The term first growth is a French term applied primarily in Bordeaux to its top niche producers. In South Africa, the term is not so clear. But certain top Cape producers such as Rustenberg, Meerlust and Kanonkop qualify for the status “first growth.” This is due to a history of producing fine wines over a long period of an aristocratic status. Kanonkop’s first bottling was in 1973 so by Cape terms they have being making fine wines for quite a while. Their focus has and remains red wines and they are thus specialist red wine producers of the highest order.
With these high expectations in mind I recently visited Kanonkop for a private tasting with their winemaker Abrie Beeslaar. The setting and vista of Kanonkop is beautiful but understated unlike some of the garish, high tech wineries springing up in the Cape. I met Abrie in the elegant tasting room and he immediately took me to the wine cellar and straight to the open fermenters.
He explained that the open fermenters are “hands on”. Being open there is less carbon dioxide. They are shallow with thus less pressure on the must. They are punched down every two hours. Most extraction takes place in the first fermentation. They are looking for less aggressive tannins and good colour extraction with wines with a dry finish. All the wines are made the same way.
Now to the tasting. We enjoined to a small, cool, private room. My request was to taste some relatively older Kanonkop’s as I was really interested in bottle maturation and how Kanonkop reds develop in the bottle. Too much emphasis in the modern wine drinking world lies with wines that are drunk far too young and so never get the chance to show their true potential. With this in mind Abrie decided to pair a younger wine with an older wine at each stage of the tasting. It made for a very informative tasting experience. As we could contrast the young against the old and see the role that bottle maturation plays.
We started of with the 2012 Pinotage Kadette. Deep garnet with lovely bananas and plums on the nose. Also blackberries. Lots of fresh aromas with the palate taut and tight.
The Kadette 2011. A CapeBlend. Medium plum in colour with dried fruit and plums on the nose and scented. Red fruits on the palate and smooth.
The Pinotage 2003. Deep garnet with the nose creamy. A delicious palate with balance, softer tannins and the wood integrated. An almost “pinot noir feel to it.” Abrie pointed out that with older Pinotages one gets secondary characters in the wine and this certainly revealed itself in this wine.
The Pinotage 2011- Purple. Cloves and spices on the nose. Delicious dark chocolate on the palate. A balanced Pinotage. Abrie observed “quite approachable for a young Pinotage.” He stated that the “challenge is to make a wine balanced young but that can age.”
The Cabernet Sauvignon 2004- Deep garnet almost black. Nose shy with cassis and cream. Palate rich and complex. Abrie observed “Red fruit on the palate.” “Presence without aggression.” A fine Cabernet with a long life ahead of it. Showing what extra time in the bottle can achieve.
The Cabernet Sauvignon 2010- Deep garnet almost black. The nose shy. The palate still tight but intense. Has not developed bottle complexity yet. Still very young. Abrie pronounced “A quality wine.”
The Paul Sauer 2005- Normally according to Abrie 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. Medium garnet with mint and cream on the nose. Delicious, accessible and rounded with a fruity palate. Another example of the benefits of bottle maturation.
Finally, the Paul Sauer 2010. 100% New Oak. Garnet to ruby. Rich plumy fruit. Intense and concentrated. Abrie observed that the “oak is prominent.” “Grape structure and wood structure a good combination.” Already in its youth a fine Bordeaux blend.
My general impression is that Kanonkop produces fine aristocratic reds of power and complexity. They show well in their youth and are accessible but definitely benefit from extended bottle maturation. I hope that many consumers have the ambition to cellar Kanonkops so that they can benefit from extended bottle maturation. They will then be able to enjoy them in their full glory. It is when you taste an older or fully mature Kanonkop that you know why they have achieved red wine “first growth status.”