14 February 2018

Visiting Kanonkop Estate

To Kanonkop with Eleanor Cosman of Toronto's South African Wine Society.

It's vintage and a critical time to judge exactly when grapes should be picked. Cellarmaster Abrie Beeslaar is out in the vineyards making those tough decisions and asked his assistant Alet De Wet who is managing the winery today to show us around.
Alet de Wet, Kanonkop Winemaker

The first Pinotage is arriving from contracted farms in bins on the back of lorries. Alet tells us that there are 30 growers in Stellenbosch from whom Kanonkop buy grapes. Today's grapes are coming from three of those farms. Bought in grapes are for the Kadette range, both varietal Pinotage and the Cape Blend.

For the flagship Estate wines, production is limited to what can be grown on the Esate. Kanonkop have one of the world's oldest Pinotage vineyards and at over 60 years the old bushvines are producing less each year.

The Kadette label was originally used for wine from young vines and barrels that didn't meet the Estate standards. But demand for the keenly priced Kadette range keeps expanding and is now met by buying in grapes from neighbouring farms.

Co-owner Johan Kriger told me that orders for Kadette is fast increasing. Currently around 2,000 tons of grapes are sourced for Kadette and the estate grows around 500 tons.
Grape bins are emptied into destalker

The bins are unloaded from the lorries by a forklift truck which then upends each one in turn into the bin of a destalking machine.

The grape bunches look glowing with health and vitality and taste sweet, even though the Cape is going through the third year of the severest drought in memory.
Just picked Pinotage arrives at Kanonkop

But many of these grapes will end up as compost because they do not meet Kanonkop's exacting quality standards.
From de-stalker on left grapes are emptied onto sorting table

After de-stalking the grapes empty onto a perforated shaking sorting table. Grapes which are too small, not developed or unformed plus twigs and other MOG (material other than grapes) fall through the holes to the reject bin.
Sorting table (left) empties onto belt of optical sorter (right)

Those that pass the sorting table cascade onto the fast moving belt of the optical sorter. This mega-expensive machine, one of only three such machines in South Africa, can handle 20 tons per hour and compares each grape against a template defining acceptable colour, size and whatever is programmed into its memory. Only those berries which pass this hypercritical individual examination make it through.
Fast changing monitor on sorting machine

There's a large bin full of berries that look good to me, but these are the rejects. At some wineries these will in turn go through a second pass of the sorter reset to lower standards for use in a second or third label wines.

But not at Kanonkop. The next stop for these rejects is a compost heap.
Alet de Wet shows us  the grapes that made it through the optical sorter. These go directly to fermenting tanks

The berries that make it through the two selections are pumped directly into the open fermentation tanks, known in the Cape as kuipes.

Alet informs us that each kuipe can hold between 8 and 10 tons of grapes, which would produce around 10,000 litres of wine.
Fermenting tank of Pinotage with robot push down machine above

Pinotage is inoculated with yeast and fermentation takes around three days kept at at 28C by means of chilled water being pumped through a radiator in each kuipe. The layer of grape skins pushed up to the surface by CO2 produced during fermentation is punched down every two hours around the clock so colour and flavour can be extracted from the skins.

To increase production of Kadette wines a new section of kuipes has been built, and because there are now too many kuipe for the punch-down teams to handle, robots move on tracks over Kadette's kuipes, lifting and pushing down steel plates at the end of poles.

Abrie Beeslaar got the idea after visiting Portugal's Douro Valley where some Port houses have introduced machines for treading grapes. Abrie got a South African company to manufacture a machine to his specifications.
Close up of automatic punch down tool

It uses the same pressure as if done manually,” Alet told me.
Winery worker shows us the tool he uses to manually push down the cap

Estate wines continue to have their cap pushed down manually by staff balanced on planks over the kuipie wielding what looks like a broom without bristles on a long handle. I've done this myself at Kanonkop, albeit for a very short time, and found it exhausting back breaking work.

We sleep for an hour,” said Alet, “then get up to do the next punch down.” When asked when she ate, she replied “April.”
Workers eye view of kuipe. After fermented wine is pumped out, workers will shovel remaining grape skins through opened metal doors onto trough below for pressing, and then clean the tanks

After fermentation is complete, Kanonkop's wines are put in barrel. All new for Estate wines, older wood for Kadette. “We buy 400 new French oak barrels each year, costing around 700 Euros each,” said Alet.

Entering the barrel cellar feels very cool after the 34C heat outside. “We have around 5,000 barrels here,” said Alet, “and maintain a temperature of 18C. Keeping it cool is our biggest use of energy but we've recently covered the roof with solar panels and that's halved our energy costs.”
Kadette capsules in machine on bottling line

As well as Kadette Pinotage, Kanonkop produce an Estate and a premium Black Label Pinotage.

Grapes for Black Label come from a single 60+ year old bush-vine block of less than 3 hectares growing on red soil located behind the winery. All our other Pinotage grows on decomposed granite,” said Alet. “We don't get much from this block, just 2-3 tons per hectare. After ageing in barrel we make a final barrel selection to choose the very best for Black Label.”

Kanonkop's range of seven wines are the pale pink Kadette Pinotage Rose, Kadette Pinotage and Kadette Cape Blend (Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Estate wines are Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Paul Sauer (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) and the Black Label Pinotage.

Many thanks to Alet de Wet for taking time during harvest to show us around.

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