Kanonkop Black Label: Owning Greatness

Only three winemakers have been a part of the commercial era of Kanonkop, arguably the greatest name in South African estate wine. And while tradition and the “don’t re-invite the wheel” motto of co-owner Johann Krige is one of the estate’s cornerstones, all three of the aforementioned gents each played a unique role in the current legend that is Kanonkop.

Jan Boland Coetzee presided over the first commercial bottling of Kanonkop Estate wine with those 1973 vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage. Prior to this, the farm was a bulk-wine cellar growing and vinifying wine for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. Ever wondered, thus, why Chateau Libertas from the 1950s through to the 1970s was so superb? Look to the Simonsberg slopes of Kanonkop, because that is where a part of the wines used in the Chateau blend originated from.

Jan’s successor, Beyers Truter, made the maiden Paul Sauer Bordeaux-style blend from vintage 1981, creating a South African icon. And in 2006 Abrie Beeslaar, Kanonkop winemaker number three, nabbed the fruit from the farm’s oldest Pinotage vineyard planted in 1953, using the concentrated berries to make the inaugural Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage.

Subsequently, this has become a cult Stellenbosch wine – the fact that it is Pinotage is beside the point. It simply continues to grab the imagination due to an image of exclusivity, the practicality of the limited volume of 6 900 bottles and that daring black label which sets it apart from the classic Kanonkop range. Not to mention the sexy price-tag of R2 200 a bottle.

And through this, Black Label remains quite an extraordinary wine defying all the perceptions of Pinotage, from the sycophantic to dismissive, to offer a deeply expressive and thought-provoking experience of what a good South African red wine can actually present.

The current Kanonkop Black Label on market is from the 2020 vintage, a year that saw a semblance of normality returning to the Cape winelands after the periods of warm, dry and decidedly un-Cape winters. A cold and wet winter in 2019 was followed by the warm spring, ensuring bud-break and shoot-development taking off like an Elon Musk rocket after his latest testosterone booster-injection.

However, things cooled gorgeously in summer, with some refreshing rains in October and November. This saw rude health in the 67-year-old black label vineyard on Kanonkop’s decomposed granite soils, with not a whisper of disease or rot in sight. Still, the old chap can only manage 2.8 tons of grapes a hectare, hence this wine’s scarcity.

In the cellar the grapes receive the traditional Kanonkop treatment, which is fermentation in open concrete tanks, the skins manually punched through the juice every two hours. Once fermented – three days, Pinotage is a quicky – malolactic fermentation ensues. The wine then goes to new barrels, French oak, for 18 months.

As copious research and journalistic diligence has shown me, the Black Label matures marvellously – the 2006 is still in fine and in tasty shape, without a hint of porty age, this lively purity being a condition it will continue to present for another few decades. So, drinking the 2020 now might sound a bit classless and impatient, but somebody has to do it.

And I did, a whole bottle, finding this wine to be one offering tremendous satisfaction despite its youth. (Four hours in a decanter before the first swig, does help, though.)

Colour-wise, this Pinotage is almost as dramatically dark as the label, although a fleshy light-garnet rim floats on the circular pool of dense black-purple wine. The nose is intoxicating, with deep, drenching dark autumnal fruit and a slight whiff of warm tar adding to the allure as well as underscoring the realisation that one is now in the presence of a serious red wine.

Unlike 2019, the Black Label 2020 palate is full-on and driven, right from the assured attack. An immediate thrust of black-currant, maraschino cherry and dried Turkish fig asserts itself, causing a shudder in the spine and leading to that cocky smile one gets when grasping the fact that now, my friend, you are in the presence of vinous greatness. The rolling thunder of the fruit and that dab of mace is honed by the vividly shimmering tannins that, like the kung-fu executing thighs of Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Part One), are both beautifully fleshy and streamlined, packing explosive strength and poised grace in their execution.

These tannins are moist and brisk, allowing the flavours to crash in waves of thrilling and evocative red wine deliciousness. As if this fresh, exhilarating expression of a class wine were not enough, from the mid-palate the Black Label coaxes the senses further with an arousing feather-light stroke of dark, black chocolate and mocha.

A wine of remarkable individuality whose completeness lies in being utterly unique and worthy of its status: king of the hill and top of the heap. For every winemaker at Kanonkop did do it his way.

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