Pay Homage to South African Brandy at the KWV House of Fire

14/June/2017
Karl Tessendorf

Few South African beverages conjure up as much mystery and intrigue as brandy. Most people have no clue how it’s made, or that we have some of the strictest purity laws in the world. The truth is South Africa is consistently awarded the world’s finest brandy title and KWV is up there with the best of them. The House of Fire in Paarl is KWV’s homage to the legacy of Cape brandy. It’s a one-of-a-kind sensory journey and as winter finally descends, there’s never been a better time to visit.

One of my highlights, besides the ridiculously good tasting, was a brief glimpse into the history of Cape brandy. The story began in 1672 when the first brandy was distilled aboard the Dutch ship called, Pilj. It was anchored in Table Bay Harbour and as the story goes, the assistant cook distilled roughly 1164 litres of Cape wine over a fire into 126 litres of brandy. One can only imagine what the brandy would’ve tasted like by today’s standards, but back then I’m sure it was liquid gold.

KWV was formed in 1918 and in 1926 they produced their first brandy in the very building that is now the House of Fire.

It was one of the first distilleries in Paarl and was still operational up until 1991. Today, all KWV’s brandies are produced in Worcester and made from Chenin or Colombard grapes. They are chosen for low sugar content and high acidity. The grapes are crushed and fermented to make wine before being placed into the potstill. The wine is distilled to produce low wine and from there the low wine is distilled again to produce brandy. There are three stages during the second distillation – the head, heart and tail. Only the heart, which is the purest form, is put into barrels to mature.

The barrels are where the brandy magic really happens. KWV only use French oak and the maximum barrel size is 340 L. This ensures maximum wine to wood contact time. As the days roll into years the clear liquid takes on the character of the wood transforming into golden nectar. To illustrate this process, one of the display barrels has perspex panels to give viewers a glimpse inside. After maturation, the Brandy Master will create various blends that fall into the three brandy categories: 100% Potstill, Vintage, or Blended. Producing world-class blends takes a rare breed of talent and years of experience.

One of the most interesting things I learnt during my tour was just how strict South African brandy law is. Even mixing brandy has to be a minimum of 30% potstill brandy, and aged for three years in a barrel.

As I climbed the stairs to the tasting floor, I jokingly asked my guide if he ever gets asked for Coke to which he replied, more times that he’d like. The brandy that we’re about to taste is the good stuff. The kind you drink neat to truly appreciate the art of brandy.

The tasting table is an elegant set up that gives a bird’s eye view of the copper potstills. On the table are four tasters and each is paired with a handmade Belgian chocolate. Armed with new knowledge I realised that I was about to taste four brandies that have all have won the title of World’s Best Brandy – not a bad way to spend a Friday morning. My guide explained that the tasting is a two stage process. First, we taste the brandies on their own to appreciate the different flavour profiles. Then we’d start again and pair the brandies with the chocolates.

The tasting includes the premium 10, 12, 15 and 20-year-old brandies. The 10 is approachable with smooth peach, apricot and spice flavours. The 12 is fragrant and complex with dried fruit, potpourri and hints of white chocolate. The 15 is deeply fruity with bold spice flavours and probably my favourite of the lot. The 20 was mature with intense oaky, nutty flavours and a lingering fruity finish.

It really was an outstanding tasting and when paired with the chocolates the result was sublime.

Each chocolate, be it milk, white, dark, or nut was chosen to perfectly complement its brandy. The chocolate rounds the corners of the brandy, while the warmth of the alcohol cuts through the richness. It was my first brandy and chocolate pairing but it will definitely not be my last.

For the serious connoisseur, the House of Fire also offers a VIP blending session with KWV’s Brandy Master. Guests are taken through a blind tasting of the four premium brandies as they pick and choose the quantities of their own blend. Each bottle of the custom blend is personalised and the average age of your brandy is determined. For any serious brandy lover, I don’t think it gets much better than that.

The House of Fire Experience

Option 1:
House of Fire Tour and Chocolate & Brandy Pairing
Duration: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Cost: R120 pp
Departure point: KWV Wine Emporium
Cellar Tours: Monday to Friday at 11:30 AM or 2:30 PM.

Option 2:
Blending Experience with KWV’s Brandy Master.
House of Fire Tour, tasting, brandy blending & bottling with our Brandy Master (canapes included). Each guest gets to take a bottle home with a special label.
Duration: 2 hours
Cost: R1500 pp (Max 6 guests)

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