On a personal level, the year 2023 is one I am approaching with a mixture of nostalgia and excitement as for me this will be the one in which I reach the mark that is a 50th birthday. Still a few months to go, but this number has me looking at other names that also celebrate the half-century mark this year.
In the wine world, harvest 2023 is an auspicious one for two of South Africa’s leading wineries who we are also proud to call true friends of Amorim. These are the legendary cellars of Kanonkop in Stellenbosch and De Wetshof in Robertson, both of whom made their first commercial bottlings 50 years ago from the harvest of 1973.
Also celebrating half a century since its launch is Nederburg Baronne, one of South Africa’s most iconic, long-standing and top-selling red blends, and the brainchild of legendary Nederburg cellar-master Günter Brözel.
While 50 years is just a blink in the eye of the wine world’s 6 000-year history, the half-century mark is something only a handful of South African wineries can lay claim to. The main reason for this is that up until the 1970s the industry had a different structure than the one of today. Thus, up until their first bottlings in 1973, Kanonkop and De Wetshof were making wine, but not for their own label.
Kanonkop’s decision to make its first wines under an own 1973 vintage label – Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage – has an interesting background.
Wine had been made in Kanonkop’s Simonsberg cellar since the 1940s under supervision of its legendary founder Paul Sauer. In 1969 a young winemaker named Jan Boland Coetzee was employed and was soon becoming known as an astute, focussed and knowledgeable wine man who planted new vineyards on the farm, producing exceptional quality wine in the process.
Jan Boland was, though, not only a winemaker but also an incredible rugby player. And with South Africa set to host the British and Irish Lions in 1974, word on the street had it that Jan Boland would be selected for the national Springbok team.
Here Jannie Krige, husband to Sauer’s daughter Marie and father of Johann and Paul who are today the Kanonkop owners, entered the picture. By planting a seed: what if Kanonkop for the first time released a wine under its own label. For the fact that the maker of this wine was a national rugby hero would surely instantly give the Kanonkop brand a profile and a dynamic back-story.
Jannie received Paul Sauer’s blessing to for the first time introduce two bottled Kanonkop wines onto the market from the 1973, just in time for Jan’s Springbok debut against the Lions in 1974. The rest, of course, is history.
The quality of those first bottlings paved the way for the creation of arguably one of South Africa’s most famous and most critically acclaimed red wine producers. Since that 1973 vintage, Jan’s commitment to wine quality from the famous Kanonkop vineyards has been followed by winemakers Beyers Truter and the incumbent Abrie Beeslaar, each having played a role in taking this Cape estate to further heights where it now lies in the top echelons of the country’s wine offering. Between Beyers and Abrie they have four times been named IWSC Wine Maker of the Year.
Over the mountains from Stellenbosch, out in the Robertson Wine Valley, Danie de Wet was working with his father on the De Wetshof family farm. As the case with Kanonkop, they were making wine for selling to the big merchants, something young Danie was not totally content to do.
Danie had in 1971 returned from studying viticulture and oenology at the famous Geisenhem Institute in Germany where his whole approach to and thinking about wine had changed. For here he had learned about the importance of terroir, and especially ensuring the grape varieties planted were the right ones for the selected terroir. Only then was one able to make wines truly in synch with nature, resulting in wines with identity and soul, tasting of a sense of place.
So committed was Danie to determining the right varieties for De Wetshof’s terroir that, while at Geisenheim, he had his father, Johann, send soil samples to Germany so that Danie and his university professors could analyse the earth in an attempt to find the correct cultivars to match the Robertson terroir.
With this, and a mountain of other knowledge, Danie returned to De Wetshof determined to show consumers what wines made from the farm’s own vineyards tasted like. Danie admits that he was convinced bottling De Wetshof’s own wine was where the future lay – not only in the South Africa wine offering, but also because after his stint in Geisenheim and his increased knowledge and appreciation for what wine can mean, making innocuous bulk wine was not something he thought of as challenging.
Today it might be surprising that De Wetshof’s first bottling was a Dry Steen (Chenin Blanc) from the 1973 vintage as the farm is now known as a pioneer of Chardonnay in South Africa and one of the world’s leading Chardonnay brands. However, 50 years ago Chardonnay had yet to be introduced to the Cape – something Danie played a leading role in – and with Chenin the only recognised white grape growing on De Wetshof, it was this cultivar that graced the first De Wetshof label.
After Danie released his first Chardonnay in 1981, De Wetshof became synonymous with the royal white grape of Burgundy, a reputation it continues to hold until this day, with his sons Johann and Peter now being in charge.
Amorim has been privileged to get to know these legends of the South African wine industry at a personal level as well as professional one, and for us it is a true honour to congratulate Kanonkop, De Wetshof and Nederburg on this milestone of reaching 50 years as great wine brands.
Be sure that in October I will be celebrating with a bottle of each winery’s 1973 vintage and drink to your very good health for it is an honour to be in such fine company.
Managing Director: Amorim Cork South Africa