This year the annual gala banquet held by the Brandy Guild to honour role players in the South African brandy industry, was a merry occasion bringing together people from all levels of the industry. It was also characterised by the realisation that greater responsibility vis – vis alcohol abuse should play an important role throughout the entire industry.

Dr Franklin Sonn, well-known academic, businessman and former ambassador to the USA, was honoured together with three other well-known personalities in the liquor industry and inaugurated as members of the Brandy Guild. Dr Sonn, who is also a director of KWV, was the keynote speaker on this occasion.

The three other new Guild members are Denzil Weitz, wine and brandy educator, Khehle Mtembu, former chairman of the Sun International Group and currently chief executive of Old Mutual in Gauteng, and Michael Sternberg, managing director of Diamond’s Discount Liquors, one of the Western Cape’s liquor chains.

The four now join 50 other Brandy Guild members, which includes Trevor Manuel, Prof Kader Asmal, Dr Anton Rupert, Peter Veldsman and André P Brink.

Bertie van der Merwe, witty as ever, retires this year as chairman of the Brandy Guild and pointed out that although the brandy industry found itself in a particularly competitive market, he was once again able to announce that the wine and brandy industry was alive and well.

“For the 12 months to the end of December 2002 brandy sales once again exceeded the 40 million litre mark.”

He added that brandy constituted 40% of all spirits sales in South Africa. Five of the ten most popular spirits brands in the country were brandy. Brandy also sold twice as much as any other spirits category in the liquor industry.

Referring to minister Manuel, also a member of the guild, he said: “I see the minister could not be present tonight. This might well be a good thing, because usually he has a jolly good time here with us, only to hit the brandy industry in his next budget with a massive increase in excise!”

He also paid tribute to the brandy marketers, especially those from Distell and KWV, who have done so much to give brandy a modern, trendy image.

Referring to the new South African Wine and Brandy Company, he said it has been warmly received on all fronts and despite official goals and activities not having been spelled out yet, he believed that, acting as unifying force in the wine and brandy industry, it would result in improved co-operation and also promote the respective interests in a dynamic and pro-active manner.

In his speech Dr Sonn said, inter alia, there existed an urgent need to fight alcohol abuse in South Africa. “I see it among my people – the brown people – and one cannot deny that alcohol abuse results in massive social problems. The time has come to make a concerted effort to fight it. Only by stamping out this vice will the liquor industry reap the benefits of a better image.”

Amidst all the mirth, there were also numerous conversations about alcohol abuse in black townships. Some of the shebeen owners present mentioned action groups that had been set up in places such as Soweto specifically to address alcohol abuse.

If necessary, explained one lady, they would refuse to serve someone liquor if that person had already had too much to drink. “We are now fed up with alcohol abuse, and we as suppliers also want to do something about this vice.” – Maureen Joubert

The Industry Moves Ahead

There is nothing stuffy or static about brandy, especially in the light of the South African brandy industry’s onslaught on the local and international tourism market. On the occasion of the Brandy Guild’s annual gala banquet, WineLand took a closer look at the current state of affairs in the brandy industry.

In 1997 the wheel started turning in all earnest with the introduction of South Africa’s first Western Cape Brandy Route, an initiative of the South African Brandy Foundation, the body founded in 1984 by the industry as a whole to promote the image, unique characteristics and culture of local brandy.

According to Pietman Retief, director of the Brandy Foundation, the decision to establish a Brandy Route was motivated by two important factors. “Firstly there was the enormous increase in wine tourism which coincided with the growth in stature of South Africa – and the Western Cape in particular – as an international tourism destination, as well as the overall growth of the local tourism industry.

“This phenomenon, which has manifested itself since the beginning of the 1990s, coincided with numerous new entrants to the brandy industry, in particular wine estates who were allowed to distill their own brandies. This resulted in a new spectrum of brandies, brandy styles and places to visit, all of which we considered to be important to tourists visiting the winelands.”

The Western Cape Brandy Route was therefore introduced in 1997 – 325 years after the first brandy was made in South Africa. This includes a variety of brandy cellars, situated in the most picturesque parts of the Western Cape winelands. From Avontuur Estate outside Stellenbosch it runs past the Van Ryn Cellar in Lynedoch. From there onward to Louisenhof, Uitkyk against the slopes of Simonsberg, and Backsberg in Simondium. In the centre of Paarl there is the well-known Laborie Estate, and further afield in Franschhoek one finds Cabriere, a cellar that has literally been built into the mountainside. Outside Wellington, one of the burgeoning wine regions, is De Compagnie Estate and a newcomer, Oude Wellington, and then Worcester offers the biggest brandy cellar of its kind in the world: the KWV House of Brandy.

It goes without saying that the big, established brandy cellars, such as the Van Ryn Brandy Cellar outside Stellenbosch, and the KWV House of Brandy in Worcester, were founder members of the Brandy Route, which currently comprises nine places to visit.

“At the time these cellars were already equipped for tourists and offered tours and brandy tastings, just like they still do today,” says Retief.

“But the enthusiasm of the smaller wine estates who focussed on the distillation of brandy in unique, singular ways, enabled us to give visitors a more intimate glimpse of the South African brandy industry and culture.”

Anyone who has embarked on the trail of this Brandy Route will concur. On the one hand you get KWV’s impressive House of Brandy, where 120 copper pot still kettles vigorously distill wine to the pure distillate which is transformed into the golden liquid known as brandy after at least three years’ maturation in French oak. Tour groups are also exposed to the cooperage, where the maturation barrels are still assembled by hand in the traditional manner, as well as the maturation cellar where 44 000 oak barrels of brandy mature in peace and quiet.

On the other side of the spectrum there are small, intimate cellars, such as Louisenhof outside Stellenbosch. Here brandy is distilled in an antique 131 litre pot still built in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1930. And at the well-known Backsberg Estate in Simondium, between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, one finds a glimmering pot still which is imported from the Cognac region of France and used to make the Sydney Back Estate Brandy. In actual fact, Backsberg was one of the first estates who started distilling brandy once legislation was amended to allow this practice.

Right from the word go this brandy showed its mettle and it has been awarded a trophy as the best brandy in the world.

“Since we started marketing the Western Cape not only as a wine region, but also as a brandy region, there has been a tremendous surge in interest – not only among tourists who have discovered a new aspect of the South African wine and vine culture, but also from the consumer’s point of view,” says Retief.

“As a result of all the new entrants to the industry, there are currently approximately 50 brandy brands in South Africa, and I dare say no other country in the world is able to offer the same combination of quality and variety.

“Especially after the estates started making brandies which reflect each particular estate’s own grapes, distilling methods and philosophy about the product, local wine and brandy lovers started looking differently at South African brandy and the variety of products on offer.”

Those who have already embarked on the Brandy Route – or a part of it – and tasted the products on offer, will agree. At the Van Ryn Brandy Cellar you will find the stalwart Viceroy, a five-year-old brandy which is an ideal mixer with soda, Coke and fruit juice. The same table offers Van Ryn Collector’s Reserve 10 Year Old, so soft and seductive on the palate that you want to enjoy it in small soothing sips.

Whereas Laborie Estate makes its delicious five year old Alambic brandy from Chardonnay grapes, with nutty and chocolate flavours, you only have to drive over the hill to Uitkyk to taste their 10 year old product, which leans towards the soft flavours of tropical fruit.

People are going out of their way to discover these brandies.

According to Tanya Storm, public relations officer at the KWV House of Brandy, says the cellar receives approximately 11 000 visitors per annum. “Mostly from Britain and Germany, but also from America and then, of course, lots of local visitors.”

Here one can taste a variety of products made by KWV, one of the country’s best-known brands – from the three year, five year and ten year old brandies to the fabulous 20 year old, if you are in luck!

Suzaan Basson, public relations officer at the Van Ryn Brandy Cellar, says there has been more and more interest in brandy since the inception of the Brandy Route. “People are interested, ask questions and we also do a lot of sales at the cellar door,” says Basson. “Annually we get about 8 600 visitors – local and overseas – who show up for cellar tours. But there are obviously quite a few who arrive simply to see what the cellar looks like and to buy a bottle of brandy.”

The smaller estates on the Brandy Route also benefit from their involvement in the brandy industry. “It is true that we are better known as a wine cellar,” says Carolyn Carswell, public relations officer of Avontuur Estate outside Stellenbosch. “But when visitors see that we also make brandy, they show definite interest and its adds another dimension to their visit.”

Following the success of the Western Cape Brandy Route, the Brandy Foundation introduced a second route three years ago which runs through an entirely different part of the country, namely the Klein Karoo. The R62 Brandy Route, which follows the well-known road from Worcester to Oudtshoorn, also offers seven stopovers. It starts at the KWV House of Brandy, and from there the scenic road takes you to Montagu to visit the Montagu Museum with all its exhibits about the local brandy culture. Then onwards to the Barrydale Cellar, Boplaas in Calitzdorp, Grundheim outside Oudtshoorn, the Kango Cellar in Oudtshoorn and the Mons Ruber Estate outside the tiny town of De Rust. Once again there is a magnificent variety of brandies to taste, with lots of interesting sites surrounding the cellars.

The role to be played by the Brandy Routes in the wine tourism industry must not be underestimated. According to Dr Johan Bruwer of the University of Adelaide, an expert in the field of wine tourism, the majority of cellar visitors are younger than 35 years with a high level of education and income. “This creates the ideal opportunity for producers to market the culture, since talking to an informed person facilitates communication. Three out of ten visitors to wine cellars are from abroad, with about 70% from the United Kingdom, the USA, Germany, France and the Netherlands.”

According to Retief, who is also involved in the Western Cape tourism industry at various levels, the most important goal is to promote South Africa’s unique brandy culture and variety of products. “We are not Cognac, we are not the Napa valley – and with due respect, that is not who we want to be, either. South African brandy stands on its own two feet as a world quality product, to be seen and experienced by everyone, thanks to the Brandy Routes.”

So it’s all systems go!

For more information, contact the SA Brandy Foundation on (021) 887-3157 or e-mail info@sabrandy.co.za. Website: www.sabrandy.co.za

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