Last week I was treated to a first class brandy experience at what is arguably the best brandy facility in the world. A tour of the Van Ryn's Distillery followed by a brandy blending experience and a food pairing made for a pretty awesome day at the 'office'.
I arrived at Van Ryn's at 9:30am thinking it was a tad early to be tasting hard liquor. If you haven't been to the visitors' centre, it is a beautiful, imposing building befitting the home of the world's best brandy, and the calm overcast weather conditions added a certain gravitas to the occasion. Inside the ambience is warm and inviting, with old photographs, scans of historical documents and bottles of wildly expensive brandy adorning the walls, and in the centre of the main lounge area is a beautiful copper pot still.
After coffee and scones we were taken on a tour of the distillery by Mare-Loe Prinsloo, Distell's technical manager of spirits production. This included visits to one of the main copper stills where she tried - with a fair amount of success - to allay our fears of the dark arts of chemistry.
Fun fact - the reason copper is used during distillation is because it extract the natural sulphur from the spirit, forming a byproduct of copper sulphite.
In a brief introduction to the discipline of barrel making (or coopering), Mare-Loe explained how all SA brandy is required to mature in oak barrels no smaller than 340 litres for at least 3 years. The wood is lightly toasted to release the characteristics that give the spirit its golden hue and complex spicy qualities before it is moistened to make it pliable enough to bend into curved staves. All of the barrels are made by hand by specialised tradesmen.
Fun fact - unlike whisky barrels, brandy wood is not charred before maturation.
Fun fact - coopers' tools are handmade because they are not the type of implements you can find in a hardware store.
Another requirement of SA brandy is that no additives are allowed during maturation; everything must be a product of the vine. Typically the grapes used for South African brandy are Chenin and Culemborg because their high acidity provides the fruitier taste profile local distillers are looking for. When the wine is first distilled it is taken from around 11% alc to approximately 30%, and a second distillation raises the alcohol level again to around 65%. At this stage the heads and tails are discarded and the heart - the good stuff - is barrelled and sent to the cellar for a minimum of 3 years. About 3% alcohol is lost to evaporation per year ("the angels' share"). After maturation the brandy is cut with water to the correct alcohol level - at least 38% for potstills and at least 43% for blends before being bottled.
Fun fact - blended brandy must be comprised of a minimum of 30% potstill; the rest can be a neutral spirit.
After the tour we're taken to a beautifully laid out table in the most unusual of setting - an old maturation tank. The scene was Dexter's Laboratory meets Mad Hatter's Tea Party. In front of each person was a beaker, pipette, measuring test tube, spittoon and eight different brandies. After being taken through each one by expert blender Brink Liebenberg, we were invited to concoct and bottle our own creations. This was both incredibly interesting and a lot of fun, and I'm extremely grateful to the SA Brandy Foundation and Van Ryn's for the privilege of such a rare opportunity.
As if a tour and blending experience were not enough, we were then treated to a food and brandy pairing. The cuisine was exquisite and the brandy even more so; a decadent end to a wonderful day.
|Potato gnocchi & mushroom
cream paired with
Van Ryn's 15YO
|Duck confit and smoked duck
breast paired with
Van Ryn's 12YO
|Death by Chocolate
Van Ryn's 20YO
My trip to Van Ryn's was a reminder of how lucky we are as South Africans. Like any country we are faced with challenges, but we can lay claim to being the best producers of brandy in the world. We consistently take home international awards as our brandies compete with cognac on quality. Slowly but surely South African's are waking up to the fact that they are sitting on a gold mine. Liquid gold.
If you live in Johannesburg, get to the Sandton Brandy Fusion event to taste some quality products. CLICK HERE to find out more.
Article by Grant McDonald