South Africa Interview: Kanonkop’s Johann Krige

Kanonkop, one of South Africa’s foremost wines is a fourth generation family estate, which was originally purchased by JW Sauer, a cabinet member in the parliament of the Union of South Africa. This estate has since then been handed down from father to son for over 40 years and is now in the talented and capable hands of its current owners Paul and Johann Krige.

The name Kanonkop was derived from a kopje (hillock), from which a cannon was fired in the 17th Century to alert farmers in outlying areas that sailing ships plying the waters between Europe and the Far East had entered Table Bay for a stopover at Cape Town.

Kanonkop Estate has been described by those in the know as being the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru or First Growth. International awards accumulated over more than a decade have gone a long way to substantiate these claims.

Johann Krige of Kanonkop (right) with Wine Times' Ali Nicol

Johann Krige of Kanonkop (right) with Wine Times’ Ali Nicol

Winemaking at Kanonkop follows the age-old tradition of being made in open concrete fermenters, but with a slight difference, the tanks are wide and shallow, rather high and deep. This ensures maximum skin contact. Only French Nevers barrels are used for breeding, with the exception of a few experimental barrels each year. All cellaring, bottling and labelling is done on Kanonkop.

Wine Times Hong Kong caught up with proprietor Johann Krige on his recent trip to Hong Kong so, aboard a boat on the South China sea, we had a spot of lunch, a few vintages of Paul Sauer (their top wine) and a couple of other wines whilst whiling away the afternoon talking about South African wine, Pinotage and Kanonkop in particular.

Looking good on the deck with the sun shining through!

Looking good on the deck with the sun shining through!

WTHK: So you hold back Pinotage 10 years to see how well it ages. How does it fare after time?

JK: “Yes we do! And we know it ages well for 20 years under reasonable conditions. It will age and it will get better and definitely get more elegant. I think the problem is that very few people get exposed to older Pinotage so it’s a misnomer. Even in South Africa very few people get to taste older Pinotage. We went on a mission since the 2000 vintage and we have eight to ten thousand bottles in the cellar and when the wine is 10 years old we release it”.

WTHK: You don’t make any white wines at Kanonkop?

JK: “No, I am what you would traditionally call a ‘terroirist’. I believe in terroir regardless of who says what. I think we’ve got to a stage where, with the technology available you have to start focusing on planting the right varietal on the right soils – and not just that, the right microclimate is important too. Sauvignon Blanc, as an example will not work at Kanonkop – so I am not going to plant Sauvignon Blanc because my mother-in-law loves Sauvignon Blanc, I will plant what is suitable for my soil; and we’ve been doing that since 1981 where our focus is Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon”.

Johann takes it easy after our lunch interview!

Johann takes it easy after our lunch interview!

WTHK: The winery was founded in 1973? Or was it a little before that?

JK: “That was when we did our first commercial bottling. We actually started making wine about 86 years ago. But we never bottled it ourselves until 1973. Back then we did Sauvignon Blanc, we did Chardonnay and we did Chenin Blanc! But then in ’81 we made the bold decision to focus only on Pinotage and Cabernet. I thought I was quite clever in those days; I was a lawyer but I was too honest to become a professional one!”

WTHK: Abrie is only your third winemaker in 50 plus years. Is that because people love working there?

JK: “I guess it’s a matter of how you work with your cellar masters. I don’t think that any cellar master can work for 8 to 10 years on a property and really show his skills. Those guys that hop around all the time will never understand the soils or the grapes coming from specific soils and what is the optimal potential of that unless you have many years behind you. Abrie will only really start featuring now; although he has won the international winemaker of the year award already, he’s really coming to the fore now after 12 years and starting to understand, for example our 14 different blocks of Pinotage and getting the optimal blend from each different block. This takes time.”

Just a small line-up of lines over lunch then!

Just a small line-up of lines over lunch then!

WTHK: Your Kadette range – is that your more ‘everyday’ style of wine?

JK: “Yes I think so. It’s pretty well priced; it over delivers on price. It carries the Kanonkop image with it so it’s good value. It’s a good introduction to South African wine for the more serious wine connoisseur – especially on the red side, yes”.

WTHK: And your top wine, Paul Sauer. Can you tell me a little more about that?

JK: “It’s a Bordeaux style wine but made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – about 70 per cent Cabernet mostly and spends 24 months in new oak. We make it because we love it and we could have added Shiraz if we wanted to – but where we are is a little bit too cool for Shiraz. It’s a style that many people can understand, contrary to Pinotage sometimes. At least now we have the opportunity of benchmarking ourselves against others – Bordeaux; which is not the case with Pinotage. We have won many competitions with the Paul Sauer and people can relate to it”.

WTHK: So where did your love of wine stem from?

JK: “My first glass of wine I had I think I was 3 years old!! I was drinking wine with lunch when I was five years old and when I would come from school at age six I would pour myself a glass of wine. My father never knew and he probably would never care either! I just grew up with wine and always loved it! But I’ve had this passion, as I say, since I was three years old and I’ve taken it with me wherever I go. I just really enjoy wine. I enjoy wine every day, I am not fussy about what I drink – to me wine is a lifestyle: as long as I have my glass of wine every day I am happy”.

Kanonkop wines are available in Hong Kong from Wine N Things. For more information on the wines and to buy the wines visit their website: www.winenthingshk.com