TGIFOOD

WINEMAKING LEGENDS

Kanonkop celebrates 50th harvest with high praise for its founder

Kanonkop celebrates 50th harvest with high praise for its founder
Kanonkop's first winemaker, Jan Boland Coetzee. (Photo: Supplied)

The Stellenbosch estate, synonymous with pinotage and Paul Sauer, marks a very special anniversary in 2023.

If you could bottle time, what would 50 years look, smell or even taste, like? Distinctive Stellenbosch estate, Kanonkop marks the 50th year since its first bottled wine was released — a rare achievement in South Africa, placing it in the company of only a handful of estates in the country.  

Back in 1973, when Kanonkop’s cellar released its first single-variety Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage labels, the large co-ops Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, KWV and Distillers lorded over the wine industry. 

Kanonkop’s Simonsberg cellar had been making wine since the 1940s, under its patriarch, Paul Sauer, who was joined in 1968 by a young new winemaker, Jan “Boland” Coetzee.

Coetzee planted new vineyards on the farm and started producing exceptional quality wine which were sold to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery for blending into … Chateau Libertas.

It was Sauer’s son-in-law, Jannie Krige (the father of current owners, Johann and Paul) who spied the perfect synergy between a Kanonkop own-label – produced by Coetzee, who was not only a talented winemaker but also a national rugby hero. Sauer agreed and in 1973, bottled Kanonkop wines hit the market just ahead of Coetzee’s Springbok debut against the Lions in 1974. 

Kanonkop has had just three winemakers over the years: Coetzee, Beyers Truter and Abrie Beeslaar, who has been with the estate since 2002. 

“This, of course, has brought incredible consistency of style to the brand,” explained Deidre Taylor, brand manager for Kanonkop, before a recent masterclass presented by Beeslaar, followed by a traditional snoek braai with plaasbrood, soet patat and salad.

Kanonkop doesn’t have a restaurant but puts on a delicious spread. (Photo: Supplied)

Hailing his grandfather’s legacy, Johann Krige, CEO of Kanonkop, said few people understand the impact Sauer, a former Cabinet minister, had on the local wine industry: “In the mid-1960s, South Africans weren’t drinking wine. In those days, the red wine that we’d pour for guests was Tassenberg. The white wine was a dry Angelica. Both were from Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery. If you had special guests, you’d take out a bottle of Chateau Libertas that had been kept aside for an occasion. That’s how we grew up.”

It was Sauer who not only started bottling his own wine, but also started a wine show on SABC. A no-nonsense person, he abhorred wine snobs, saying they were “generally impossible, if not more impossible, than any other type of snob. They like nothing more than to make ordinary people feel inferior. Don’t let them terrorise you — they’re only trying to swank”. 

Over subsequent years, and under the three winemakers, Kanonkop has won numerous awards and international recognition.

Beeslaar, once Truter’s “wingman”, is himself deemed to be one of the greatest winemakers South Africa has ever produced, although he’s modest, believing that you get winemakers who stand in front of their wines and those who stand behind them. “I’m a behind guy — the wine must shine.” 

Jan Boln

Kanonkop’s first winemaker, Jan Boland Coetzee, Johann Krige, Beyers Truter, Paul Krige and Abrie Beeslaar. (Photo: Supplied)

He has also won the International Wine and Spirit Competition Winemaker of the Year award not only once but three times, in 2008, 2015 and 2017. The following year, in 2018, Beeslaar was the first South African winemaker to see one of his wines — the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015 — score a perfect 100-point score from British Master of Wine Tim Atkin.

“Our focus has always been on making the best possible wine we can, without all the noise that is out there. So for example, for the past couple of years, we’ve been making Paul Sauer at 12.5% and 13.5% alcohol. Not because it’s a new direction but because it’s what the vintages have given us.”

In the past, their approach was “about analysis, being exact and precise”; they now want to be more holistic.

“Of course, you can always improve but you can only sort the berries and work in the vineyards to a point. 

“To elevate us to a different level we are looking at farming and ecological practices (such as working with natural cover crops and natural predators), sustainability and the people who are involved: As a whole, they all overlap.” 

Current farming practices include planting cover crops, which benefits vineyards and soils, and using natural predators to control mealybugs and the spread of leaf roll virus, as well as minimum tilling to increase the carbon percentage in the soil, and the removal of virus-infected vines. Future plans include introducing cattle to help control weeds and add natural fertiliser, and implementing different pruning practices.

Propagating indigenous fynbos will allow them to create a fynbos corridor, while native species of antelope, snakes and birds of prey will control pests. 

Nature calls and climate change is making their work particularly challenging, with increased rain, heatwaves, strong winds and a looming El Niño. 

Tough conditions often underpin great vintages. 2019, the first year in which the region had some winter rain after the drought, was preceded by a dry March and April, which affected the vine’s reserves. After a wet winter, the weather was erratic, creating very difficult, challenging conditions.

The grapes that went into the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2020 were therefore special: Only 3,000 bottles have been released for the 50th anniversary. DM

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