SA Wine Legend: Johann Krige

Where the big guns roar. Kanonkop Estate, on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, in Stellenbosch has a reputation for quality that precedes itself. Like the cannons of days gone by, the message of this wine estate ricochets across the decades as a signal of quality, and as a front-runner of the fine wine movement in South Africa.

Kanonkop is named for the kopje (hillock), from which a cannon was fired in the 17th century to signal to farmers that a ship had arrived in Cape Town’s Table Bay Harbour. This symbol of power has long been associated with the fourth generation family estate.

It was originally purchased by JW Sauer, a cabinet member in the parliament of the Union of South Africa. The estate is now in the hands of brothers, Paul and Johann Krige, who are the grandsons of the legendary grape grower, Paul Sauer (for whom the iconic eponymous wine is named for).

“Growing up, wine was just a part of life,” says Johann Krige, his back towards the barrel room, visible through the large glass windows of the Jannie Krige Raadsaal. Named for his dad, it’s a comfortable, traditional room—a wooden table meets a Persian carpet, decorated with some bronze casts of cannons. A sea of Kanonkop barrels ebb out beyond. Silent, stoic vessels containing so much liquid history.  

“I poured myself my first glass of wine when I was around six,” he tells me laughing at the memory. “We were living in Stellenbosch at the time, and one day I came home to an empty house, both my parents being at work. I sat down with my lunch at the table and it dawned on me: something’s missing. I headed over to the drinks cabinet and poured myself a small glass of wine to have with my lunch. It was such a normal thing to do I even told my mother about it. She tactfully suggested I better not mention it to my father.”

His mother was Mary Sauer, daughter of Paul Sauer. She married Jannie Krige—a rugby administrator at the University of Stellenbosch—and when she inherited the estate, Jannie took an early retirement and together with rugby and winemaking legend, Jan Boland Coetzee they made this first estate bottled wines in 1973.

Beyers Truter joined the estate in 1980 for a tenure of over two decades. The cellar is currently led by Abrie Beeslaar, who took over the reins from Beyers Truter in 2003.

Johann is an influential figure at large in the local wine industry, and has sat on countless boards, among them, Stellenbosch Wine Routes, Wines of South Africa (for a whopping 27 years, and four as chairman) as well as the Director of SAWIS and Vinpro.

Schooled locally, he went on to study law at Stellenbosch University. But he soon realised he was at the wrong bar.

“My passion for wine got the better of me,” he says simply. So with the aim of joining the wine industry, he followed up his law degree with an MBA, also at Stellenbosch University.

It was during this time; in 1981 that the Krige family made a tough, but game-changing decision that set them on the path for future success.

“At that time Kanonkop was, like most South African wine farms, trying to be everything to everybody,” says Johann. The farm at the time was planted to: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Rhine Riesling. 80 per cent of this was sold to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery to be bottled under their own brands, with the remainder going under the Kanonkop label.

Johann sat down with his mother, father, Paul and Beyers and made a suggestion: If Kanonkop was going to have a future as a premium wine estate, it was going to have to stick to what it was good at.  It was all about the red varieties, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage, as well as the Merlot and Cabernet Franc requirements for the Paul Sauer Bordeaux-style blend.

“The red wines Jan Boland had left behind and that Beyers was making clearly showed us that Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage had found a home here, a home from which we were given extraordinary grapes.”

Clearly Johann had wine business savvy. Once he completed his MBA he took a position at KWV, working as a marketing rep traveling all over the African continent.

“I view KWV as my mentor,” says Johann. “They were involved in all aspects of the wine business, from sourcing rootstock and managing vineyard to bottling, wine certification and exports. Everything in the wine business.”

Johann soon officially joined the family business, though he said it took them about 15 years to get proper titles: “when you do business internationally, people want a business card,” he chuckles.

The next big move was to close ranks: from the 1986 harvest, Kanonkop stopped making wine for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and bottled all their grapes under their own label.

This needed some mental gymnastics to get off the ground, Johann solved this with some innovative thinking: “In 1986 Kanonkop became the first South African wine farm to sell wine futures, something that proved to be enormously successful in generating a positive cash-flow at the crucial time following the call to exclusively bottle and sell our own wine. What we did was, we sold the wine to the customer while it was still in barrel. We got the money upfront and only had to deliver the wine after maturation and bottling, giving us cash to expand infrastructure, invest in new barrels and invigorate marketing and sales activities.”

Their estate wines proved a phenomenal success; a highlight being when Beyers won the Robert Mondavi Trophy for International Winemaker of the Year 1991 at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. (Between winemakers Beyers and Abrie, they have won this award now four times.)

“Looking back at that inaugural accolade and seeing Kanonkop recognised on the world stage, just a year after Nelson Mandela had been released and South Africa was accepted back into the international wine world, well, this was amazing. It was as if everything we had worked for – all the risks taken, unpredictable decisions made and tough times endured – had all been worth it. Kanonkop had arrived.”

And in many ways, Kanonkop held the door open for the South African industry at large, and are still doing so.  Just last year international wine critic Tim Atkin caused a feeding frenzy when he awarded his first ever 100-point score in the New World to the 2015 Kanonkop Paul Sauer. It promptly sold out, of course.

Not to mention the estate’s contribution to the image of Pinotage.

“The international market understands a Bordeaux style wine like the Paul Sauer, they can put in a framework. But with Pinotage, they don’t have a frame of reference, and unfortunately there were some Pinotages released to the world that weren’t up to scratch.

“But you know what I say? Don’t crucify the cultivar, crucify the producer.

“These days though the industry is much more positive about the category, and we have seen plenty of traction with our Pinotage wines in terms of both sales and feedback from well-respected critics.”

What’s next for Kanonkop? “One must always accept that the younger generation knows a bit more, is a bit more innovative,” says Johann humbly.  We need to give them the opportunity to grow and help them develop their strengths.

“My philosophy is ‘back to the future’: keep what’s working well, like say our open concrete fermenters, but always improve on the technology. Improve quality always and be innovative, but not too experimental, otherwise you lose focus on what you’re good at.”

Throats dry from talking, it’s time to taste some wine. We wind down the set of wooden stairs into the tasting room. His two Bernese Mountain dogs lead the way.

Along with his fluffy canines, Johann and Paul both live on the farm with their wives. Johann has two grown daughters, and three grandchildren.

You know it’s a good day when you get to taste Paul Sauer 2011 and Kanonkop Black Label 2017 side by side.  

Sipping on the latter, I look up at an inscription running along the top of the tasting room door: ‘Pinotage is the juice extracted from women’s tongues and lions’ hearts. After having a sufficient quantity one can talk forever and fight the devil’.

There’s plenty of fight in this family. The story I’ve heard today has been one of courage, determination and strong family ties—with the devil being in all the details.

- Malu Lambert