At the end of the 19th century a flamboyant young French officer, Rene Santhagen, arrived at the Cape. He was an expert in the art of distilling.
Sammy Marks set up a distillery just outside Pretoria where Santhagen plied his trade with success until the Boer War put an end to operations. Undaunted he packed up his cognac pot-stills and moved to the Western Cape, starting his own distillery at Oude Molen near Stellenbosch. Here he made brandy in the Cognac style, aging it in vats of imported French oak.
Later a co-operative was established and legislation was passed enshrining and ensuring standards of quality for South African brandy production, which proceeded under licence according to strict legal specifications.
The best grapes for brandy making in South Africa are colombard, chenin blanc, cinsaut, palomino and sauvignon blanc. These are lightly pressed and the free running juice is used for fermentation to wine. The distilling process "exposes the heart and soul of the grape" in copper pot-stills. The young wine is slowly heated by steam. As the temperature rises the volatile ingredients in the wine, including the alcohol, start to evaporate and are condensed back to liquid by cooling. This liquid contains about 30 percent alcohol by volume.
In the second step - the critical phase - the wine is distilled again. The early and unwanted fumes are removed and only the heart of the distillate is condensed, drop by drop, to a young brandy, full of the flavour of the grape. The alcohol content is now about 70 percent by volume.
Ageing is the mysterious part of brandy production - not even modern science can explain exactly what happens as the liquid lies in the restful darkness of a cool cellar in French oak vats. The legal requirement is that South African brandy be aged for three years minimum, and the vats are subject to specifications.
Finally, the matured brandy is blended by the brandy master, who jealously guards his secret recipe of blends from different vats and vintages.
Ports and Sherries
The sweet side of the wine family offers some particular challenges for the winemaker. All the sherry, dessert wines and liqueur wines that fall in this category share a common factor - they are made by adding wine spirit to natural wine.
The wine spirit added prevents the fermentation process, as it inactivates the yeast cells, and in this way some or all of the grape sugar is retained.
Port is unique because it is made of a specific grape variety, fortified with brandy rather than wine spirit, and undergoes a special maturation process.
Sherry's maturation is also highly specialised. Dry sherry is usually not drunk as a dessert wine, but as an aperitif before a meal.
In modern full-sweet dessert wines (jerepigo), very little or none of the natural sugar in the juice is allowed to ferment, which means that little or no alcohol is formed at this stage. A high degree of sweetness is retained and alcohol is added in the form of neutral wine spirit. This addition prevents the product from fermenting further. The degree of sweetness will depend on when the wine spirit is added to fortify the wine.
Ageing is a significant factor in determining the style of fortified wine. It can vary from short periods, in the case of some sweet dessert wines, to very long periods for port. Ageing can take place in tanks, or in large oak vats holding 7 000 to 14 000 litres, or small oak vats and pipes which hold about 500 litres.
The larger the vat, the slower the ageing process because interaction with the air, which takes place very slowly in wood, lessens in relation to the volume in the vat. In tanks not made of wood this interaction cannot take place at all. When air contact is absent or reduced, more of the original character of the wine is retained.
Pale sherry is made of varieties such as Chenin blanc. A natural wine is made and fermented completely dry by the addition of selected flor yeast cells. The wine is then fortified by adding neutral wine spirit. As soon as the young wine is fortified, it is transferred to oak vats which are only four-fifths filled. This is the first phase of ageing, known as the criadera (kindergarten). Here it lies for two years under a flor layer which develops on the surface, developing it's unique flavour. The flor can withstand high concentrations of alcohol and absorbs oxygen, forming a protective layer.
After the criadera period follows a long ageing and blending process in the solera - a system of three layers of vats. The wine moves through various stages, continuously being blended with sherries of different ages and vintages. The end product is never of a specific vintage, but its average age will be seven years when it leaves the system.
Brown sherry is aged differently, without flor yeast, resulting in a different flavour. The total ageing process varies from two to eight years.