Half-Century - Not Out: Kanonkop 1973-2015


Earlier this year, fourth-generation co-proprietor Johann Krige and winemaker Abrie Beeslaar flew over to London for a special tasting of Kanonkop wines to celebrate fifty years since their first bottled release. Of course, South Africa was a very different country back in those days, cut off from the rest of the world behind anti-apartheid sanctions. Consequently, its wines, then almost exclusively under government control, were entirely for domestic consumption. Kanonkop’s decision to bottle their own wine was uncommon in those days, not dissimilar to how Burgundy producers extricated themselves from selling their fruit to négociants and the resistance they had to endure. I had always wanted to taste a venerable vintage of this Stellenbosch stalwart - a constant through decades of tumultuous change. This was a unique chance to taste their maiden vintage. Before the wines were poured, Krige and Beeslaar presented a brief overview summarized below.

“In 1903, the Sauer family bought Uitkyk farm,” Krige explains in a brief recap (for readers wondering how to pronounce that name, think “oat cake”). Krige is a captivating orator, his audience hanging on every word enunciated in a thick Cape accent. A bit like winemaker Adi Badenhorst, he’s not averse to the odd controversial comment to spice things up, always with a wink in his eye. “The farm was eventually sold, but the family kept one part with favored terroir. The winery was built in 1942, with nothing much more than a wooden container and little surrounding it apart from wild brambles. Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee was appointed the first winemaker in 1968. My father and Boland started bottling in 1973: Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon. [Winemaker] Beyers Truter started in 1980, and the following year, the maiden Paul Sauer cuvée was released. In 1991, we won the IWSC Trophy, which was a big moment, and people started taking notice after sanctions were lifted. In 2002, Abrie Beeslaar was appointed winemaker.”

Johann Krige (left), together with his brother Paul Krige, co-owns Kanonkop with head winemaker Abrie Beeslaar (right).

Krige hands the baton to Beeslaar, who is more quietly-spoken than his boss. I have met him several times, both here and on the farm, a candid and principled winemaker with a deep well of knowledge. Surely, he must have felt some trepidation carving his own niche, following in the footsteps of two long-serving figures?

“I didn’t feel that I had to ‘win’ anything,” he answers. “It was more a case of refining what Jan Boland had done over the last 40 years.”

He then fields several questions about the Kanonkop vineyard.

“Our farming practices are part of the natural environment. For example, we use cover crops to improve the carbon percentage in the soil to enhance moisture, planting rye that grows quite high and also protects the bush vines against the wind. Some parcels have been re-trellised to also offer wind protection. In the future, we are refining pruning practices with an Italian company to extend the lifetime of the vines. There is also ecological restoration and thinking about how the farm looked a century ago when there was more grassland and natural forest. [Beeslaar shows a black and white overhead photograph of the estate that shows the swathes of woodland that once occupied the estate.] Guinea fowl used to sleep in trees. They are natural predators that eat mealy bugs, so if you lose the trees, you lose the predator. Sustainability is important. We are also bringing more cattle onto the farm to enhance these efforts.”

The discussion shifts to viticultural practices. “We use the C46 clone for the Cabernet Sauvignon because we believe it is higher in quality. In terms of plantings, Pinotage is mostly planted on the slopes where their roots go down four or five meters. We would have had too much vigor if we had planted Cabernet on these soils. There are around three weeks from véraison until ripening [shorter than Bordeaux, where it’s usually at least a month, though that is shortening due to earlier picking.] In January, we found the sugar accumulates very rapidly, and so one can struggle to find phenolic ripeness. So, the question is, how do you manage that, especially the Cabernet, which is affected by late-season rain and excessive warmth.” Apropos high temperatures and consequential dryness, there is a constant risk for wildfire. Kanonkop has not been spared. Back in 2000, they lost 15 hectares.

With regard to winemaking, Beeslaar says that it is not a “white glove operation”, even though he points out that they were the second property in South Africa to introduce optical sorting. Kanonkop continues to practice twice-hourly punchdowns by hand, and as Krige remarks, the winery is rudimentary and little changed over four or five decades. Why change something that works? They still use open-top vats to manage extraction as carefully as possible, separating skins from the juice. “Pinotage has a very high nutrient content that creates higher concentrations of yeasts, high pH and high malic acid content,” Beeslaar explains. “It’s a challenging variety, but it is the most rewarding. As soon as you think you know something, Pinotage pulls you down again. For aging, we use Vicard barrels for Pinotage and Seguin Moreau for Cabernet Sauvignon, a medium-type grain.”

The tasting notes speak for themselves. The one takeaway from this tasting is that top-quality Pinotage mandates time in bottle. For certain, there is a lot of average, commercial Pinotage designed to be consumed young and too often that besmirches the image of South Africa. Conversely, in the hands of winemakers that show it respect, Pinotage can excel and astonish when given sufficient time in bottle. It can be a bit sullen in its youth, but time seems to placate it as the tannins polymerise, rewarding patience with enticing secondary aromas and flavors. Likewise, Cabernet Sauvignon can age just as well in the Cape as anywhere else, as proven by the 50-year-old that would surpass anything in Bordeaux in that admittedly miserable growing season.

It had been a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening morning in the company of one of Stellenbosch’s most thoroughbred estates. The wines had acquitted themselves well, vindicating Krige’s steadfast approach, keeping it simple and yet assiduously introducing subtle tweaks whenever deemed beneficial. Here’s to the next half-century.

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