Greg Sherwood MW: Tasting a Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage vertical – 2006 to 2019

By , 30 November 2022



A conundrum is a difficult problem or question that is typically asked in the format of a riddle, often with a pun in its answer. When it comes to the South African fine wine scene, Pinotage seemingly remains one of the more complicated varieties for critics to find consensus on. With the recent launch of the Kanonkop Black Label in South Africa, it was once again clear to see that opinion remains divided on almost everything surrounding this wine from its stylistic preferences to scores, the subjectivity of its elegance to the question of its true age worthiness.  

Personally, I have always found the Pinotage debate a lot easier to contextualise if one looks at the finest examples produced, like the Kanonkop Black Label, in simply “global fine wine” terms. International wine critics manage to do this everyday when tasting and reviewing top examples of Zinfandel from California, sumptuous Nero d’Avolas from Sicily or bold Primitivos from Puglia. When it comes to Pinotage, why do critics always find it necessary to enter into a long diatribe about the grape’s place in the South African wine industry? The politicization of Pinotage has undoubtedly obscured the grapes true potential.

Abrie Beeslaar recently returned to London to present a full Kanonkop Black Label vertical to the good and the great of the UK wine trade. Everyone was there from Neal Martin to Jamie Goode to Oz Clarke. What we didn’t know at the time was that the entire vertical, three to four bottles of thirteen wines, had to be brought to the UK in the check-in luggage of the whole Kanonkop crew including Abrie, owner Johan Krige and marketing manager Deidre Taylor, as the samples sent from the cellar in South Africa had been caught up in UK customs checks and would not be cleared in time for the tasting at private members wine mecca, 67 Pall Mall.

However, every cloud has a silver lining and some time after the impressive London vertical tasting, I was contacted by their UK importer, Seckford Wine Agencies, to see if I could be interested in procuring one of the three full verticals that had now cleared UK customs. Even though I had already attended the official trade vertical, this seemed an opportunity too good to miss and so, with the combined financial muscle of a few friends, we purchased one of the complete verticals to rerun the tasting, but this time, with only wine connoisseurs and collectors, not wine trade journalists and buyers.

Below you can see my aggregated notes and scores from both tastings. Several bottles did show some variation and three or four scores were adjusted (mostly upwards) accordingly after the second vertical tasting. Seeing as most of the first vintages of the Black Label were primarily sold En-primeur in very small releases, very few people have ever tasted these early bottlings let alone side-by-side in the context of a complete vertical. For clarity, the 2009 vintage was not bottled.

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2006, 14.5% Abv. 

2.14 g/l RS|5.00 TA|3.80 pH|0.75 VA

The oldest vintage of the Black Label range shows uniquely youthful aromatics that bristles with notes of raisined blueberries, polished mahogany, sweet sandalwood and hints of graphite. On the palate the wine reveals a sweetly fruited glycerol mouthfeel layered with dried herbs, vermouth spices, spicy bramble berry and blue and black berry nuances. The tannins are dense yet wonderfully ripe and add a nice element of muscle and mellow structure to the wine. Still broody and youthful, this wine has plenty of evolution ahead. (93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2007, 14% Abv.

2.3 g/l RS | 5.80 TA | 3.86 pH | 0.61 VA

Very pretty aromatics with delicate perfumed notes of lavender and violets, savoury sandalwood, sweet tannery leather over black plum and ripe smoky black cherry. On the palate the wine is dense and glycerol of a pronounced blue and black berry rock candy character, sweet creamy textured tannins and a long, mouth-filling density with finely integrated harmonious acids. Cool, seamless and impressively bold and youthful. (95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2008, 14.60% Abv.

2.50 g/l RS|5.10 TA|3.69 pH|0.64 VA

The aromatics on the 2008 are expressive and vibrant with plenty red and black berry fruits, black cherry, tart plum and subtle polished mahogany nuances. On the palate there is a real sweet and sour red raspberry fruited intensity with vibrant tart acids, a sleek elegant generosity but also a fine taut vein of crunchy berry fruits. Lovely energy and brightness, this really shows its own character. (94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2010, 14.5% Abv.

1.8 g/l RS | 5.90 TA | 3.67 pH | 0.63 VA

This shows a broader lactic creamy savoury black fruited nose with notes of black cherry, raisined black blueberries, graphite and sappy cedar oak spice. There is wonderful precision and purity, opulence and generosity of black and blue berry fruit intensity that rolls across the tongue and around the mouth with an effortless balance. A very compact and seamlessly constructed wine with all the components of fruit, acid and tannin creating a splendid synergy. Really quite impressive. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2011, 14.5% Abv.

2.3 g/l RS | 5.00 TA | 3.78 pH | 0.74VA

A more youthful aromatic profile, the 2011 shows subtle hints of bruleed coffee beans, burnt toast crusts, black cherry and underlying notes of graphite and boot polish. The palate entry is creamy, powdery and soft with beautifully rounded tannins bolstering a blue and black berry fruit concentration that shows impressive oak integration. The finish is mouth-coating and powerful but never oversteps the boundaries to lose any elegance or textural harmony, leaving a long, lingering savoury coffee and chocolate intensity in the mouth. Another youthful expression. (94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2012, 14% Abv.

1.8 g/l RS | 5.00 TA | 4.04 pH | 0.79 VA

The aromatics on the 2012 show a more savoury, earthy, tilled earth character with elegant notes of red currant, earthy black plum and bramble berry sapidity. The palate shows hints of incense and waxy black fruits, sweet and sour tangy acids and a crisp vitality of black berry crunch. The tannins are elegant and fine grained and the palate texture sleek, polished and harmonious with chalky, grippy tannins lending structure and shape to the long, granitic finish. A slightly different vintage that expresses its own unique character. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2013, 14.5% Abv.

2.4 g/l RS | 5.8 TA | 3.70 pH | 0.76 VA

The aromatics show a more savoury, freshly tilled earth note supported by stewed strawberries, baked red plums, sweet allspice and sappy cedar oak nuances. On the palate the wine is cool and spicy, quite fine boned and delicate in the context of Black Label wines, with a melange of red and black berry fruits, sleek linear acids and a soft, weightless persistence on the finish. This wine is all about delicacy and subtlety and is all the more delicious for it. (94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2014, 14.60% Abv.

2.50 g/l RS|5.10 TA|3.69 pH|0.64 VA

The last of the cooler, wetter vintages before the drought years, this shows a characterful aromatics of blueberry and bramble berries, black currant and mint leaf with subtle savoury tilled earth nuances which follow to the palate. Cool, fresh, and lithe, this has expressive notes of sweet herbs, vermouth spices and a granitic mineral finish. A little crunchier and more angular than some vintages but still shows its own expressive character. (93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2015, 14.6% Abv.

2.9 g/l RS | 5.20 TA | 3.74 pH | 0.80 VA

This blockbuster vintage is unsurprisingly showing a more broody demeanour and is perhaps a bit shut down at the moment. There is plenty of black plum, black cherry, and dark black currant earthy notes that follow to the palate. There is a creamy, lactic, milk chocolate note with hints of sweet blueberry muffin, black berry and sweet, ripe mouth coating tannins. Plenty of weight and extract, there is a beast of a wine hiding in the bottle. A vintage for the hedonists. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2016, 14.60% Abv.

2.50 g/l RS|5.10 TA|3.69 pH|0.64 VA

A vintage of heat and severe drought, the old vines show plenty of character with a complex aromatics of pink musk, red berries, raspberry and stewed strawberries underpinned by and tilled earth, peaty, savoury complexity. The palate shows stewed black plums, cherry kirsch liquor, sweet grilled herbs and subtle hints of molasses on a full, plush, rounded finish. A vintage that shows the heat of the season somewhat but still manages to express itself with its own unique personality. (92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2017, 14.51% Abv.

2.6 g/l RS | 5.40 TA | 3.62 pH | 0.82 VA

Another of South Africa’s iconic vintages, this wine shows lovely Burgundian notes on the aromatics with sweet bramble berry fruits, forest berry, wild strawberry, incense and black currant notes. The palate is typically 2017 in character with weightless intensity and concentration, a seamless acid – tannin balance and a creamy textural mouthfeel that screams pedigree and class. A superbly made fine wine that is impressive on any fine wine yard stick. (97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2018, 14.61% Abv.

2.50 g/l RS|5.10 TA|3.69 pH|0.64 VA

The last of the drought vintages, this 2018 shows fabulous purity and balance with a cool broody black berry fruited aromatics of black cherry, black plum, graphite and and crunchy black currant and subtle hints of coffee beans and brown toast. Texturally dense and creamy, yet weightless and balanced with a cool, sleek sweet fruited mid-palate and a classical, mineral, harmonious finish. A very complete wine. (95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Kanonkop Estate Black Label Pinotage 2019, 14.60% Abv.

2.50 g/l RS|5.10 TA|3.69 pH|0.64 VA

Wonderfully youthful and perfumed, the aromatics show a lovely bright red and black fruited melange with hints of raspberry, black currant, red cherry and blue berry boiled candy nuances. There is a wonderful purity, focus and precision that shines on the palate which reveals a freshness, light footed elegance and vibrant freshness that really enlivens the wine and makes it seem so sleek, harmonious and utterly effortless. With some similarities to the 2011, this is a thoroughly seductive release with fabulous focus and purity. A real “wow” wine! (97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

What were the impressions of the tasters you might wonder? First and foremost, everyone agreed that the Black Label wines were indeed profound fine wine creations regardless of the variety used. Indeed, the fact that the wines were pure Pinotage almost paled into insignificance. The attention to detail, the precision, the fruit purity and textural construction was world class… as you would hope for in a wine that retails in the UK for circa £140 (R2,800) per bottle. For the tasters in attendance that regularly drink bottles at this and higher price points from all the great fine wine regions of the world, all felt that they would happily spend this amount of money on a bottle of Pinotage if this level of quality could be assured. A wonderful event and yet another small positive step in demystifying and unravelling the riddle that is Pinotage.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.


5 comment(s)

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    BvR | 3 December 2022

    It was an incredible lunch Greg! Good to see all the scores coming through and comparing to what I wrote down on the day.

    Christian Eedes | 1 December 2022

    Incidentally, my scores for some of the above wines on release:

    2015 – 96 (Nov-16)
    2016 – 91 (Nov-17)
    2017 – 95 (Oct-18)
    2018 – 94 (Oct-20)
    2019 – 96 (Nov-21)

    And 2020 not yet tasted by GS MW: 94 (Nov-22)

      Greg Sherwood | 1 December 2022

      Well done. These are pretty close to my score. The suspense for the 2020 rating will grow even higher now! I think if you shed your Pinotage filters and only taste these wines as “global fine wines”… your scores would be even closer to mine!

    Greg+Sherwood+MW | 1 December 2022

    At the time the wines were originally sent to the UK, the 2020 hadn’t been released yet. I’ve still not tasted it yet either. Would have been nice to include it of course!

    Tim James | 1 December 2022

    Thanks for a very interesting report. But why wasn’t the current release 2020 included?

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