrounded by the gentle fragrance of maturing spirit; one can understand the angels being so greedy! Piled five high, the French oak barrels vary in size between 314 litres to a maximum of 370 litres (if my less than legible notes are to be believed). Here the second distilled spirit lies, undisturbed for three years – the French dipstick into each barrel every year – before the contents of each row are emptied into a tank. Samples are drawn and sent to Liebenberg and his team to evaluate and decide into which of the 25 various Distell brandies they should be channelled.

True appreciation of the team’s skill and success becomes evident as we get into the tasting – blind remember.

Old concrete tanks make an atmospheric tasting room. Brink Liebenberg is at the head of the table. Taken with my iPad, so  not a great photo.
Old concrete tanks make an atmospheric tasting room. Brink Liebenberg is at the head of the table. Taken with my iPad, so not a great photo.

The first surprise was Klipdrift – Klippies – a smooth, fruity, toasty mouthful with a slightly sweet finish and, like all the South African brandies that followed very clean and pure. It would be hard to do better for R90, and consistency is assured – ‘Very important in this brand,’ Liebenberg advises, ‘especially the colour, as it comes in a clear, flint bottle.’

Big brother, Klipdrift Gold, which includes brandies up to 21 years old, is, unsurprisingly, more complex with a fragrance of citrus, pear, vanilla spice. Selling for around R250 it outclassed the R500 Hennessy VSOP, a brand which has 40% of the global market. This and the St Remy VSOP French brandy (not a Cognac) are less complex with more oaky flavours. Of course, this tasting was to show off local brandies!

Hennessy XO for R1650 – minimum age of brandies in this is six years – offers much more in an intense, heavy style; a lovely, warming winter digestif.

My favourite, Oude Meester Souverain – the youngest component is 18 years – is quite the opposite; delicate, subtle with understated notes of naartjie peel, toffee and vanilla plus a note of tobacco with water added (I found all these brandies changed with a drop of water). Excellent value at R720.

If you really want fruit, Van Ryn’s 12 year old (R490) provides it with lush berries in a fuller bodied style.

But I hasten to the treat that awaited us at the end; a blend of brandies between 30 and 40 years old, the latter from 1972 and apparently the oldest in South Africa. Named Au.Ra (Au – gold.Ra – Egyptian god of the sun), and packaged correspondingly in a hand blown decanter (I hope the photo gives some idea), the limited 107 ‘bottles’ sell for R15 000 each. How to describe it? Pure, natural, the very essence of concentration, the aromas high-toned, the texture smooth, an initial sensation of mature sweetness resolving into lingering, gentle warmth. A truly fine spirit; thank goodness the angels didn’t claim it all!

This was just a small dip into what makes South African brandy the diverse and quality product it is; I came away feeling I’d learned a lot but that it was only the tip of the iceberg. A return visit will not be long neglected.

Au.Ra South Africa's oldest brandy in its beautiful, hand-blown decanter.
Au.Ra South Africa’s oldest brandy in its beautiful, hand-blown decanter.
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