“Wine is a mirror of the environment first,” says Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee of Vriesenhof Wines . We’re sitting on the porch of his Stellenbosch farmhouse, overlooking the view of vineyards and mountains. Inside there’s evidence of a braai being prepped for later. You don’t often see houses like this anymore. The walls are thick stone, with wooden gabled ceilings, and there’s a fireplace you could park a car in. Above the stove hangs an oil painting—a scene of braaiied fish and lemons—hinting at his love for his place of birth, the West Coast.
His home is adjacent to the wine cellar, and when the wind angles its way towards us, we can smell the fermenting must from the cellar, harvest here is just winding down.
“To focus on the grape, detached from the context of the place, is to lose the forest from the trees,” says Jan digging deeper into his sentiment. “In the plant world the vine reveals to us the true value of the land. The vine expresses through the grape, the secrets of the soil.
“You need to listen to the voice of the land.” With around 52 vintages under his belt Jan has been listening for a long time—and his diligence has paid off in making him one of South Africa’s most respected wine industry figures. Added to that he’s a legendary rugby player too. Jan played for Western Province from 1967 to 1979, and then flank for national team, the Springboks from 1974 to 1976.
Both rugby and wine started at Stellenbosch University for Jan, where he impressed with playing for the Maties, as well as graduating with a degree in Oenology while he was at it.
He started his winemaking career at Kanonkop in 1967 where he produced the iconic estate’s first vintage of wine in 1973. It was a groundbreaking time. “In ‘73 we started using small barrels,” Jan says looking back. “I was very friendly with coopers in Bordeaux, having played rugby there—so for the first time we were putting new wine into new wood.”
In 1980 he bought Vriesenhof. “I wanted to work and live here in these mountains,” he says looking out at the purple ridges of the mountainside.
After releasing his first vintage in 1981, he went to work in Burgundy, in search of chardonnay. “I became frustrated that the only whites we had to work with were chenin and colombar. I realised we weren’t going to get in any chardonnay any time soon…”
“I love chardonnay. Just think of it: its steeliness, its opulence—characteristics so far apart but coming from the same grape.
So while working in Burgundy—even enrolling his two young daughters in school in Beaune, while his son toddled around the vineyards—his started sending plant material to South Africa. “I sent chardonnay back in my son’s nappies, disguised in a chocolate box, in a friend’s handbag, in the lining of a jacket… in any way I could.”
This kind of vinous subterfuge doesn’t stay secret for long. Back on SA soil: “In 1986 they came to arrest us. I was camping out in Buffels Bay and had just come out of the ocean with a bag of alikreukel,” he laughs ruefully.
Luckily though when it was time to face the music, he and his co-conspirators were called to testify to a Commission of Enquiry—which ironically led to the lifting of the embargo and the formation of the Vine Improvement Association (VIA) in 1986.
It was around this time he had another son; making it four children in total to tear through the vineyards of Vriesenhof as their father drove South African winemaking forward.
In the mid-1990s, he planted Pinot Noir. “It’s taken me almost 20 years to reach some kind of African perfection,” he says smiling. “When you work in nature you have to learn patience, things aren’t always going to go the way you want or predicted they would.”
Working in nature was always going to be a given for Jan. Though initially it was with fauna and not flora. “I wanted to become a vet. But instead I became a winemaker as I come from a family that has made wine in the Piekenierskloof area since the early days.”
When he says early days he means way, way back. According to his records the first Coetzees arrived in Table Bay in 1679; and were in Stellenbosch by 1682 (today the farm is known as Coetzenburg). The family left Stellenbosch for the West Coast at the end of the 1680s. Fast-forward to the 1900s it was against the background of weather-beaten villages, fishing boats and wild beaches of the West Coast that Jan grew up.
His upbringing was humble, with many family members sharing a two-roomed house, where they had to use a hand pump to draw water out of the ground. These days he has a holiday home there, where he spends as much time as possible with his numerous grandchildren.
He is still actively involved in Vriesenhof as cellarmaster, working closely with his winemaker, Nicky Claasens.
“I’m still learning,” he says.
“Wine is a way to help us understand the earth’s uniqueness. To learn more about place, plant, people, passion, patience, pride and precision with the end result being of course, pleasure, and of the pleasure of sharing with others.”
- Malu Lambert