Kanonkop and the Cult of Black Label

The cannon is, at this moment, being oiled and the snoek are ripped from the ocean as the wine world awaits the latest release of the Black Label Pinotage from Kanonkop, South Africa’s finest red wine creator. For on Wednesday and Thursday coming, a few lucky invitees shall gather on this estate in the shadow of the Simonsberg to hear the gun-shot droning through the valley and to smell the snoek cooking on hot coals burnt from old vine stumps. And, of course, the latest release of Kanonkop’s Black Label Pinotage, one of a select few Cape wines truly worthy of cult-status, shall be poured and tasted to mark the launch of the new vintage on offer.

This vintage is the Black Label from 2019, and having had a cheeky sneak-peak at the wine ahead of this week’s launch, a modest note of appreciation will follow. But first, this thing about cult wines, something Kanonkop owner Johann Krige uses to describe the Black Label. Saying you don’t head out making a cult wine, it is a status bestowed on the wine from the outside world.

Just what would a cult wine be? The first time I heard of the term, I thought it was a glass of fermented juice poured at a séance held by a few chanting vegetarians under the full moon, the wine to be sipped after a bout of mutual bodily fondling and the slaughtering of a startled one-eyed goat. But wine parlance has a cult wine as being something that has achieved a keen and determined following of persons who are so keenly and determinedly following said wine that they are willing to pay serious cash for it. Keen and determined.

Wine Folly, a provider of some of the more lucid wine writing around, describes a cult wine thus:

“Cult wines are the pigeon-blood ruby of the wine world. They are engorged in a sort of mystery and delight that can only be satiated by tasting them. Of course, actually getting to taste a cult wine presents a bit of a quandary because the supply is so low that even some deep-pocketed buyers go destitute. This, in turn, skyrockets the price which increases the wine’s fame and then the price goes up more… you get the idea.”

Judging from the above, Kanonkop Black Label has been ticking the cult boxes since the first vintage of this wine in 2006. A fourth-generation wine farm in the Simonsberg region of Stellenbosch. Winemaking Provenance and a record of excellence that has been sought-after by wine buyers since the estate’s first wine was made in 1973. Stupendous international ratings from esteemed wine critics, bearing proof that the marque’s recognition for quality has been consistent and the love is shared by wine judges and critics of diverse origin, personality and taste.

Abrie Beeslaar in the Black Label vineyard.

Into this mix, throw in the Black Label’s back-story: a wine made from a vineyard planted in 1953 by the legendary statesman and Kanonkop owner Paul Sauer. Meaning the wine is always to be limited in production and has since the first vintage been created by Abrie Beeslaar, the third winemaker in Kanonkop’s history, and recognised the world over as one of the top vignerons around.

But cult, classic or icon, this means zilch if the wine itself is not deserved of such status, which is unfortunately not always the case. Especially in South Africa, where the irreverence of the winemaker and the off-keel, apparently alternative, approach to winemaking has the crowd cultishly following the personality instead of what is in the bottle.

If cult is going to imply content more than substance, then Kanonkop Black Label does it, for sure. And with the latest 2019 vintage – excruciatingly young, I know – this part of the Kanonkop range contributes to the pile of evidence proving that South Africa, is indeed, making wines capable of competing with and beating the greats of the world. Cult and otherwise.

The latest release comes from one of the most challenging Cape vintages in recent history, where vineyard conditions were just about as chaotic as the latest report from Cyril Ramaphosa’s psychiatrist. Hot days and uneven growth during spring and early summer characterised the 2019 season all-round South Africa. With the vines still suffering the effects of the severe drought the winelands had experienced since 2014, nature was truly stingy with the allowing of yields, which in the Black Label vineyard pulled in at around 2.8 tons per hectare.

However, Beeslaar says the quality of fruit was concentrated and superb. “This just goes to show how well this old vineyard handles the curve-balls nature has been throwing at it for over six decades, as well as underscoring the non-negotiable suitability of Pinotage planted in Kanonkop terroir,” he says.

But, for me, the expectation elicited by all this talk of concentration and small berries don’t add up in the wine I found upon opening Kanonkop Black Label 2019. Intense fruit and the standard oaking regime of 18 months in new wood had me anticipating a wine that is, well, big. Something along the lines of plush and decadent; heady and seductive. Instead, I found verve and briskness, a succulent rip of fruit and fynbos and of vitality.

In fact, the 2018 version was the big, buxom vintage with the civilised amply fleshed presence of a well-fed Viennese opera singer. Black Label 2019 is a completely different kettle of sashimi. The wine’s fragrance is one of potpourri and Provençal herbs, with a hazy ocean mist. On the palate attack, cherry and black-currant play with the senses before a gush of shuddering dark-fruited denseness, almost spooky, haunts the mouth with a sense of amazement and alarm, that calms down to a post-coital, sated joy.

This is one of those wines where the mere presence usurps more fleeting aspects such as taste and flavour profile. An example of greatness and presence that hits you like a cannon-ball to the heart.

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2 thoughts on “Kanonkop and the Cult of Black Label

  1. I think you drank all of the bottle you tasted and then your imagination went into 5th gear and you certainly entertained me!! Thank you….

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