The brandy route

We’re a nation that drinks more than 45-million litres of brandy a year—so it only makes sense for us to have our own brandy routes.

Our love affair with this popular tipple began way back when, according to Pietman Retief, director of the South African Brandy Foundation, “Brandy was already available in South Africa before Jan van Riebeeck—the Portuguese used it for barter trading.”

He says that Van Riebeeck brought brandy (cognac) from Western France to South Africa, but it was only in 1672 that the first brandy was made from Cape wine. “It was made by a chef’s assistant on a boat called De Pijl—we don’t even know what the chef’s name was,” says Retief.

The rest, as they say is history: brandy continued to improve over the years and now we have not one but two official brandy routes. The original Western Cape Brandy Route came about as a tourism venture—with the aim of educating people along the way.

“We also realise there is a serious lack of knowledge about brandy—and if there is ignorance about something, there is a lack of respect. The route allows people to see how brandy is made to see how much patience it takes to make a bottle of brandy,” says Retief.

Of course, brandy tastings are an important part of the journey, but Retief stresses it’s not about getting plastered along the way. “There were a few noises made about drinking and driving but my standard answer is that at brandy tastings you get much less into your system than at a wine tasting. You mostly taste with your nose rather than your tastebuds!”

The traditional Western Cape Brandy Route follows the Stellenbosch wine route quite closely, and now there is the Route 62 Brandy Route through the Klein Karoo.

“The difference between the two wine routes—we’ve got one this side of the [Drakenstein] mountain and one on that side of the mountain. That’s the difference. The beautiful KWV cellar connects both routes,” says Retief.

The KWV House of Brandy in Worcester is home to the Cathedral Cellar—known as one of the largest cellars of its kind in the world. Here perhaps you’ll get to taste some rather fine options such as the KWV 20-year-old brandy or the KWV Diamond Jubilee Brandy (a 1 000ml bottle will set you back R1 300).

Although he adores the connoisseur brandies, Retief’s no snob when it comes to a good brandy and coke. “Brandy and coke is an excellent South African drink. One must realise we have got good quality brandy and good quality coke—which makes for a great cocktail.”

A few choice stopovers:

  • A good place to start your journey is at the Van Ryn Brandy Distillery in Vlottenberg. Van Ryn was the first distillery to open its doors to the public and is now something of a “living museum”.
  • Close by is the Avontuur Wine Estate, which has produced a very popular five-year-old copper-post distilled brandy that is made from Chenin Blanc grapes (aged in traditional French oak barrels).
  • Backsberg Estate is another notable stop. The Sydney Back Estate brandy is distilled in a state-of-the-art still (imported from the Cognac region in France). There are two Sydney Back brandies up for grabs—the rare 10-year-old variety and the 5/6-year blend.
  • The Laborie estate is also a highlight on the tour. The estate’s first brandy—Laborie Estate Alambic brandy—was launched towards the end of the 1990s to popular acclaim.
  • The Oude Wellington Estate is another great stop. This estate makes award-winning brandies from Chenin Blanc and Clairet Blanche grapes. (Note that tastings are by appointment only.)
  • The R62 Brandy Route incorporates six brandy cellars (including KWV). Visit the Barrydale Wine Cellar, Boplaas, Grundheim, the Kango Wine Cellar and Mons Ruber.

The lowdown

  • Visit the South African Brandy Foundation official website on www.sabrandy.co.za or call (021) 887 3157
  • Van Ryn Brandy Distillery on www.distell.co.za or call (021) 809 7000
  • Backsberg Wine Eastate on www.backsberg.co.za or call (021) 875 5141
  • KWV House of Brandy on www.kwv-international.com or call (021) 807 3007
  • Route 62 information www.route62.co.za or call (023) 616 3563
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