As Cape icon estate Kanonkop celebrates the 50th anniversary of its maiden wine release, there has been a run-on the demand for those remaining treasured initial bottles of 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage wines that were made by Jan Boland Coetzee. The Kanonkop team is hosting a number of tastings to international groups to accentuate the brand’s provenance, and to have a 1973 to pour for the assembled tribe to experience is deemed a must.
The search party has, however, turned-up a few of these rarities, namely the maiden Cabernet Sauvignon. Obviously, just because you have the bottle doesn’t mean it is worthy of exposure to an enlightened audience. Which made the opening and recorking of these discovered wines non-negotiable.
This was done by Amorim Cork, with MD Joaquim Sá – the Cristiano Ronaldo of the recorking technique – doing the work himself last week.
To be present at this occasion was like accompanying an archaeologist into the just-discovered lost tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, without the embalmed cats and funny headgear. The Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 lay in bottles of agreeable ullage, green and bright with a firm layer of old compacted dust around the closure. This was scraped away with surgical precision, the five decade old cork – soaked and frail – carefully removed before argon gas was placed in the opened bottle to prevent oxygen getting to the waking old wine.
This gave Abrie Beeslaar and Deidre Taylor, Kanonkop’s winemaker and marketing director respectively, the chance to scrutinise the wines so as to judge their condition and to ascertain whether these aged elixirs tasted like the monuments of South African wine they are purported to be.
Of their making by Jan Boland, the interesting aspect is that this first Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon was made from grapes harvested from vines Jan had planted on the farm in 1969 – four years old, thus. One of his first tasks was, with the permission of Kanonkop-owner Paul Sauer, to remove the farm’s Shiraz as this was not a variety he was interested in and, after all, he felt then as he did today that Cabernet Sauvignon and Stellenbosch go hand in glove.
The other feature was that the 1973 Kanonkop wines were some of the first in the Cape to be exposed to new French oak. This on account of Jan having met the Demptos family from the eponymous cooperage when he went over to France in 1970 on rugby-playing duty.
Along with the new wood, traditional Kanonkop winemaking was done, with open concrete fermenters and manual punch-downs setting the fermenting juice on its path where, in 2023 with an open bottle of Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 before me, one was able experience living vinous history.
Jan says 1973 was a good vintage, a mildly temperate growing season with grapes reaching pin-point accurate levels of ripeness. “Not like 1975, when the easterly wind blew on 26 January and knocked the good grapes out of the bunches.”
It is hard to approach a 1973 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon without clouded objectivity. It’s like reviewing a play starring Marlon Brando after it was found that the great man is, actually, still alive. You want to like it, you want it to be great. You will be sure it is.
But truth and honesty prevail in greatness. Just like argon gas blows the oxygen off an old wine, a great wine does not allow for wondering, pondering or doubting. It overpowers one with its presence, washing away romantic thoughts and dreamy reflections. When it is good, it is just that – good. Fantastic.
So, before the Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 was recorked, tasting had to be done to ensure the wine’s suitability for showing to a fortunate audience later in the year. And this was just marvellous, showing the sort of marvel encountered by those fortunate to have experienced wine capable of reaching ripe old ages in states of assured and confident grace.
The nose was meaty, charcuterie and roasted coriander soaked in liquid scented by dry rose petals, dried figs and that aroma of preserved age one experiences when opening the drawer of a yellow-wood Jonkmanskas three centuries old. It was a heady, intoxicating aroma strong enough to evoke emotion, quickening the heart-beat and replenishing the soul with the wonder of discovery that something good and old is still here. For you.
Warm tar featured on the taste, a sun-baked endless highway, straight and true, with a faint edge of fennel and liquorice coaxing the gravelly heat. And then a murmur, a stirring and there it is: a prickle of fruit, sappy and bright, sweet and berry. Damson and mulberry; cherry, black-currant and a moist little crab apple. Here, after 50 years, the nectar of the vine lived still.
Most extraordinary was the perkiness of it all, the energetic and the shivering freshness. Acids sparkled bright and vivid, while a freshness whistled haunting tunes of lost love, memory and hope for things to come.
It was a small taste, as the bottled must be closed with a tight new cork, locking-up the beauty of it all for future imbibers of this miracle whose lives will, too, be made better with such an incredible experience, one few things can offer, but great old wine can.
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