The Van Ryn distillery, home to  28 000 barrels of brandy in various stages of maturation.
The Van Ryn distillery, home to 28 000 barrels of brandy in various stages of maturation.
Marlene Bester, Van Ryn's distillery manager.
Marlene Bester, Van Ryn's distillery manager.
Diemersdal's vines ahead of pruning and weeding.
Diemersdal's vines ahead of pruning and weeding.

Cape Town - As the only woman master distiller in South Africa, Marlene Bester heads a team of 22 at Van Ryn’s Stellenbosch distillery, which produces some of the world’s most awarded potstill brandies.

Recently they quietly celebrated their latest win: Van Ryn’s 15-year-old Fine Cask Reserve took home the Best Worldwide Brandy trophy last month, awarded by the International Spirits Challenge (ISC).

This is the fourth time since 2008 that this honour has gone to the distillery, which has collected similar titles from the rival British contest, the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC), five times. The latter has been going for some 45 years, while the ISC is just short of 20 years old.

The 2014 IWSC Best Brandy World trophy went to KWV’s 12-year-old this year – and this Paarl giant also boasts a fine record for its winning spirits.

It’s proof that South African brandies can hold their own against contenders from any country, and IWSC judge Dave Hughes commented that South African dominance in the field was widely appreciated.

At Van Ryn, Marlene’s team brings in brandy base wine from the Breede River and Oliphants River regions. It is double-distilled and matured for at least three years. Samples are then taken to identify “building blocks” for the various labels, to assess which will be further aged and for how long. Consistency is vital, as there are no specific vintages. Bester chooses the champion 15-year-old to sip in summer, often over ice, but moves to the 20-year-old in winter as it’s in a “richer, fuller style with dried fruit cake flavours”.

Her summer choice, appropriately gold in hue, greets with honey and citrus aromas, follows with hints of dried fruit and chocolate. Definitely not a spirit to be drowned in ginger ale or cola.

Less than 100 000 litres of this victorious aristocrat is produced (a drop in the ocean, says Bester, when you compare it to the 36 million litres produced in South Africa). The key market is home, while blended brandies in the stable do well in other African markets.

Bester will lead a tour and brandy tasting, exclusively for women, on Thursday August 28 at 11.30am. After visiting the copper stills and maturation cellar and watching a cooper in action, visitors will savour a range of brandies, paired with either handmade chocolates or Florentine biscuits. The tour costs R95; to book call 021 881 3875.


Now for something new from Diemersdal

As wine lovers who include Austria on their travels well know, Grüner Veltliner is a key white cultivar in that green and hilly land, where good examples can rival riesling in appeal. At their best they present some spice, including white pepper, while grapefruit dominates the citrus tones alongside variable minerality. Quality veltliners make companionable food wines, while inferior examples can be insipid.

Recently wine hacks savoured a prelude to summer at one of Durbanville’s oldest farms. Diemersdal was established as the 17th century grew to a close and today architectural styles within the werf pinpoint eras from Captain Diemer’s ownership to 1885, when the Louws took over.

Sixth-generation Thys Louw is in charge, and his passion for superior sauvignon blanc, with his varied and scintillating examples, rocketed the estate to world-class fame. Now there’s another white wine in the collection, a first for the Cape and no doubt Africa: the 2013 Diemersdal Grûner Veltliner is a maiden vintage produced from three hectares of five-year-old vines.

Frisky but not overly acidic, with a hint of spice, somewhat similar to a riesling, it’s a charmer, offering hints of green apple as well as citrus. It’s likely to develop over the next year or more and sells for R70 ex-farm. We also tried a tank sample of the 2014, still cloudy, but fruitier than its predecessor, with citrus tones dominating. Proceedings had begun with an aperitif of the 2013 unwooded chardonnay, another good reason to visit.

Thys obtained Grüner Veltliner stokkies from Austria in 2008, which he grafted on to rootstock. Eighteen months later he had a vineyard, and five years later brought in the first harvest. There were numerous negotiations, from legal matters to registration, but the result is a new wine of South Africa. Why did he do it? “Because I like it,” was the laconic reply.\

Myrna Robins, Weekend Argus