The Juice is Loose at Kanonkop

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Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslaar.
Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslaar.

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WineGoggle’s roving harvester, Riaan Smit, is currently working the grapes at Kanonkop between his Elsenburg studies. Herewith his first contribution.

When I left in late August last year to work a harvest at Chateau La Gordonne in Provence, the Pinotage bush vines at Kanonkop were already growing shoots.

Now, a few short months after returning from France – a first harvest for me recorded rather breathlessly on this blog – I am at it again. This time at Kanonkop. The dream of becoming a winemaker in my mid-40s is becoming ever more of a reality. Kanonkop winemaker, Abrie Beeslaar, took pity on me and offered me a job as a cellar rat for the 2010 harvest.

I smirked when he ominously added: “Cancel your gym contract.” Having spent the last three weeks at Kanonkop, his remark was not merely small talk – and the real hard work has not even started yet. The open cement fermentation vats, each the size of a decent-sized suburban swimming pool, are still empty. The first grapes will find its way into these vats this week. This will start a relentless period of about two months during which grape skins will be pressed down into the fermenting juice every two hours – night and day.

It is a labour intensive and expensive way of making wine, but the results since 1973, when Kanonkop bottled its first vintage on the estate, has spoken for itself over the years. When you visit the tasting room, page through the fat book of awards. Jan Boland Coetzee was the winemaker then and was followed by Beyers Truter. Abrie Beeslaar, International Winemaker of the Year at the 2008 Wine and Spirits Competition in London, started in 2002 and is only the third winemaker at the estate since 1973.

When I left La Gordonne – where we made mainly Rose, I did not think I would be part again any time soon of a cellar team making Rose. I was wrong, because we made Pinotage Rose at Kanonkop last week. It brought back fond memories of tasting, every morning and every evening, 30-odd tanks of Rose as part of my work at La Gordonne. Life can be shitty, sometimes!

The Kanonkop Rose grapes were destemmed, lighly crushed and the free-run juice was pumped into holding tanks without any maceration on the skins. The skins was very lightly pressed. So light, that the odd whole korrel remained among the skins after pressing.

The juice was filtered and started fermenting over the weekend. It will be a dry Rose befitting the premier brand image of Kanonkop. The colour looks good and I was punting for a lighter than usual South African Rose colour. The premium Provencial Roses are all a very pail onion skin pink. Any hue of orange is considered as bad and only good enough for vin de pay. In reality it probably will be difficult to market such an onion skin coloured Rose in South Africa, where consumers are used to dark pink Roses.

Every now and then even a cellar rat get spoiled at Kanonkop. A couple of days after I started working, I was summonsed to the tasting room – over tea time – to taste a 1998 Paul Sauer and a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon. I was struck by the stamina of these wines. Both were fresh, with not a hint of oxidation, and fine, elegant texture. My kind of wine. I do not enjoy being slapped in the mouth by an over extracted, over wooded wine – sadly, there are plenty of these around in South Africa, and even worse, they win competitions.

It got better last week with the release of the 2006 Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage. I took part in a vertical tasting of the 1976, 1991, 1994 CWG, 1997, 1999, 2006 and 2007 Pinotages hosted by Abrie Beeslaar. Afterwards the 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 was also available for tasting.

The 2006 Black Label Pinotage, made from a single block planted in 1953, is a phenomenal wine. I wish there was enough (there is not) of this wine to send a bottle to each of the numerous Pinotage sceptics – especially English blogger, Jamie Goode. Mr Goode is a friend of South African wine having visited locally numerous times, but when it comes to Pinotage, I hope he gets with it rather sooner than later.

My personal favourite was the 1991. I challenge anybody to pick its age in a blind tasting line-up. It is simply unbelievably fresh, delicate, and balanced.

Afterwards in the Paul Sauer Cellar during a snoek braai, I rather nervously introduced myself to Jan Boland Coetzee at the tasting table of the 2000 to 2005 Pinotage vintages. I gushed about the 1991 and he promptly poured two glasses – the 2003 and 2005. “What do you taste?”, he asked. Before I could think of an intelligent answer, he spared my blushes by saying the 2003 may well turn out to be as good as the 1991.

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One thought on “The Juice is Loose at Kanonkop

  1. Great article, Riaan. But please don’t worry about Jamie Goode. Goode is a not-very-goode taster and pet of Tim “chiskop” Atkin, the well-known London laundry list compiler.

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