Tim James: Change and splendid continuity at Kanonkop

By , 19 February 2024



Johann Krige of Kanonkop.

I’m going to miss Abrie Beeslaar at Kanonkop, when in August he pulls back his involvement there to concentrate on his own label. From cellarmaster he will become consultant (the terms are being drawn up now, I gather) to the cellar team he has built up. But his quietly intense, authoritative and friendly presence will be hard to replace. I’ve realised over the years how humorous, even witty he is too. He delivered a delightful speech at last year’s bash (as usual it was mostly friends and good customers there rather than media and “influencers”) to celebrate 50 years of the Kanonop label. I remember he thanked his predecessors: Jan Coetzee, he said, particularly for taking out all the shiraz vines on the property, Beyers Truter for removing the zinfandel. He recalled, too, Beyers remarking (with rueful nostalgia I should think, and presumably in Afrikaans) that “When I came to Kanonkop, there was no English here”.

Abrie, who clearly doesn’t even consider white grapes worth mentioning, didn’t thank anyone for the removal of sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay during the 1980s. In fact, Johann Krige (now part owner and MD, and who deserves some of the credit) told me the story of Beyers’s first bottled wine being a Rhine Riesling, which was awarded a “Superior” gold seal by the certifying authorities. The youthful Beyers was of course thrilled, and reluctant to proceed with the plan to remove the riesling vines, but the intention to focus the estate on producing red wines under the Kanonop label was firmly carried out. It now requires an imaginative effor to think of Kanonkop making whites – even the rosé seems a bit of a dubious proposition.

Times were not easy for Kanonkop in those years, Johann told me. In the early part of the decade at least, 80% of the grapes were still going to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (forerunner of Distell). Johann himself, though working at the KWV, having abandoned a career as a lawyer, while completing his MBA focusing on wine business, was already involved. So too was brother Paul, the other part owner and also still fully committed at Kanonkop. Johann joined full time, becoming managing director, only in the early 1990s.

When Johann talks of those establishing days, though, the stories are actually more about money than grapes. This modest man, who has been integral to the building of Kanonkop as arguably Stellenbosch’s finest estate, and clearly a hugely profitable one, is possibly proudest of having brought, and then maintained, financial stability. It happened through rigorous control and carefully directed spending – including arguing in the 1980s against the directors getting a bonus, when that money could be better spent on the farm.

The conversation at which these and many other stories and thoughts emerged took place over lunch on the veranda of the house he’d built many years back on Kanonkop, a stone’s throw from the cellar. Johann’s wife Marie brought out some food, but it was Johann who braaied the boerewors and poured the wine ­– of which more later. (Incidentally, I  was presented with a boerewors-scoring sheet on which to rate the four sausages we ate, presented in pairs! Of the four, Checkers Rooikrantz was the favourite of both of us.)

It was a rambling chat, like this set of notes and observations, and, like it, with Kanonkop as the ever-returning focus. Back to money. When it was available, winemakers and viticulturists could be sure that their needs would be met if they conduced to quality and growth. Abrie, who stopped by with Paul Krige to say hello and have a drink with us, said of the bosses: “They’ve never said no, if the need was properly explained.” Hence, no doubt, the latest acquisition for his cellar, a grand and grandly expensive Bucher Vaslin crusher, press and optical sorting line.

“Never stop growing”, says Johann. While so much of Stellenbosch has, effectively, stagnated, he and Abri have achieved substantial expansion over the past two decades – and with greater quality, perhaps, of even the estate wines (including the introduction of the Black Label Pinotage); most certainly of the Kadette range of Stellenbosch wines. I rashly ventured in an article some years back that  that “all South African wine producers aspire to the condition of Kanonkop”, and there’s some truth there.

The most notable growth in recent years has certainly been the acquisition of neighbouring Laibach, now rebranded as Ladybird, primarily as a source of vines for the top wines – the joint property has been duly registered as a unit for producing estate wines (a concept that Kanonkop has been loyal to over the years). Another important element has been the expansion of the Ladybird cellar, with Francois van Zyl continuing to preside, as a home for the Kadette range. A recent addition there is three massive blending tanks which were trundled all the way down from the Orange River co-op where they had become surplus to requirements. Worth mentioning in the Ladybid context is Johann’s delight – it was clearly an unexpected  bonus – in the “great” viticulturist they inherited, Michael Malherbe, engaged with replanting much of the vineyard there in line with Kanonkop’s needs and quality demands.

The Kanonkop cellar team (current cellarmaster and soon-to-be consultant Abri aside) is notably youthful: Ruan van Schalkwyk, who joined in 2021; Christelle van Niekerk who ran the lab for five years and has moved into winemaking; and now also the well-qualified Suzaan Krige, daughter of Paul and Ilse and who, unlike Johann’s daughters, has always wanted to be a winemaker. It must be a great satisfaction for the current owners to see this form of continuity in close family involvement at Kanonkop.

More generally, Johann remarks that “It’s time that us older folks give more recognition to youngsters all around. The younger generations absorb latest technologies much quicker and have a bigger drive on innovation, etc, etc. Cometh the hour, cometh the man or woman! This was the case when Jan Coetzee started on Kanonkop, and Beyers and Abrie.”

But the older generation is good at drinking wine that’s about as old as the new winemakers. At our lunch we began, of course, with the delicious Kadette Pinotage Rosé, and proceeded (for old times sake!) with a bottle of Tassenberg, which none of us others identified, but agreed it is a fantastic bargain at R40 (how do they manage to achieve that value?). And there were two deeply serious Kanonkop wines. Paul Sauer 2004 is perhaps pretty well at its peak, though it has plenty of cruising ahead of it.

How satisfactorily excellent we’d have thought that wine if it hadn’t been so well trumped by the Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 – a superb wine, fine as you like but with an unpolished edge of something like rusticity, I thought, that just adds to its fascination – only now entering the greatness of maturity. It prompted me to go and buy three bottles of the current release 2019, which I know to be a vintage on a par with 1995. I won’t get to drink it at 30 years old, I fear, as it deserves, but I do hope that others will have that profound pleasure.

The greatness of a firmly established Kanonkop includes that fact that winemakers come and go, but Kanonkop will – I trust, though Krige-quality management is even more important, I reckon ­– go on forever, making wines like this.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


2 comment(s)

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    Zerilda Nel | 24 February 2024

    Kanonkop Kadet rooi bly die beste vir my deur al die jare

    Karin Bloem | 23 February 2024

    A delightful article! I remember how, as young adults, we used to enjoy Tassenberg, fondly called ‘Tassies’ or ‘Oom Tas’ as it was a good affordable wine. I am going to look out for this classic again. Long may Kanonkop keep on producing their outstanding wines.

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