(Pianotage – French, from pianoter meaning ‘to play the piano with no skill’)
South Africa always seems to be in the limelight these days. A few weeks ago Kanonkop’s winemaker Abrie Beeslaar, and marketing manager Deirdre Taylor paid a visit to Stockholm. A non-central destination for them to travel to, but a commercially important one: Sweden and Denmark are their big export markets.
It is quite a privilege to have winemakers talk about their wines: there is invariably interesting information to glean from them and they really make their wines come to life. Fourteen bottles were on show. Amongst them just under half were from the Pinotage grape variety and the remainder from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon blends. To my surprise there were no white wines whatsoever. Not one Chenin Blanc in sight…
I confess that I have reservations regarding Pinotage. I will never forget the first time I tried a Pinotage wine. It was rough, it was bitter, it smelled of Band-Aid plaster and tasted of burnt tar. An “Edith Piaf, Mon Légionnaire” moment gone wrong…
That experience, however, was not to repeat itself on this occasion. My reacquaintance with Pinotage was first through the latest addition to Kanonkop´s range: a rosé. It made for a good start to the session. Kanonkop´s Kadette Pinotage Rosé 2016 has all the qualities one looks for in a rosé: dry, refreshing, alive with red fruit and minerality and dressed in an inviting delicate light pink hue.
Next up was an equally inspiring red, a 2014 blend of Pinotage, Cabernet and Merlot. Luscious and fresh with plenty of sweet dark fruit, this wine is made from younger plants and older barrels for Kanonkop´s Kadette label and is to be drunk in its youth.
If the Pinotage rosé was the hook, the Kadette blend was the sinker, and these were just the preamble. By now I was really looking forward to tasting a pure Pinotage wine but I had to wait as a line-up of Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2012, 2003 and 2001 vintages was poured out. All three wines shared some common traits: elegance, freshness, balance, subtle tannins and ripe dark fruit.
Kanonkop Estate Wine Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, which has a little Cabernet Franc added to it, is a vibrant purple ruby colour, fresh, smoky, with dark fruit and some vanilla. On the palate it is silky, it has good acidity, notes of mocca intertwined with blue fruit, and tannins that fade gracefully away.
Kanonkop Estate Wine Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 is a complex blend of light smoke, white pepper, liquorice, padrón peppers, dark chocolate, moreish blue fruit and vanilla. It remains fresh with good length and dry discreet tannins. 2003 is Abrie Beeslaar´s favourite vintage, which he says has some austerity and a more European expression.
And now for the controversial Pinotage. Quite a different beast from Cabernet Sauvignon. A grape variety, however, that Kanonkop´s winemaker likes a lot. Not a bad thing as 50% of the estate’s vineyards are planted with Pinotage. The variety, a cross between Cinsaut and Pinot Noir, can produce young as well as ageworthy wines. In its youth Pinotage shows dark fruit and with age it takes on more savoury, earthy and spicy notes. At Kanonkop Pinotage gets gold treatment. It is matured for 18 months in up to 80% new French oak barrels. It then receives another 6 to 12 months maturation in bottle.
Kanonkop Estate Wine Pinotage 2014. A wine with aromas of dark fruit, kirsch, cherries, on a supple core of baked and savoury flavours, and evanescent tannins.
Kanonkop Estate Wine Pinotage 2009. Red and dark fruit. Cherries, prune, raspberries, blueberry pie, smoke, textured tannins and savouriness. According to Abrie Beeslaar, 2009 was a great vintage with cool conditions. It was, in fact, the second best vintage in the decade.
Kanonkop Estate Wine Pinotage 1994. In spite of the average vintage, this Pinotage has a lovely perfumed, floral nose with red fruit and spice. Quite a feminine wine. A lightish body with sweet raspberry and some smoke.
The cherry on the cake came with Kanonkop Estate Wine Black Label Pinotage 2014. Very fresh and delicate on the nose. A marked intensity of ripe dark fruit, smokiness, chocolate, and tannins that leave an impression and then fade away. The expression of Pinotage is very different in this wine. It is like a French Burgundy, a site wine, made from 63 year old vines to boot.
If I had any doubts about the Pinotage grape variety, they were entirely dispelled by Kanonkop’s wines. These are, however, in a class of their own. How is it that Kanonkop has been so successful with the expression of its wines?
South Africa has a long tradition of grape growing that dates back to the 1600s. The country was renowned for its dessert Constantia wines. In the 20th century, however, grapes mainly went to the production of spirits but in the 1960s and 1970s the focus shifted to quality wine. At Kanonkop they tried all sorts of different grape varieties, including Shiraz, and gradually they figured out which varieties worked and where in particular they worked the best. This is how they came to drop white varieties altogether. In the 60s and 70s, a time when everyone in South Africa was planting white grape varieties, Kanonkop was planting red. Their majority plantings are of Pinotage (50%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (35%) but they also cultivate Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Kanonkop Estate is situated in Stellenbosch at the foothills of the Simonsberg mountain. There the climate is well suited for red varieties with warm days, cool nights and ocean breezes. Varieties have been planted according to where they do best. Thus Pinotage grows on the slopes, and Cabernet Sauvignon at lower altitudes. All grapes are sourced from the estate or from farmers that work for the estate and yields are kept low (5 tons per hectare for Pinotage).
Different training systems are used depending on varieties and conditions. Many of the Pinotage vines are quite old and gnarly, their age ranging between 30 and 60 years and they are bushvines. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand is younger stock and is trellised. This is good in the case of Cabernet as the grape variety can present high levels of pyrazine. With trellising it is possible to minutely manage the ripening process and avoid strong green bell pepper flavours. Trellising is also used on some of the plants that are located right in the mouth of the wind.
Wind is a challenge in Stellenbosch. During the months of October and November the winds can be very strong. They can badly affect flowering and cause major moisture loss, particularly on the unirrigated bushvines. In 2016 the conditions were both windy and dry. This resulted in an uneven vintage with less grapes and some completely green berries at ripening.
Undoubtedly vineyard practices are key in the excellence of Kanonkop’s wines. But that is not the entire story, the grapes need to be processed. Abrie Beeslaar talked much about the work in the vineyard and skimmed over the winemaking, without even a mention of his contribution or philosophy… In any event all of the above-mentioned wines attest to the winemaker’s talent and to how everything is beautifully in balance at Kanonkop Estate.