wine & brandy industry information
South African brandy is enjoyed by many, but fully understood by few. Take a few moments and discover the wonderfully complex spirit that is South African brandy.
It started on a ship
The word brandy (brandywine) is from the Dutch word “brandewijn”, meaning burnt or distilled wine. The Dutch used distillation as a method of preserving wine aboard their ships. Indeed, a tot of brandy was offered to the first man on board to sight land, leading to calls of “Land Ahoy” many days before the vessels actually docked.
The first brandy in South Africa was distilled aboard the Dutch ship Pijl, anchored in Table Bay harbour in 1672. The assistant cook succeeded in transforming two leaguers (1164 litres) of Cape wine into “three ankers (126 litres) of delicious brandy”.
Today, South African brandy is acknowledged to be the world’s finest. Comprehensive legislation and a proud tradition ensure that our brandy is of the highest quality. The title of Worldwide Best Brandy at the International Wine & Spirits competition has been awarded to a South African brandy for six consecutive years.
How brandy works
Brandy production is a delicate and complicated process. South African law demands that brandy be made from the highest quality wine, which is then distilled twice in copper potstills and aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years.
Making wine is the first step in making brandy. The wine that is used to make brandy is called base wine.
In South Africa, mainly Chenin Blanc and Colombar are used for base wine. Grapes for base wine primarily come from warmer wine-growing regions. The base wine must be of the highest quality and there are important differences between base wine and table wine.
The next step is distillation. Base wine is distilled in copper potstills, and is transformed into what is called low wine. Low wine has an alcohol content of about 30% v/v. The low wine is then distilled a second time, concentrating it even further. In the second distillation, the first vapours that emerge from the potstill are known as the heads. This portion is discarded because it contains highly volatile compounds that impart undesirable aromas.
The second portion is called the heart. This is the soul of brandy and is what will eventually be bottled and enjoyed. The alcohol content of the heart is up to 70% v/v.
The final vapours from the still are the tails – once again this portion is discarded.
Once the heart has been extracted, it will be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years – a process called maturation. Many brandies are aged for longer periods – up to 30 years. It is during maturation that the heart, a clear liquid, obtains its distinctive amber colour.
During the maturation process there is a complex interaction between the heart and the wood. What emerges after this magical process is known as potstill brandy.
The master distiller will now combine talent, experience and years of practise to blend the potstill brandies from various casks into the master blend. This may be bottled as is and sold as potstill brandy, or be used as a component in blended and vintage brandies.
The three classes
South African legislation allows for three classes of brandy.
Potstill100% potstill brandy. The minimum alcohol content is 38% ABV.
VintagePotstill brandy blended with matured wine spirit. The minimum alcohol content is 38% ABV.
BlendedPotstill brandy blended with unmatured wine spirit. The minimum alcohol content is 43% ABV.
- Always taste brandy from a clean brandy snifter or an ISO wine tasting glass.
- It is perfectly acceptable to add a dash of still water when tasting brandy. Be sure to use pure, unchlorinated water.
- Don’t swirl your glass, like you would when tasting wine.
- Don’t warm the brandy – it should be tasted at room temperature.
- Start nosing from about 5cm from the top of your glass. Now move slowly down.
- Take a small sip and swirl around your mouth. The intensity of the alcohol will diminish after a few seconds and the rich, complex flavours will come to the fore.
- It’s always fun to have the brandy aroma wheel on hand to help you identify the flavours you experience.
- Always taste and enjoy responsibly.
Any way you like! Blended brandies can be enjoyed with a favourite mixer such as ginger ale, fruit juice or cola. World famous South African potstill brandies are best savoured neat, on the rocks or with a dash of mineral water – always in a brandy snifter. Brandy is also the base for the trendiest cocktails – discover more on the Urban Brandy Cocktail Route.
The best way to discover South Africa’s favourite spirit is by visiting an official Brandy Home near you. Sit back, relax and learn all there is to know, from the passionate folks who craft South Africa’s finest brandies. Go to Brandy Homes for more maps and information.