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The best red wine in South Africa?

Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014

Top of the pile.

A massive endorsement for Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014 which has just come top in the “SA Luxury Red Wine Taste-Off” organised by Wine Cellar. Over the past two days, the retailer organised public tastings featuring 12 local red wines priced between R735 and R2 450 a bottle, a ticket to participate costing R650 per person. The wines were served in random order and blind-tasted first by an audience of some 40 people in Johannesburg on Tuesday and then by a similar-sized audience in Cape Town yesterday.

Guests were asked to rank the wines in order of most to least preferred and the overall top three were:

1. Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014
2. De Toren Book XVII 2013
3. Vilafonté Series C 2013

Overall bottom three were:
10. Sadie Columella 2013
11. Delaire Graff Laurence Graff Reserve 2012
12. Simonsig The Garland 2009

Here’s how I rated the full line-up:

1. Simonsig The Garland 2009 – 94/100
2.= Mullineux Schist Syrah 2013 – 93/100
2.= Sadie Family Columella 2013 – 93/100
2.= Vilafonté Series C 2013 – 93/100
5.= Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014 – 92/100
5.= MR de Compostella 2013 – 92/100
5.= Neil Ellis Webb Ellis 2010 – 92/100
8.= Delaire Graff Laurence Graff Reserve 2012 – 91/100
8.= De Toren Book XVII 2013 – 91/100
10.= Rust en Vrede 1694 Classification 2013 – 89/100
10.= La Motte Hanneli R 2011 – 89/100
12. Rijks 888 Pinotage 2010 – 86/100

Some observations:
1. Hooray for Pinotage – the Kanonkop Black Label is emerging as SA’s answer to Spain’s Vega Scilia or Portugal’s Barca Velha, which is to say wines every serious wine enthusiasts has to try at least once in his life.

2. Sweet and smooth trumps savoury and grippy. Look at the three wines to come bottom overall (two straight Cabs from Delaire Graff and Simonsig and the not at all ingratiating Columella) and you have to conclude that the well-heeled punter generally doesn’t want anything too challenging.

3. Making sense of pyrazines is tricky. The Cabernet Franc-driven MR de Compostella has plenty of herbal character and when tasted next to other South African wines appears wonderfully fresh but next to Medoc, it can look too green.

4. The market is not monolithic. The 12 producers are clearly not all targeting the same market segment and after a point, it’s not that helpful to compare them (the lovely Mullineux Schist seemed almost underdone in the above context). What is commendable is that there was some very sophisticated winemaking in evidence just about across the board.

5. Price is relative. The line-up contains some of South Africa’s most serious wines which are still no way near the top-end of the international market. Nothing’s too dear presuming you’ve got the disposable income…

The Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014 is available from Wine Cellar at R1 450 a bottle.

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11 Comments

  1. Kevin RobartsMay 14, 2016 at 9:13 amReply

    Hi Christian,

    I agree with your sentiments that some (if not many) of RSA’s best wines now offer world class quality without receiving fair acclaim, due in part to their relatively lower price point of entry into the international market.

    Is there sufficient marketing and advertising taking place at present to promote high quality South African wines as a whole?

    Our stand out producers will surely struggle to reach the top of the pile in terms of perception internationally if the South African industry isn’t heralded as boasting consistently exceptional wines at the flagship level.

    Unfortunately I feel that some wines which previously excelled enough to fly the flag for South Africa have since taken advantage of that position by leaning toward an increase in production rather than quality when reinvesting their gains.

    I hope that both the South African and international consumer succeed in discovering just which South African wines offer consistent world class quality deserving of iconic status and that these wines then see the support which they deserve for many years to come. Might I suggest that the Mas Nicolas for example is included next time this tasting takes place.

    Congrats to Kanonkop for their performance at this tasting, they have proven to be a true asset to South African wine.

  2. joeMay 14, 2016 at 3:42 amReply

    It’s too bad they didn’t throw one or two ringers into the lineup. It would have been interesting to see how a R100 Raka Quinary, for example, would have faired. My strong suspicion is that above R100/bottle, the price-to-quality/taste correlation goes down rapidly. For example, I think that 9 out of 10 times a R100 bottle will score higher than a R40 bottle. However, probably only 6 or 7 times out of 10 will a R200 bottle score higher than a R100 bottle. And I conjecture that a R1000 bottle will score higher only 5 times out of 10 (i.e., randomly) when compared against a R200 bottle.

    • mark ruberyMay 16, 2016 at 10:55 pmReply

      My sentiments exactly!

  3. Hennie TaljaardMay 13, 2016 at 1:08 pmReply

    I don’t think pricing will elevate SA wines.. SA is making fantastic wines & we rather need a stronger identity which is something I believe cannot be forced but comes from a more sincere place..

  4. JamesMay 13, 2016 at 10:33 amReply

    Hi Christian, I’d like to know how many of these wines you’d consider to be world-class?

    Simply pricing something at a “luxury” or international level doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good. I get the feeling that a lot of these wines are speculatively priced in the hope that the pricing alone fools people into believing they’re good.

    If I compare some of the pricing against Columella, a wine with a proper track record that has received lots of critical (international) acclaim, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than these producers are taking the p***.

    • ChristianMay 13, 2016 at 11:37 amReplyAuthor

      Hi James, I am sure that there is a degree of speculative pricing at play when it comes to these wines. However, the notion of prestige pricing is not exclusive to wine. There are lots of product categories where the ultimate selling price is greatly in excess of the production costs. Think luxury cars, think designer fashion, think fine art. As to which of these wines offer value is a different matter and intangibles from back story to perceived exclusivity are factors that have to be taken into account. Ultimately, though, it’s the market that sets prices and not the producer – inherent quality will out and a high-priced wine which doesn’t deliver is going to get shot down sooner or later. Taking all of the above into account, the wines from this particular tasting I consider “world class” in the broadest sense are: Kanonkop, Columella and Vilafonte. One final point I would make is that South Africa continues to be perceived as the bargain basement of the wine world. In order to be taken seriously by the international consumer, we desperately need convincing high-price wines.

      • JamesMay 16, 2016 at 12:27 pm

        I agree completely with your last sentence, and prestige pricing is certainly one way to drag the entire industry up the price ladder.

        However, how many of the most sought after international wines have achieved their status without:
        1) A superb track record over many vintages and/or
        2) One or more stonking reviews from a major critic (predominantly Parker)?

        Grange hiked prices significantly a few years ago but they did that off the back of a very strong record. I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.

        Our producers are welcome to price where they want to-I’m just not convinced that the average international consumer will fall for it in the absence of 1 or 2 above. Another factor that hasn’t been mentioned is our wines’ longevity. Prestige pricing is partially supported by collectability and until our wines consistently demonstrate that they can age (and can thus be traded) over 15-20 years I’m not sure we’ll have much success. Ideally we need to replicate the success of the GS ’66 and other wines of that era, but we have a huge quality gap in our national stock that is only just starting to be filled.

        I think it’s instructive that Columella is still one of the most affordable fine wines we produce despite having a far more convincing track record than most (all) of the wines included in the tasting. If that wine can’t attract interest in the R1-2k/bottle range then I fear that all the other pretenders are only going to hurt our efforts to move up the ladder (Kevin’s point).

  5. Bryan juddMay 12, 2016 at 8:39 pmReply

    Hello Christian, you mentioned in your article that SA premium wines do not match or nearly compare to international equivalents. Please can you elaborate on this and it would be interesting to get your view on where these can be found. Are we so far behind?

    • ChristianMay 12, 2016 at 10:17 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Bryan, A failure to communicate. I think quite a few SA wines are now pretty much world-class in quality terms but don’t carry nearly the same price tag as the best from Europe, USA or even Australia or New Zealand.

  6. ReenenMay 12, 2016 at 1:41 pmReply

    Hi Christian
    Please comment on why Simonsig The Garland was your personal favourite compared to it coming last on average between 80 tasters. I have not tasted it and i know thats how wine works but it would still be interesting.
    Thanks
    Reenen

    • ChristianMay 12, 2016 at 2:05 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Reenen, It presents as classic Stellenbosch Cab. By virtue of being 2009, it is also no longer primary. My tasting note: Red and black fruit, violets, fresh herbs but also earth, forest floor and spice. Attractive oak. Great purity but also detail. Fresh acidity and fine tannins. Poised and long. I increasingly have to accept that I’m a contrarian when it comes to such tastings – wines of character so much more rewarding to me than those that are merely technically correct.

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