The annual Kanonkop vintage release evening is one of those events on the calendar worth taking seriously: in addition to a complete line-up of all the latest vintages, there are several aged releases available in limited quantities, and a couple of even older wines on the tasting tables “to make pleasure” as the French would say. There is also the entertainment value of the Kanonkop team’s roadshow itself. Co-proprietor Johann Krige’s dour, dry take on things is as disarmingly funny as it is meant to be; winemaker Abrie Beeslaar’s seemingly bland tale of the travails of the vintage is both informative and entertaining.
This year’s dog-and-pony show had its own personality: Summer Place, which has been home to bash for several years consigned Kanonkop to a section of the property that was invisible from the parking lot. Signage would have helped, but clearly the excitement of the other booking (which demanded exclusive use of the main entrance) caused the venue to forget this common courtesy. Making my way down the pitch-dark, unevenly surfaced, narrow pathway to what I think was called the pool house, I reflected on how easily venue owners neglect to value their regular/return customers because a once-off international organisation waves a little hard currency at them. Johann was gracious about it, though he urged guests en route to the traditional snoekbraai to keep away from the rest of the property because the international guests didn’t want contact with the locals. I’m fairly certain that the Hotel Crillon would not have treated Chateau Lafite Rothschild in the same way in Paris.
Kanonkop is to South African wine what Lafite is to the French. No one seriously disputes its place at the pointy end of the pyramid. It’s a proper estate – so all of the grapes that go into the Kanonkop (not Kadette) range come off the property. It’s had only three winemakers since it first bottled its own production in 1973. Accordingly each knew and understood the terrain and its potential. Over the almost fifty vintages that Kanonkop has been bottling wines there has been a gradual and strategic evolution. New wood came into the cellar gradually, the creation of a second label ensured that only the best fruit from the best blocks went into the grand vin. Alcohol levels came up a little over the years, but are now edging slowly downwards. When Beyers Truter was in charge of the cellar, he reinvented pinotage – for Kanonkop and for South Africa. This was particularly evident at the launch this year of the Black Label 2017: sumptuous, yet precise, it makes it almost impossible to imagine a time when to have a pinotage as your flagship wine would have been inconceivable.
Some of the changes have been more subtle: a new crush cellar was built a couple of years back and its influence on the wines has been subtle, but profound: the tannins, in particular, are finer, more powdery. They fill out the textures with a savoury richness. This was particularly evident in the Black Label pinotage and must have played a part in the structure of the 2018 Kadette Cabernet, which is delicious (and offers extraordinary value). It doesn’t however explain the 2016 Paul Sauer (the last harvest processed in the old facility). It may be the best the estate has produced, despite the difficulties of the vintage.
Emile Joubert has written a sumptuously illustrated book about the estate, and it was launched at the same event. It talks about the history the culture, defining components of the DNA of the property and its wines. Other proprietors would never have managed to extract from the site the results achieved by the Kriges. Their vision has been precise, and theier dedication to it unrelenting. Unlike corporates, they’ve not permitted the temptations of a quick return to interfere with the route they’ve chosen. They make very few mistakes. They do what they do, very well indeed, and they let time do the rest.