The great estate brandies from South Africa don’t have it easy in the market. There’s this thing called Cognac, see, a category that seduces consumers with brands like Remy Martin, Courvoiseur and Hennessy. Besides the evocative names and the charming French origins, aforementioned brands as well as many others, have stratospheric marketing spend with which Cognac can conquer the spirits loving public globally.
But I love our brandies. They are the result of a South African vinous tradition dating back to 1672. The industry has perfected regulations to ensure a quality product from the still. This is complemented by the supply of great Colombard and Chenin Blanc grapes from which to make the distillation wine.
I confess to having a deep love for the Cognac. At a guess, the Ugni Blanc grape and south-western France terroir is the reason good Cognac’s have a delicacy, fragrance and ethereally beautiful texture that only an Armagnac from a noted vintage can come close to.
Outside of that, I am in agreement with the international judging panels who year-upon-year select a South African brandy to be the best in the world.
Backsberg Estate Cellars from Paarl was the first estate to distil after the laws were amended in 1991 to take the brandy monopoly away from the big corporates. Patriarch Sydney Back wanted to be out of the blocks as soon as the ink had dried on the new laws. Success was instant: in 1995 Backsberg’s first brandy won the Domecq Trophy at the London International Wine and Spirits Competition for Best Brandy in the World.
Since Backsberg’s first venture, many estate brandies have appeared on the South African scene, one of their main contributions being to display the diversity that terroir, grape varieties and wood maturation can bring to the final golden elixir.
Recently I made a pilgrimage to Backsberg to pay homage to the pioneers of estate brandy in the Cape winelands, also wishing that these fantastic products could find a keener uptake among consumers.
The first brandy on pour was the Backsberg 10 year old, a brandy that I had learnt to appreciate under the auspices of the great Pietman Retief, former head of the South African Brandy Foundation. This had been my introduction to estate spirits, a brandy I can still honestly identify from a mile away.
Distilled on the farm from Chenin Blanc grapes, the spirit exudes a concentrated blend of dried apricots and potpourri on the nose with a heady thrust of deeply satisfying distilled alcohol. I don’t believe in diluting to loosen-up the esters so as to lift the 800 flavours in brandy to the fore. I like it pure, strong and virginal.
The brandy lies firm and keep on the palate, the body heat of one’s mouth loosening flavours of dark chocolate, caramelised roast-nuts and syrupy raising. The spirit, warm and rich and comforting, prevents the drink from becoming cloying, and it finishes in a flourish of taste and ringing sensations.
Onto the Backsberg 15yr old, and here’s what age does: the more concentrated the drink becomes due to the evaporating Angel’s Share, the lighter the palate weight. And 15yrs is just perfect: dense enough to allow the taste to announce itself and to stay with the taster. But supple and whimsical so as to give the elixir a dream-like flutter in the mouth.
Here the nose is dried fruit – dates and peaches – with an evident hit of allspice and Zanzibar cardamom. Just the slightest bit of feminine soapiness, so obvious in many Cognacs, can be sniffed and the aroma creates a mood of well-being and a reminder of things beautiful and real.
Heavens, the sip is marvellous. This brandy attacks the palate with a humorous, playful approach. Once into the mouth’s major section, the game continues. First it sets the mind and palate in a glowing state. Your eyes are brighter. The heart beats stronger. The world is a good place.
And then the flavours come. Molasses and Bolivar cigar box from Havana. Roasted Colombian coffee mixed with brown treacle. Apricots and raisins, a bit of dried fig and the sauce that is left over in a ramekin from a perfect crème brulêe. On the second sip the brandy is fresher, cooler due to one’s elevated temperature, the blood flows and you feel as if you have just stepped out of a spa run by Haitian poets smelling of stewed mango leaves.
It’s all in the spirit, and nothing compares.
- Photo’s by Gavin Withers, The Wine Taster.