What was a wine lover from Portugal who writes a column for an expat newspaper doing at a Chateaux in France sampling some of the finest wines made in South Africa?
I had to ask myself this question as I arrived at Chateaux Hôtel Mont Royal in Chantilly, whisked from Charles de Gaulle airport in a chauffeur-driven car accompanied by a sommelier from one of Portugal’s most famous Michelin-starred restaurants.
It was an unexpected invitation that I received from Algarve-based importers and distributors Prime Wine of Loulé. I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of South African wine is limited, in fact most of the South African wines I have tried are those sold here in Portugal by Prime Wine, but I was vaguely familiar with the superb reds from the Kanonkop winery of Stellenbosch.
It turns out that this much lauded winery is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with events in France, the UK, and the USA, and Prime Wine asked me to join the above-mentioned sommelier and represent Portugal at the French event. They did not have to twist my arm too hard!
Kanonkop, to many connoisseurs, is one of the very best producers of red wines in South Africa, producing what is in many ways (apart from price) as close as can be found in the southern hemisphere to first growth Bordeaux. One of the most famous wines is the Paul Sauer label, a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. But the winery is equally well-known for it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine as I was soon to find out that has outstanding ageing potential, and their outstanding Pinotage varietals.
The highlight of the event for me, closely followed by amazing hospitality and great food, was a masterclass with vertical tastings of Kononkop’s wines over the last 50 years. Technically speaking it was in fact 49 years, with the oldest wine in our line-up being a 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine, whilst obviously showing signs of oxidization, had seductive notes of old sherry and balsamic on the nose with a surprising freshness in the mouth. It was one of the standouts of the tasting, but my absolute favourite was the Paul Sauer 2005 in magnum. I have had the chance to try it before, a wine that retails in Europe for between €40 and €50, but never with more than a few years bottle ageing and this 2005 bottle, and at 18 years old, was stunning and still youthful in many ways. But what makes this particular wine stand out is how well it drinks with far less ageing, the 2014 for instance being no less impressive.
My biggest personal revelation however was Kanonkop’s Pinotage varietal wines. I have tried wines made from this grape before and have not until now been impressed, this being a cross developed in South Africa between Pinot Noir and Cinesaut and me being something of a diehard Pinot Noir fan. The event was attended by brothers Paul and Johann Krige, the fourth generation owners of the wine estate along with their cellarmaster Abrie Beeslaar and other members of the team. It was Johann Krige in his presentation who spoke of how so many consumers shun wines made from Pinotage simply because they have never tried really good Pinotage, rest to say I am now a convert.
It was a 24-hour event, including a fascinating visit to a nearby oak forest resulting in aanother masterclass, this time hosted by experts in the conversion of the finest French oak trees to wine barrels along with representatives of France’s national forests office.
Whisked back to the airport the next day and bound for home, I was already making plans for a long overdue trip to South Africa with a visit to Kanonkop firmly on the agenda. And the good news for readers is that a range of wines from Kanonkop is available from Prime Wine in Loulé.