“I believe nature makes wine – you only care for it. After more than 50 vintages, I’ve had a lot of time to think about these things,” opens Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee.
At 74, Jan presents a strong build, well-maintained from his past as a celebrated Springbok Rugby player to his present, where he now opts to spend his days working his Paradyskloof vineyards. His stature demands a certain level of attention, as he speaks slowly and purposefully, each sentence a carefully considered phrase – it’s practically poetic.
We’re sitting in the farm kitchen, off to the right of the old Vriesenhof farmhouse. It’s a bitterly cold Cape Town winter day, with light rain pitter-pattering on the tin roof of the veranda. Jan expertly stokes an old vine burning in the fireplace, which softens the room with its hot amber glow. Directly next to Jan sits Nicky Claasens, Vriesenhof Winemaker and Jan’s apprentice. When asked whether Nicky felt like he had large shoes to fill following Jan’s retirement from winemaking, Nicky laughs and says: “Jan doesn’t even wear shoes most of the time”. I look to the floor – it’s true. It’s the middle of winter and Jan is wearing a casual pair of men’s sandals – a true mark of a South African farmer if there ever was one.
Perhaps in any conventional office space, these two wouldn’t be natural colleagues, but in the farm context, it makes perfect sense. Despite their differences, there’s a comfortable energy between Jan and Nicky – a shared level of respect and understanding that connects their two generations.
Jan: The Vanguard
Jan’s foray into wine started back just as it does for so many of us: at university. Between playing rugby for Maties, he graduated with a degree in Oenology before starting his prestigious winemaking career at Kanonkop in 1967. After producing the estate’s first vintage of wine in 1973 and running the cellar for several years, he eventually bought his own winery, Vriesenhof, in 1980. From here began Jan’s love affair with Burgundy, where he spent several vintages learning to work with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (including various successful attempts in smuggling vines back to South Africa stashed in nappies, jacket linings, and chocolate boxes). By 1990, with the embargo being lifted and nappy-vine-smuggling a thing of the past, Jan planted Pinot Noir at Vriesenhof.
“Our Pinot Noir actually started in 1978. Since then, it’s been a thing about finding the right plant material. In the 70s and 80s, sanctions were severe and it was very difficult. But since 1982, we’ve brought over a lot of legal plant material and have been carefully re-selecting. We now have plant material in different places which in time I think will make a huge contribution. It requires a lot of patience to be a winemaker. In fact, it takes place, plant, people and patience,” he muses.
So far, Jan’s wine journey has been one filled with intrigue and interest. When asked what kind of legacy he would like to be known for, he answers:
“Recognition of place. We recently tasted through our 1999 – 2019 Chardonnay. And the one thing that is for sure is that these wines are family – they come from the same place. I’m so proud to see these Chardonnay’s because they are telling a little story about the very same place they are coming from and so they will write the history of Vriesenhof in time.”
He takes a pause. “I’m not emotional about it. Agriculture is also science, and luckily Nicky and I understand those things. So maybe the emotion is only in the glass. For the rest, it’s a combination of all the natural elements plus the sciences,” he concludes, looking at Nicky.
Nicky: The Refiner
In 2010, Jan handed the winemaking reins over to his successor, Nicky Claasens. “I stayed at Vriesenhof while I was studying at Stellenbosch University. Jan is a family friend, and I worked at Vriesenhof in my final year in 2007, before becoming winemaker,” opens Nicky. Wearing black-rimmed glasses and occasionally pulling his wavy black hair behind his ear, Nicky comes across as relaxed, humble and mindful.
His game plan for Vriesenhof is clear: “We aren’t going to change anything that Vriesenhof stands for. It might be a little different and more refined because my taste and style are different from what Jan’s are. So I’m not going to try and copy his wine – I am going to try to make better wine. At the end of the day, this is what every apprentice should try to do,” he says.
Yet, despite a clear desire to stick to the style, there have been some major changes for the wine farm in the last year, in the form of a complete brand update. Here, CEO of Vriesenhof, Eddie Smit, explains the thought process:
“The whole idea was to refresh Vriesenhof – but not reinvent it. We were at the point where we have history but there’s also that element of needing to move on with the times without losing our heritage or ourselves. So we joined up with 3Verse Advertising in Cape Town, and have enjoyed the revamp over the past 12 months,” explains Eddie.
The brand refresh has included modern imagery, cheeky copy, and a peacock ambassador who isn’t afraid to speak his mind called Mr. P. Kok. The goal here was to bring fun and playfulness back to an industry notorious for taking itself too seriously – a noble cause, if I may add.
“Overall, the reception has been great. Our goal was to make the brand appealing to a younger generation, and from that point, I think we’ve achieved this – there’s a lot more visibility and talkability,” ends Eddie.
My two cents is that Vriesenhof took a very bold but important step in updating their brand. So many wineries are resistant to doing something like that, as understandably there is so much emotion tied into the brand. Yet, as Heraclitus once said, change is the only constant. When I ask Jan about his reaction to the brand change, he provides a rather stoic response:
“It was very difficult to modernize it. But I am quite happy. I love nature and I love the people involved in wine. That’s the thing – I had the advantage of being a national sportsman, but I can assure you the people in wine are slightly better,” he smiles coyly.
A Generational Crossing
As the crackle of the fire quietens down, I look up to see a row of very old looking wine bottles lining the mantelpiece above me. I spot impressive names like La Tache, Château d’Yquem, Clos des Mouches …
Jan catches my eye and stands up to pass me one. “This shelf houses some of my favourite vintages I’ve ever had. In fact, I brought the 1982 Chateau Petrus for R35 in 1984. Now it’s selling for R160 000. I looked for it the other day in my cellar and I couldn’t find it, so I was quite worried … but eventually, I found it,” he chuckles. “All these wines come from my cellar, but now they are empty – what a pity! But behind every wine, there is a great story. “
As for himself, Jan is by no means ready to be placed on the mantelpiece. In April this year, in recognition of his ongoing pursuit for excellence in the development of technology and management in the South African wine industry, Jan received an honorary doctorate title, Doctor of Science in Agriculture (DScAgric), from Stellenbosch University. At 74, Jan continues to tend to his vines daily, having worked the land for more than 40 years. There’s no doubt that these vines are his magnum opus.
As I stand up to say my farewells, Jan’s next visitor enters the room. It is Kevin Arnold, owner of Waterford and fellow acclaimed winemaker. Kevin warmly greets Jan – the two are visibly old friends – and places a case on the kitchen table, opening it up to reveal several magnums packed carefully inside. Jan and Kevin look in with admiration and almost child-like excitement, as they begin talking about the benefits of magnum-aged wine.
As I drive up the muddied farm road on my way out, I think to myself that despite all the updates and fun, despite the need for change and relevancy, we must never forget our roots. Much like a rootstock passing its genes onto the next generation of great vines, so we must remember these wines were built on the shoulders of giants.
This story originally appeared on Port2Port on the 18th July 2019.