Three giants of South African wine

Stellenbosch’s famous De Warenmarkt has presented many legendary wine events, but few will argue that the occasion hosted in November this year will go down as one of the most auspicious happenings seen in the Cape Winelands in a long time. By Emile Joubert

Pictures by Abri Kruger

The evening brought together three of Stellenbosch’s icon winemakers who not only have in common their brilliance as purveyors of their craft, but are also the only three cellar masters in Kanonkop’s history of making wine under its own label. Since its first estate bottling in 1973, Kanonkop’s cellar operations was led by Jan Boland Coetzee (1968-1980), Beyers Truter (1981-2003) and Abrie Beeslaar who took over from Beyers and is still in charge of winemaking at this estate recognised as South Africa’s First Growth.

Stellenbosch Visio editor Francé Beyers, Jan Boland Coetzee, Beyers Truter and Abrie Beeslaar.

With a menu designed to match the selected wines, the three winemakers took to the floor, engaging with the audience – not only about their time at Kanonkop, but also of the wine ventures Jan and Beyers followed subsequent to their careers at the premier Simonsberg estate.

Jan was afforded the opportunity of presenting some of his Vriesenhof wines, made from his beloved Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while Beyers led the conversation on – what else? – Pinotage, introducing the Beyerskloof Reserve and Diesel made from Pinotage grape. Last but not least, Abrie showed a few legendary vintages of Kanonkop Paul Sauer and Cabernet Sauvignon.

These three giants of South African wine may have different personalities, but listening to them it was evident that they share a profound wisdom on the matter of wine. And their approach to the craft begins in the understanding and knowledge of the vineyards from which their wines are made. It can safely be said that much of this respect for the vineyards and the subject of terroir was formed during their time among the vines growing on decomposed granite soils on the slopes of the Simonsberg.

Of the three personable winemakers, it appeared that Jan was the philosopher, Beyers the storyteller and entertainer, and Abrie the focussed craftsman with a palpable knowledge of what it takes to convert the blessings of Kanonkop terroir into those show-stopping wines. Jan likes to state that there is no such thing as a winemaker, only a grower and a carer. “The French don’t have a term for a winemaker. For them, there is only a vigneron, who is a grower and carer of the vineyards. So, whatever you like to call him or her, a winemaker is a person who cultivates the vineyard, prays and hopes. Or as the late Australian winemaker Jack Mann said: ‘A winemaker is a humble servant of nature. His role is to give nature the opportunity to produce the best possible wine. Nature creates. Man only guides.’”

As usual, Beyers provided light-hearted relief, regaling the audience with the story about the cellar worker and the slip into the tank of fermenting Pinotage. “We were, as usual, punching the fermenting grapes through the skins every two hours when our trusty colleague Soldaat slipped and fell in the tank of juice and skins. This was in the middle of the night, and we helped the chap out of the tank. Despite Soldaat wanting to continue working, I sent him home as I could see he was a bit tired. A few hours later, Soldaat was back in the cellar. When I asked him what he was doing back in the cellar, he said: ‘I came to retrieve my shoe. It came off when I fell in and is still lying in the tank!’”.

According to Beyers, that year’s Kanonkop Pinotage stood out as an excellent vintage. The wines presented were, as could be expected, brilliant and totally world-class, which together with the chef’s menu and the conservation around Stellenbosch’s favourite topic – wine – made this evening at De Warenmarkt one that will be talked about for years to come.