Brandy is the liquor for men aspiring to be heroes, proclaimed Dr Samuel Johnson (assigning port to less ambitious guys and claret to boys).
But I was reminded recently that fine brandy at its smoothly elegant best, it’s fierceness transmuted into delicately flickering fire, is approachable even by lesser beings.
A heroic income is needed, however, for one that I was privileged to sample recently. What’s more, seeing that the mere 107 bottles made of Au.Ra have gone, you would need to put up a Herculean fight for it too. Forgive the R15 000 price and the pretentiousness of the name (and enjoy the beauty of the hand-blown decanter Au.Ra was sold in) because this is the oldest South African brandy ever marketed. Its five components have been smouldering away in darkness since being put in cask 30 to 40 years ago.
I had my tot of this splendid spirit (undeservedly, being neither heroic nor rich) at Distell’s venerable Van Ryn distillery at Vlottenburg on the outskirts of Stellenbosch.
It’s a fascinating, atmospheric place to visit, by the way, with its burnished copper distilling kettles, dials and meandering pipes and the headily scented stores of innumerable barrels of maturing brandy.
Master distiller Brink Liebenberg had undertaken to show me in the pleasantest possible way some of the differences between French cognac and South African brandy.
National traditions of distilling and blending can be significant, as much as differences in climates and soils, so that an expert can often tell whether a brandy is Portuguese, Spanish, French or whatever.
South African brandy-making techniques are close in many ways to the French (and highly regulated), one of the more obvious differences being the timing of the crucial art of blending — harmonising different barrels, often different types of brandy, from different vineyards and grape varieties.
The French do this, it seems, all the way along the maturation process, whereas South African brandies rest unmolested for at least three years — much longer for the most vaunted ones.
The international reputation of South African brandy is very high, with both KWV and Distell (with its brands such as Oude Meester and Van Ryn) performing remarkably well in competitions. Both are accustomed to achieving the Worldwide Best Brandy title at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, for example.
My favourite brandy of that little tasting won the only double gold medal awarded at the 2011 New York International Spirits Competition. Called Souverein, it’s a beautifully packaged, elegantly refined 18-year-old brandy that was only fairly recently developed (it can take years to get the components just right, apparently) to head the Oude Meester range.
It’s hardly cheap at more than R700 a bottle but, in fact, the value is remarkable. A wino like myself can note local wines costing that much these days and with sometimes less claim to excellence — not to mention not allowing for lingering pleasure over months (if Souverein could be resisted that long once opened). Tasting it alongside Hennessey XO cognac, at R1 650 a bottle, only reinforces the sense of a bargain.
So I left that experience somewhat thoughtfully. Even the car park at Vlottenburg has its charm, with seductive aromatic wafts from the cooperage alongside, where they toast and shape into barrels the oak brought from French forests to cosset South African brandy to such happy effect.