Carrie’s Corner: Talking brandy with Cape winemaster, Winnie Bowman

In this episode, wine expert Carrie Adams sits down with Winnie Bowman, a renowned Cape wine master. The pair discuss the history of brandy in South Africa – and the importance the often overlooked liquor has to the local wine industry. – Jarryd Neves

Winnie Bowman on the history of brandy in South Africa:

It really all started with the Dutch and the Dutch East India company coming to South Africa and stopping here for the replenishment of their supplies. The Cape area is called the Cape of Storms because of all the heavy swells in the sea. The sailor who first spotted land after they successfully navigated the Cape of Storms, was rewarded with a tot of brandy. They were all very keen to have it, and while they were here, there was not enough to go around.

They had this innovative chef who started distilling in the kitchen of the ship. The first brandy was produced in 1672. It was, of course, rough as anything because it had not been double distilled and it had not seen an inch of wood. So it was just the rough spirit. But it mattered not to anybody. As much as he could make, it was sold as soon as it was available. So that’s where the brandy industry in South Africa really started.

On the difference between brandy and cognac:

Well, it’s the geographic space and, of course, we are not allowed to call it that. But there’s also a much bigger difference, and that is the rules for ageing. In cognac – the lowest level of cognac (which is VS) – only needs to be aged for two years in oak. In South Africa, by law, it is three years. That three years also applies to blended brandy. If it’s not made in the region of Cognac, it may not be called cognac.

On how much brandy is produced in South Africa:

That figure of how much we produce is a little bit of an industry secret. But what I can tell you is how much we sell. We sell about 30 million litres of brandy a year – that’s about 40 million bottles. That is mainly local, and part of the reason – I’ve been advocating for a very long time – in Europe, the bottling volume is 700 mls. Our bottles are 750 mls. If they want to make a big push into the EU, that needs to be packaged in 700 ml bottles.

Brandy as a part of the wine industry:

 It takes five litres of wine to make one litre of brandy. The brandy is actually quite a big part of the wine industry, because to sell 30 million litres of brandy, you would have had to distill 150 million litres of wine. So it’s a big contributor to the wine industry.

On the effects of the liquor ban on the alcohol industry:

In the last few days – with the new harvest looming – there’s been a lot of panic in the wine industry, because I’ve heard figures from between 65% and 80% of wine producers that still have wine from last year, from the 2020 vintage in their tanks. They don’t have space for the new wine. I got a call from somebody who said they’ve got 60 tons of beautiful Sauvignon Blanc to sell, but because they cannot use it, their tanks are full. We need to be able to move this wine in order to accommodate the new harvest.

It’s quite an urgent problem. It’s not only the wine producers. If you think about the people who supply the bottles, labels, closures, the transport and the foils, for example. It is a very big knock on effect.

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