South African brandy has long held that high and much-assailed peak reserved only for the world’s most excellent spirits. Take a closer look and the hand-forged essence of this amber elixir is revealed, as demonstrated in the latest remarkable brandy releases of one small, but renowned country distiller. Replete with real 24ct gold flakes, the Upland 24K XO is a magical blend of taste and fantasy.
Through its creation, the exceptional new spirit made by Upland organic wine and brandy estate joins an exclusive league reserved for the rarest of milestone brandies. It comprises the best of brandies dating from the tiny Wellington farm’s earliest distillation and gets its name from the leaves of pure, 24 karat gold that are suspended in the amber spirit. There are only 21 bottles available, each blown by master craftsmen and imported from Italy.
“Upland estate does it again by pushing the innovation envelope. Distiller and owner Edmund Oettlé never ceases to surprise,” says SA Brandy Foundation director Christelle Reade-Jahn. “With his newest releases, he has firmly set a challenge and makes the world take note of the excellence in South African brandy. We await Edmund’s next steps with great excitement.”
In conceiving the brandy, Oettlé says he wanted to represent the absolute pinnacle of his distilling skills. The brandy also had to satisfy a visual aesthetic associated with the best. Simply put: it had to look great. So, the task of identifying the best of the estate’s brandies 15 years matured and older began.
Aiding Oettlé in the composition was a Master Distiller of Armagnac who came out from France and spent a week at the farm to evaluate samples. The result is a unique brandy where the magic begins with its appearance.
“The colour of almost all commercial brandies is adjusted with caramel to ensure consistency. 24K XO brandy has no such added colouring,” says Oettlé. “It is 100% natural, right down to its organically-grown grapes.”
The leaves of gold and autumnal shade of the liquid are subliminal invitations to reflection – “preferably by a fire with some dark chocolate or fine coffee,” Oettlé adds. Poured, the brandy releases multi-layered aromas of dried peaches, citrus, pineapple, butterscotch and crème brûlée that flow again through the palate. Its delicious, spectral character clings to the snifter even long after the last sip has vanished.
In addition to the 24K XO are two other newcomers in Upland’s premium brandy range:
• The Leonardo – a different blend of aged brandies older than 15 years, of which only 50 bottles are available. “Leonardo da Vinci’s genius came from his obsessions, which is how this brandy got its name,” says Oettlé. “It is beautifully balanced and expresses all that Leonardo stood for - elegance, beauty and simplicity.”
• Draken Wijn – a blend of 12 year old brandies that gets its name, translated from the Dutch Dragon Wine, from the surrounding Drakenstein Mountains.
Like any great spirit, greater appreciation comes from a glimpse into their birthplace. For Upland, translated from the Afrikaans Boland, it’s a historic rural farm community that once was a last outpost of the Cape. Its valleys often covered in early morning mist, the region lies at the foot of the Cape Fold Mountain range. Beyond the blue peaks were previously the unexplored expanses that old maps warned were inhabited by dragons.
Here too are the cathedral spires of the Drakenstein, another mythical home of those mythical fire-breathing creatures and their cavern hordes of gold.
Now, take the bumpy dirt road into the foothills that passes vineyards, fruit orchards and an olive grove to finally emerge at the tree shrouded homestead and unevenly cobbled werf. There are big shaggy dogs and smaller, cuddle-faced ones; roosters crowing from the shrubbery. Today, deep inside a warehouse cluttered with farming paraphernalia, projects in mid-design and other classic hallmarks of an inventor, Edmund Oettlé and a few workers bottle wines, one by one. It’s a painstaking process like everything undertaken at Upland, but that’s how Edmund and his wife, Elsie, stay true to their vision of holistic sustainability - that their produce literally doesn’t cost the earth.
Conversely, it’s not the cheapest way to farm. True organic farms may yield fruit that is more natural, but also generally see lower yields because chemicals are not used to boost production. Where traditional wine farms average between 8 to 10 tons of grapes per hectare, the vineyards for Upland’s 24K XO brandy for example yielded less than two. At this scale, the risks and challenges are far bigger than for large producers.
Upland has some 10ha along a river that passes through the property and provides crops with rich nourishment from deep alluvial soils. Alongside is another 37ha that climbs steeply towards the mountains. There are various crops on the farm; for the brandy, Oettlé uses Chenin Blanc and Cape Riesling (Crouchen) grapes, and recently planted Colombar as well.
He relies on a handful of staff and appreciates the good relationship he has with them. “When harvest comes, everyone must look forward to it. It's a critical time. Our focus is on super, super premium quality.”
It has taken years of learning to get to this point for Oettlé, a qualified veterinarian. After acquiring the property, he had to learn how to farm grapes. Distilling came out of necessity – he sought a way to add value to his white wines. He admits: “I took a gamble.”
He learnt how to weld copper and built an 850-litre still. Oettlé filled four barrels with the first spirit he distilled in 1998 and, as he recalls, “waited with baited breath.”
Within seven years, Upland brandy had collected its first award – a gold medal at an international competition based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Since then, Oettlé’s grape growing and brandy-making skills have been honed even more. Amongst other innovations, he has a drying rack mounted over the insulated copper potstill where he dries his peaches during season.
He’s excited by the brandies coming out of the small, crammed and own-built cellar. He also believes there are still many people who haven't yet realised that “brandy can be truly magnificent”.
Nosing a glass of his XO, he exclaims: “"Hey man! Isn't that just so yummy?
“I've always wanted to make something you can enjoy and I believe I’m doing exactly that – giving pleasure. People come in here and taste; then, there’s that smile and I know: you're going to have a wonderful time!”
The brandies are all bottled at 40% ABV. The 24K XO is priced at R8 000 a bottle; the Leonardo, R4 000; and, Draken Wijn, R1 000.
Upland organic wine and brandy estate is open by appointment only. For more information, visit www.organicwine.co.za Contact the farm on firstname.lastname@example.org or 082 731 4774.