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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Artikels | Features

The angel art of brewing cognac

Engela Neethling - 2008-07-09

CRADOCK – Career farmer, winemaker and Savingnac creator Roger Jorgensen turned his hand to distillation in 1994.

More than a decade of experience and valuable time with cognac mentors Robert Leaute of Remy Martin and Buks Venter of KWV has led to ever increasing specialisation in the art of transforming wild young wines into perfect amber Savingnac de Versailles.

We met Roger at The Tuyshuise at Cradock, where he spoke to an appreciative audience about the art of making cognac. Roger now concentrates only on the distillation and preparation of the 5- and 10-year-old Savingnacs while the 20-year-olds mature. Each release is handcrafted from a single cask and a single vintage. Each one is different, and each one is very special.

Roger and his wife Dawn live on the tiny historical family farm, Versailles, in the heart of Wellington with their five children, numerous animals, and rows of cobwebbed casks of maturing Savingnac.
In the late 17th century Huguenot farmers were drawn to the wild and beautiful Wellington valley by its fertile soils and cool streams. Pierre Cronier was the first owner of Versailles, and in 1688 he began to apply his Gallic flair and wine-growing skills to shape the future of his land.

Versailles and the valley flourished and gained a reputation for fine wines and brandies which still endures today. Cultivated in the shadow of the Limietberg, and watered by its gentle rains, the vines yield grapes perfect for Savingnac. The farms along the river boast fine Cape farmsteads, rich in history and shaded by oaks under which tales are still told of the passion and romance of the early farmer’s life.

Versailles is such a farm. Roger and Dawn thrive on the rich history that connects the years. Their passion is to perfect the ancient art of distillation brought from Cognac to the valley by the old Settlers. The Jorgensons' secluded property in the heart of Wellington is dedicated solely to this passion. The result is Savingnac de Versailles.

“The French are snobby when it comes to cognac, while the Americans believe that no household should be without a bottle of it,” says Roger.

As Cognac is a French trademark, nobody else is allowed to advertise their product as such, hence the name  Savingnac.  “Brandy, like cognac, can be made out of just about any wine. Distillation will separate the alcohol. But to create a spirit, like Savingnac, that is entirely natural, at the same time rich and smooth, subtle and satisfying, is the ideal challenge to the artist living in the winemaker,” said Roger.

Few brandies are made from a single vintage, a single variety or a single property. For balance and consistency most are blended from an array of aged stores, an art in itself, in the Cape as in Cognac. Without the luxury of blending, the challenge is really to aim at infinite subtlety and vintage nuances.

Roger has firm ideas on brewing brandy. “For the finest brandy, here in South Africa, I would use top-quality Chenin Blanc or Colombard grapes, neutral and clean tasting, with bracing acidity and hand-picked at 16-17°. Then follows balling, and 12 g/l acid, the de-stalking of grapes and pressing in a gentle bag press. Prise de Mousse yeast gives a clean fermentation and the rebate wine is ready for distillation. No preservatives may be used, so it is important to work quickly to transform the unprotected wine to 'low wines' before oxidation sets in. Note that, apart from yeast, nothing is added to the wine,” said Roger.

Batches of wine (500 litres), together with their fermentation lees, are transferred to the copper still for the first distillation. The still is heated till the alcohol in the wine vaporises and is driven up into the helm and on into the serpentine where it cools and condenses to form colourless but fragrant liquor. The rebate wine is thus distilled in batches till it is all turned into low wines. The average strength of these low wines will be in the region of 30-32 percent alcohol.

The low wines are now ready for the second, and most important, distillation into spirits. This time three fractions of alcohol are sought, and their management is critical to the style and quality of the brandy. Again 500 litre batches are heated in the still. The first fraction of the run, the "heads", contains some of the higher alcohols, volatile and unpleasant. “These run for only a few minutes and must be collected separately from the main run, or 'hearts'. The hearts, the true heart of the brandy, will run for hours filling the distillery with wonderful fragrances. The remainder, the third fraction, is the 'tails'. The exact cut-off points at the beginning and end of the hearts run are the choice of the distiller, but the object is to achieve hearts of 68-72 percent alcohol. Too much heads and tails in the brandy will spoil it; too little and time, energy and alcohol are wasted,” says Roger.

The heads and tails are returned to the low wine tank as they still contain alcohol and flavour. The hearts, still colourless and very fragrant, are retained for maturation.

It is important to note that alcohol itself is colourless and tasteless. The heart spirit that is retained for maturation may be 70 percent alcohol, but it is the 30 percent remainder that has all the flavour and latent quality, the esters and essences that we need to finish the transformation into brandy.

“It is during maturation in small oak casks that the most dramatic and least understood changes in the young brandy take place. Over the years the clear and fiery spirit mellows to amber-red-gold, vibrant liquor. Give it time: patience will be rewarded while the angels watch over it. From amber to old gold, and the brandy is ready for bottling. Only inferior commercial brandies need the addition of caramel, essences and sugar to persuade the imbiber that they are imitations of the real thing. Savingnac is the real thing,” he says.

Natural pot-still brandy, Savingnac, carefully hand-made, will tease the senses with layer upon layer of subtle and complex aromas - cedar and sandalwood, hazelnuts and cinnamon, jasmine, prune, chocolate, butterscotch, vanilla and wood smoke, but above all warmth. “Dilute the cask-aged spirit to bottling strength with good, soft rainwater, and do not begrudge the angels their share.”