Wine: Brian Elliot sets out to discover the Amarula story

Amarula Cream sales are second only to Baileys in the worlds cream liqueur sector.
Amarula Cream sales are second only to Baileys in the worlds cream liqueur sector.
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A selection of Chilean wines and the South African liqueur Amarula are suggested.

F rom the moment it won the trophy for Best Liqueur in the World in 2007, everyone could see that Amarula Cream was no ordinary tipple. Launched in 1989, it is a blend of cream and distilled marula fruit – the product of a South African tree. The critical acclaim it has won has marched in step with significant commercial success so that sales are second only to Baileys in the world’s cream liqueur sector.

Intrigued by this extraordinary success, I set out to discover the Amarula story. But first things first: is the content of the bottle really that good? The answer is a resounding yes. If the touches of sweetness most cream liqueurs contain do not appeal to some, they are fully counter- balanced by the extra texture and the silky mouth-feel they bring to the party. Too often, however, the finish is spoiled because it is dominated by the taste of the liqueur’s dairy-based components.

Amarula Cream avoids that trap and centres its flavours around mellow tropical fruit, hints of lemon and an undercurrent of toffee and nutty chocolate. At 17 per cent alcohol, it is light by after-dinner-drink standards but, like other cream-centred products, it works well in cocktails, adding substance and taking the edge off any tart components.

The marula fruit is the shape and colour of a greengage, with thick skin and a mango-style stone. Its flesh is juicy and distinctive, with substantially more vitamin C than, for example, oranges. The trees, which have strong associations with health, marriage and fertility – and are loved by elephants (hence the label) – are plentiful but only in a very restricted area in the north-east of South Africa. The production process that takes its fruit from the branch to the bottle is an impressive one that also incorporates sorely needed local enterprises.

I chatted to one of those involved – a woman with a contentedly sleeping baby strapped to her back – as we stood outside the processing plant at Phalaborwa, deep in South Africa’s game reserve county. She showed me bags of fruit she had collected from the veldt and explained how they will enhance her family income nicely – for marula she is paid is about four times the going labour rate for the area.

Once in the factory, the fruit is checked for ripeness and quality, then put through the washing, stoning and pulping process before being transported in temperature-controlled conditions the 1,200 miles to the Cape. One simple test drops the fruit into water, and if some of the fleshy interior has been eaten by an insect the resulting air makes the fruit float. Healthy specimens sink.

The contribution to the local economy does not end here. The stones are given back to the community because the kernel is an edible nut of the cashew family and the shell can also be used in the production of face cream. Both are useful sources of additional revenue for a far-from-prosperous area.

Stellenbosch, some 30 miles east of Cape Town, being a wine-producing area, has the equipment needed to finish the job. Here, the pulp is turned to wine – using cultivated yeast to preserve consistency – and sent straight to the still. Double distillation then brings the alcohol to the desired level before the liquid is matured for two years in old French oak. The final task is to blend the resulting spirit with good-quality local cream.

Alliances with the community feature in this part of the country too, with the project at Sir Lowry’s Pass. It uses an interesting social enterprise to create the tassels that are attached to every bottle. the firm employs 85 local women (having started with just four in 2003) in an example of empowered team-working that would be radical anywhere – teams of four decide their working days and hours and select new members themselves.

This combination of an excellent product and a remarkable social model is great to see and provides yet another reason to seek out a bottle of Amarula Cream (around £12.50, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda, Tesco and Morrisons) as we celebrate a major influence for social cohesion nearer home. Today, after all, is Mother’s Day.

2010 Errazuriz Estate Shiraz Aconcagua Valley, Chile, 13 per cent This is classic shiraz from an ever-reliable producer at an excellent price. It has vibrant cherry fruit that mingles with soft touches of raspberry then rides out on a spicy, cinnamon-style finish. £6.74 (down from £8.99 until Tuesday), Waitrose

2011 Santa Carolina Reserva Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley, Chile, 13.5 per cent A very different sauvignon, this one delivers all the clean crispness you would expect but with tropical fruit (and especially sharp orange) flavours rather than the customary gooseberry. £8.49 (as part of a mixed case), Majestic