Paul Sauer: The Great Man of Wine

It comes from good vineyards growing on broken granite soils of over 500m years old, and it comes from the heart. Thus, from 1 July of each year, usually a cold winter’s day beneath the Simonsberg of Stellenbosch, men and women visit this place of ancient earth and vineyards – and of other people living there – to buy South Africa’s most famous wine. Which is also one of the great wines of the world, and it is the place by name of Kanonkop where this wine called Paul Sauer is made. As it has been made every year since 1981, which sounds young to many, but the few will realise that four decades is old in South African wine terms.

This place with its flat earth to the right of the farm’s entrance and the sweeping, steep slope of vines stuck into rust-coloured soils on the left, is a wonder of nature, and of human vision and creation, and that man was Paul Sauer, after whom South Africa’s finest red wine is named.

New and old vines on Kanonkop Estate.

Here he tended the land he inherited in 1929 from his mother Mary, the daughter of Hendrik Cloete, past-owner of Groot Constantia. Paul’s father, JW Sauer, had died when Paul was a boy, but not without instilling in him a love of land, vineyards and people. JW and Mary, who lived on Uitkyk above where Kanonkop is today, were notable historical personalities in their own right. He, a liberal Cape politician and she a fervent advocate for human rights, with figures such as Emily Hobhouse and author Olive Schreiner being close family friends. In fact, Paul’s middle name was Oliver after his godmother, aforementioned Olive.

Upon inheriting the patch of land that was to be Kanonkop, the earth offered only bushes and trees and shrubs, not one vine or building. Paul and Danie Rossouw, his right-hand man, cleared the land and treated the soils, and planted vines. Because, if there was one thing Paul loved after family and people, and life itself, it was wine.

Paul and Danie built a cellar on Kanonkop in 1942. That the owner worshipped wine is not an exaggeration. Paul’s daughter, Cato, went to the cellar with her father, and she said his tasting of wine was like a religious experience. “He would remove his hat, demand silence, and study the colour of each wine and take the aroma and taste with emotion of wonder and reference.”

Yes, the wine from Kanonkop was and is good. Yes, the soils are magnificently suited to the wants of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Cabernet Franc and Merlot that have found a home here, a home they love as much as do the people who today live and work among them.

Paul Sauer

But the founder’s heart lives on, and keeps on beating, and that is one reason for each year of the Paul Sauer wine being so special and very, very good.

And what Paul did for wine, he did not only for Kanonkop, but for wine and South Africa. He was the country’s first wine ambassador, a formidable contributor to the South African wine culture of the 1950s and 1960s. When not talking politics and general current affairs, Paul used his public persona to advocate the recognition of wine as an essential part of the South African lifestyle, something representing culture, history, art and beauty, as well as being an indispensable part of good-living.

He loved reverting to ancient history to endorse his praise of wine. “Since Roman times, the wine farmer was recognised as a cultured man of the soil,” he said. “The other farmers were cattle-herders and ploughman, but the wine farmer….now he was the one that moved among the poets and the philosophers,” said Sauer.

“And let’s face it, which poet ever sang the praises of the potato? Show me the philosopher that bestowed the virtues of the humble cabbage?”

Paul’s own drink of choice was Tassenberg, an everyday red blended wine. For if there was one pet peeve he had, it was wine snobbery, something Paul saw as an infliction that prevented the general public from accessing and enjoying wine.

On wine snobs, he said: “Don’t be intimidated by the pretentiousness of those who purport to be wine connoisseurs. Please, do not allow them to get in your way, and don’t allow the snobs to terrorise you. Don’t become obsessed with the ‘right’ wine. Decide for yourself what a good wine tastes like. For you, the best wine is the wine that tastes the best, and to hell with the rest.”

During a parliamentary debate in 1956 on the amendment to the country’s liquor laws to promote quality wine production, Sauer took to the floor in an impassioned call for the importance of good wine and the artisanal approach required to make it.

“I once visited a winery in Australia, a massive impersonal place that looked like a cross between an infirmary and a factory,” he said to Parliament. “I told the winery owner that you can’t make good wine in a place that looks like a hospital. Good wine is like a child, I said. It must be created through love and must be raised in a happy home, not in a place like this (Australian) cellar that looks like a hospital. As a wine farmer, I don’t believe in all this chrome and chemistry. I want an endearing and loving atmosphere.”

And at Kanonkop, this endearing atmosphere had, too, to prevail. That is why the estate was seen as pioneering when in the 1960s, and in the dark days of apartheid, Kanonkop led the way in the Cape winelands by providing dignity for its farmworkers through respectable housing, running water and electricity and various sporting facilities. Factors expected today, but six decades ago, something out of another world.

Thus, the heart beats through the wine, as it has and forever will. Under the name Kanonkop Paul Sauer – like the wine, one in a million.

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