The Fine Brandy Fusion is probably one of Johannesburg’s best public events in any calendar year. Held at the Sandton Convention Centre, and hosted by the South African Brandy Foundation, this event is spacious, leisurely and relaxed.
It feels like real old fashioned South African hospitality. The fact that the stands are large and mostly set up with lounges and plenty of seating is probably what gives this festival its welcoming atmosphere, but the brandy, of course, goes a long way to making one feel at home.
This is the second year I have attended the Fine Brandy Fusion and it was both the same (in atmosphere, venue, facilities and education opportunities) and different (in layout, presentation, entertainment and information offered). Also, last year I attended with someone who was, like me, a complete novice to the world of brandy, while this year I attended with someone quite knowledgeable. I find that who I take to a function colours my perceptions of that function.
The information booklet put out by the South African Brandy Foundation is interesting take home reading and I found this booklet as fascinating this year as I did last year. Last year I spent some time sniffing (out of huge balloons) the scents of the Brandy Aroma Wheel. This year these were placed in oversized laboratory type flagons. We gave that a miss, but couldn’t help being accosted by these scents as we made our way into the hall. They are important because these aromas are what discerning brandy drinkers are meant to pick up when nosing their snifter of fine brandy.
I had pre-booked one of the masterclasses – the KWV brandy and chocolate pairing – and we worked our schedule around this, doing our serious tasting (excluding the KWV stand) before this class and leaving dinner and cocktails until after this. Nearly all of the stands allowed us to have “half tots” so that we could taste more while comparing notes and still staying reasonably sober. We blessed them for their understanding. Not that the number of tickets which come standard with entrance is a problem. Between the two of us we did not finish one book of tasting tickets, nevermind the two we were given. This was also true last year. However, it does minimize the waste when one is serious about only a taste and then abandoning the rest of the tot.
Last year I found that I had some favourites – KWV, Van Ryn, Richelieu and Collison’s (where we attended a cocktail making course which was the highlight of last year’s attendance). It was at and about the Van Ryn stand that I made comments about the pairing of chocolate and brandy, a time honoured pairing, last year. Chocolate was a side theme in 2013.
We started our 2014 visit at the Richelieu stand. The piano accordian player I first met last year once again thrilled us, but we missed last year’s can can ladies. We did our tasting there and were particularly impressed with the Richelieu International XO which was voted the World’s Best Cognac 2013.
We moved to Oude Molen where we enjoyed some of their premium brandies, did a quick white chocolate truffle tasting at Collison’s, watched a presentation of cocktail making at Fabbri (more chocolate tasting) by award-winning mixologist, Kurt Schlechter. He is an experienced bartender who is not only the current cocktail champion, but also the person who will represent South Africa at the World Bartending Championships in Cape Town later this year. He has trained the country’s best bartenders who have gone on to take top honours at international flair competitions. I have invited him to join me with some other Johannesburg bloggers for a fun cocktail evening sponsored by the people who pay him. Please let me know in the comments if you are a blogger who would like to join us for this event.
We missed most of the cooper’s barrel making demonstration at the Van Ryn stand, catching only the tail end of the art of turning French oak staves into brandy barrels. This was another thing which seemed to be very impressive to those who watched.
We wandered into the Klipdrift stand this year. Klipdrift is, of course, the home of the famous “Klippies and coke”. They were marketing three brandies, their Klipdrift Premium, the Klipdrift Premium and the Klipdrife Gold. There were three cocktails there (and towards the end of the evening we tasted two of them, a fruity one and a gingery one). It was, however, their new product, XO Black Gold infused with chocolate and coffee which got my attention. It is not a liqueur, but it is “like a liqueur” except less sweet. We decided that Black Gold, with good coffee and hand made chocolates, would make an excellent dessert for the non-dessert types (like my friend) who are so difficult to cater for at the sweets stage of the meal.
Of course, with the KWV masterclass booked, it was inevitable that the evening would find them getting the lion’s share of attention. We wandered in to find four filled snifters, and our masterclass leader waiting for us. The place mats had wrapped chocolates for us placed under the names of the four brandies and below that details of the chocolates. We didn’t have to take notes. It was all done for us.
We started, of course, with the youngest, the KWV 5 year old brandy, their standard brandy – they don’t sell three year old brandy, the minimum age at which brandy may be sold in South Africa. We get a lesson in how brandy tasting differs from wine tasting – swirling is a no-no. It releases the volatile aromas and leaves only the alcohol behind. We approach the snifter gently and reverently. Then we are allowed to swirl to see the “tears” form. “The reason for the tears”, he jokes, “is because the brandy is crying because it wants to be older.” This is paired with a hazelnut praline. The praline softens the high alcohol and the nuttiness enhances the fruitiness of the brandy.
The KWV 10 year old is my standard brandy of choice. It was pointed out that this particular brandy is very often sought out by women because of its lingering fruity aftertaste which is almost sweet. My friend poked me knowingly when this comment was made. It was paired with milk chocolate.
The KWV 15 year old was voted the Best Brandy in the world in 2013, a title which it currently holds. This was paired with 70% cocoa dark chocolate because the bitterness of the chocolate and the sweetness of the brandy “prove that opposites attract”.
The 20 year old brandy was paired with white chocolate so that the vanilla and fruity flavours of this brandy would combine with the creaminess of the dessert to be a match made in heaven. It was the one pairing which didn’t work for me, the brandy being much nicer than the candy.
The one surprise of this tasting is that the chocolate, Belgian style, is from Huguenot Fine Chocolates in Franschhoek. South Africa makes world class brandy. South Africa makes world class chocolate.
The earlier masterclass featured Bisquit cognac’s Loïc Rakotomalala from France and we certainly heard good reports about that, but one can’t get to everything, speaking of which I missed Mi Casa performing their gig – well, as a gig groupie properly enjoying the sound. We also didn’t wander over to look at the Porsches, but that didn’t stop us from casting envious glances at them when we walked past.
After the masterclass (and after walking past the Porsches again) we had dinner. The catering was, like last year, excellent. Unlike last year we could not redeem our coffee vouchers in the dining room, so we purchased coffee and were a little disappointed to find it presented in take away cups. We could have got the take away cups with our vouchers. We wanted to sit and savour the coffee the way we had enjoyed the meal.
The evening had flown by and when we emerged we had only time to taste the cocktails as aforesaid. I am a firm believer that there is no inherent difference between a fancy cocktail where the brandy is diluted with juice then dollied up with a fancy decoration and brandy diluted with Coke or Coke Zero. Diluted brandy is diluted brandy, and your choice of what dilutes it is simply a matter of personal preference. The “Urban Brandy Cocktail Routes” are being promoted and the Johannesburg route takes in eight of Joburg’s top venues – African Pride and Fire & Ice Hotel, both in Melrose Arch, Kong and Hush, both in Rosebank and Vivace, The Park Inn and Radisson Blu at the three Radisson Hotels in Sandton. I do my “brandy and coke” only in the serenity of the African bush in front of a fire – a somewhat more rarefied and exclusive setting … “met eish, ja”. Either way, only the purists who never dilute their brandy with anything other than a splash of water or a block of ice may turn up their noses.
So, for me the highlights of the evening were getting to taste both the current best brandy and the current best cognac in the world as judged by the IWSC (International Wine & Spirits Competition), the discovery of Black Gold and the wonderful companionship which one cannot help but share over a snifter of good brandy.
One of the other things I learned at the 2014 Fine Brandy Fusion evening was about Potstill brandy (and blended brandy and vintage brandy). We missed tasting the Elsenburg 13 Year Old Potstill brandy, but it was on our list of things we wanted to do. Alas, there is only so much one can do in the time allotted – two evenings would be easy to fill.
When I got home and read a little about the history of South African brandy I was further delighted. The Fine Brandy Fusion Festival is an experience which lingers until the pressures of the next working day overwhelm it. But one can unpack it in one’s mind eye and enjoy it again from time to time, looking back with pleasure, and forward to next year’s event with anticipation.