Driving through South Africa's Western Cape valleys of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek is like traveling through Napa and Sonoma 30 years ago. Fields of grapes grow everywhere, and the wine estates that nurture them produce chardonnay, chenin blanc, and cabernet sauvignon that rival the best of California. In South Africa, for a change of pace, try the brandy in addition to the wine. After all, the best brandy comes from fine wine and South Africa boasts both.
In 1998, South Africa's brandy distillers developed the Western Cape Brandy Route, an organized network of vineyards, distillers, and tasting houses, offering their take on this oft underappreciated liquor. More than 20 distilleries and tasting houses line the route as it stretches from Stellenbosch in the west to Outshoorn in the east, a distance of about 250 miles.
Renting a car is an option if one feels comfortable driving on the left side of the road, but it means the driver must forego most of the drinking. South Africa's drunk driving laws are very strict. A better option is to hire a driver and guide (relatively inexpensive in South Africa) and experience the route as a day trip or a series of them, returning each evening to Cape Town. The city's Table Bay Hotel is an elegant, gracious place to use as a base.
Stop 1: Van Ryn's Distillery
Begin your tour by heading east on National Road 2 from the Cape Town waterfront towards Stellenbosch, a sunny town with a Southern California climate. It takes an hour or so to reach small and highly-rated Van Ryn's Distillery. In Van Ryn's clubby yet airy tasting room, a personal brandy expert helps guests interpret Von Ryn's offerings. In South Africa, the highest quality, longest aged, and most expensive brandies are termed "pot still" with the appellations "vintage" and "blended" being a step down. Van Ryn's 15-year-old Reserve pot still is particularly memorable. Warming the brandy snifter in the palm of your hand unleashes aromas redolent of raisin and other tree fruits. Tasting it offers up hints of caramel and coffee.
Stop 2: Blaauwklippen Vineyards
From Van Ryn's, continue about a quarter hour east on good roads to the pretty town of Stellenbosch and stop at one of the many bistro patios for lunch. Then, head south towards Somerset to the Blaauwklippen Vineyards. First planted in 1682, these are the oldest vineyards in Stellenbosch and the second oldest in South Africa. Unlike Van Ryn, the Blaauwklippen tasting room offers brandies made not just in its own still, but from many distilleries along the Brandy Route. It's a convenient way to get a fuller appreciation of the regional terroir without the need for a long drive.
A session with a brandy advisor in Blaauwklippen's comfortable, laid-back tasting room provides an opportunity for really getting to know a diverse selection of local brandies, of various maturities and provenances. Blaauwklippen's own pot stills compare favorably. Utilizing a blend of the chardonnay, chenin blanc, and colombard wines grown in its vineyards, the eight- and 10-year-old pot stills won awards at the 2013 World Spirits Awards.
Stop 3: Oude Molen
A hour's drive south by east on N2 lies the city of Grabouw, home to Oude Molen, one of South Africa's best known brandy distillers. At the distillery's visitor center, the intrepid brandy tippler can get final samplings for the day in Oude Molen's tasting room or restaurant.
Oude Molen produces its spirits in huge stills, nicknamed Long Tom and Big Bertha. From this pair comes several interesting brandies, including a solera-style brandy, aging a blend of vintages in Spanish sherry casks. Perhaps the best bottle here is the V.O.V. Rare Reserve, a 14-year-old pot still created in a manner similar to French cognac.
After a final glass, relax with some coffee in the pleasant bistro, before making the one-hour drive back to Cape Town.
While ultimate truth lies on the tongue of the taster, the pot still brandies of South Africa compete favorably with the aged brandies of California, the brandies de Jerez of Spain, and even the Cognacs of France. Yes, the trip to South Africa from the United States is long, but the effort is amply rewarded.
If You Go:
South Africa Tourism
Table Bay Hotel
V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa
Roots Travel (Owen Jinka) – Guide and Driver
Cape Town, South Africa
Von Ryn Distillery and Brandy Cellar
Stellenbosch, South Africa
Stellenbosch, South Africa
Oude Molen Distillery
Grabouw, South Africa