Meet the maker: The Society’s Exhibition Pinotage

Johann Krige, centre, with Joanna Locke MW and Tim Sykes at our offices in Stevenage

Johann Krige, centre, with Joanna Locke MW and Tim Sykes at our offices in Stevenage

Johann Krige, joint proprietor of Kanonkop, talks to News Editor Joanna Goodman about the new Exhibition Pinotage wine and how it came about, the estate and the pinotage grape.

Kanonkop Estate in Stellenbosch was top of our list when we decided to look for a new Exhibition Pinotage. Apart from producing an own label for a local restaurant, this is a first for the estate. Ultimately it was the pedigree of other wines in our Exhibition range that persuaded Johann to agree to one of their wines carrying our label.

But, he told me, the project took a few years to come into fruition, 'we wanted to get the right wine with the exact flavour profile that Joanna Locke wanted for your members. We're very pleased with this first edition.'

So what made Kanonkop the preferred partner for The Wine Society?

The estate is widely regarded as being the South African equivalent of a first growth, renowned for its classic Bordeaux blends, cabernets and, of course, pinotage. This is a family estate (Johann represents the fourth generation) producing only reds (and now a little pinotage rosé) and the fact that they have only had three winemakers might explain the consistency of style and focus.

Johann says that it was the success of their previous winemaker Beyers Truter that helped to propel them to international acclaim, 'he won the Winemaker of the Year trophy at the International Wine & Spirit competition in London in 1991.' Truter has been a hugely influential figure both for the estate and for the pinotage grape, establishing the pinotage association, championing the variety at home and abroad. Current winemaker, Abrie Beeslaar who was Truter's assistant, went on to be named IWSC Winemaker of the Year in 2008, carrying on the tradition set by his predecessor.

The importance of place

I asked Johann what it is that makes their pinotage special. He explained that the climate where they're located, in the foothills of the mighty Simonsberg mountain is actually quite cool, enabling the vines to have a long ripening period.

Some of the oldest vines in the Cape

Another string to their bow is the age of the vines at Kanonkop – they have some of the oldest pinotage vines in the Cape, including plots over 80 years old. Pinotage has a tendency to be over-vigorous and older vines are lower yielding and have deeper root systems. 'I don't want to rip up 80-year-old vines because they deliver quality – older vines are critical for pinotage! Of course we have to replace vines but we do this bit by bit and we have replaced our cabernet vines.'

'Old technology' in the vineyards

Old bush vines

Old bush vines

Johann describes the way they grow the vines as 'old technology' too. The pinotage is all grown as bush vines, 'it doesn't work well if it's trained on wires or irrigated.' This he says is another important way of reducing yields. He reminds me of the significance of the grape's parentage (it's a cross between cinsault and pinot noir – more of that later) and how cinsault would invariably be bush-trained in its native vineyards of southern France.

Johann says that they have tried more modern approaches with their pinotage and found them not to work, 'it is not that we are against these techniques, it's just for the style of wine we wish to make, we have found the old ways work best.'

…and in the winery too

Punching down in open vats

Punching down in open vats

Here too, Johann says that they have discovered that traditional techniques work best. 'Everything is fermented in 45-year-old open concrete fermenters. We bring our grapes in a little later in the morning than others as they ferment better if they're that bit warmer – around 28°C is best. The grapes undergo a very quick extraction with lots of pigeage (punching down) every hour – this is something quite unusual and really labour intensive.'

I query why they do this and if they haven't tried the robotic lagares used to make port in the Douro. Johann says that they have experimented with mechanical lagares but doesn't think they're as good as humans, 'I don't think the machines can ever really replicate the human touch.'

Unlike winemaking in the Douro, the punching down is done by hand with long poles and the open vats are wider and more shallow.

Defining the Kanonkop style

I ask Johann about the style of pinotage he likes to make. 'I like wines with structure and elegance. We only use French oak (about 80% new) as I believe this gives a more polished finish to the wine and flavours more in the coffee/mocha spectrum'.

Our Exhibition Pinotage

I asked Johann to tell us a bit more about the Exhibition Pinotage specifically and how members might best enjoy it.

'We're really chuffed with the quality of this wine. 2013 is probably four out of five stars. It was a nice cool growing season; good rains and a relatively slow ripening period and not too hot around picking time. This can be a problem in South Africa and you get run away sugars and high potential alcohol, but 2013 was a long gentle warming up.'

The pinotage grape – a bit of a 'marmite' variety?

At the risk of causing offence, I wanted to know what Johann would say to those people that said that they simply do not like pinotage. Quite rightly, he said that this was quite a facile thing to say as like any variety, there are good examples and bad and that they shouldn't be tarred with the same brush!

Huge improvements in the production of pinotage in recent years

But he was also keen to point out that this is a relatively new variety and so winemakers are still learning how to get the best out of it. 'Pinotage has improved immensely over the years and there are lots of aspects to this – our winemakers are more widely travelled and educated, there's much more sharing of knowledge and experience than there used to be and we are learning more about how it ages too. We've learned so much more about canopy management, wood, amount of time on the skins, malolactic fermentation….and when we find things out the message gets passed around.'

In fact Kanonkop have started laying down a proportion of their wines now to keep for the future and release at a later date, 'it's all part of the plan to educate people and allow them to experience mature bottles to see how they age.' A philosophy akin to that of The Wine Society's

The origins of the pinotage grape

Most of us know that pinotage is a South African invention and a cross between cinsault and pinot noir, but I wanted to know if Johann could tell us anything more about its origins:

The essence of pinotage

Finally, I'd heard about the inscription below written above the tasting room at the Kanonkop estate and asked Johann to tell me more about it. Listening to him saying it and hearing about its origins are enough to send shivers down the spine…

'Pinotage is the juice extracted from women's tongues and lion's hearts. After having a sufficient quantity, one can talk forever and fight the devil.'

Johann says that he came into the family business because he is passionate about wine. I hope that I have shared some of his passion here with you and that you'll enjoy discovering a new addition to our Exhibition range.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

January 2015


Watch the whole video interview here

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