During a presentation I did at Educvin in Burgundy last year, one of the winemakers said it was every so often necessary to take one’s palate out of the comfort zone. “Electro-shock” he called it. Put something in your mouth that shakes, rattles and burns your flavour sensors, re-awakening them for the next period of wine tasting.
I don’t know if this was what Yves had in mind, but I am partial to a double brandy-and-Coke poured to the ratio of a third brandy and two thirds Coke. This hefty dose of spirited sweetness is met with alarm by my cultivated tasting tools, having them cry out in anguish before they are – like their possessor – lulled into a lovely alcoholic comatose state.
My grog of choice remains the fine Wellington VO, a brandy that has the power, depth and confidence to withstand the onslaught of the Coke.
In any event, during a recent bout of brandy-and-Coking, I was shaken by a state of uninhibited tightness by wondering what has happened to the South African brandy industry?
Now, the South African wine industry – full of more doomsayers and pessimists than you find among a gang of schoolboys attending a convent dance – is filled with tales of self-pitying woe. But when last did one really look at the tragedy of brandy?
When I was working with the one-and-only Pietman Retief, director of the SA Brandy Foundation, sales of brandy in South Africa were at just under 55m litres per annum. (1997). Those were glory years indeed: taking journalists on brandy tours, toying-toying with shebeen-owners, driving golf carts into dams and hosting brandy tastings at the office in the old slave quarters in Herte Street.
The Brandy Foundation was a terrific generic marketing body, keeping things simple and personable, largely due to the presence of Retief, one of the best and most amiable marketers the local booze industry has ever seen.
I don’t really know what is currently happening in the brandy industry’s inner workings, but if one does as former Springbok forward Boy Louw implored one to do and you “looks at the scoreboard”, things ain’t pretty.
In 2011, local brandy sales had plummeted to just over 39m litres and insiders have it that this year will see it dropping faster than a second year student’s panty after her third tequila shooter.
What does this mean for the wine industry? Well, brandy is made from wine. Five litres of wine to make one litre of brandy, to be exact. So with 15m litres less brandy going around, there is a lot more grapes and wine that needs selling in other forms.
The decline in sales is puzzling. Scarcely an international liquor competition goes by without a South African brandy being awarded a gong for Best Brandy in the Universe, or some such prize.
The irreverent, self-deprecating advertisements for Klipdrift have become beloved national institutions. Even actor Jamie Foxx is flogging the stuff to star-struck brothers in Black Diamondville.
Yet sales are tanking.
In the meantime, look at whisky. Just over 35m litres sold in South Africa in 2011, while back in 1997 it was pushing 26m litres.
As the hotel waiter asked George Best when finding the soccer star counting dollar bills from the naked body of a Miss World: “Where did it all go wrong?”
Granted, whisky has an international image, is available at the same price as cheap brandy and is marketed by conglomerates with oodles of cash. And the sense of “foreignness” does make it an attractive proposition in a society thirsty for international brands.
But this alone cannot account for the brandy tragedy.
The problem with brandy is image. Unfortunately years of talking about brandy-and-Coke swilling Boere in the media and various general discussion forums have typified the brandy drinker as something having the sex appeal of a menopausal Afghan suicide bomber.
This image, the same image that South African farmers and especially Afrikaans speakers are laden with, is digging brandy’s grave.
Yes, brands are good and the brandy companies are doing a fine job at looking after their brands. But the brand that is brandy needs some serious generic surgery.
The signs are not vital. The need for a solution, however, are.
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