It seems strange that only two weeks ago I was sitting with wine legend, Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee at his home at Vriesenhof, unworried about potentially having to work from home for the foreseeable future, unaware of my future self/ our collective future selves’ predicament. I had just asked him what his biggest failure / struggle had been in his 54-vintage career. He responded: “I’m really scared of the Eastern Wind.”
This fear was born on January 26, 1975, when Jan was still the winemaker at Kanonkop (and a Springbok on the side). On that day they picked up 12 tons of grapes off the ground, and, he said, the Cab lay in dark purple lines amongst the vines. This is an image that seems etched into his memory. He gets up to show me the Eastern wind’s most recent foray into his Pinot vineyard at Vriesenhof, having actually torn down the stainless-steel poles meant to support the vines, and twisted them, as if they were nothing.
Oom Jan (it seems rude to call him Jan) shows me the 350-year-old oak tree (its age estimated between 350 and 400 years) standing sentinel over the tasting room. He says they believe it was one of the original acorns Simon van der Stel planted here. The tree is gnarled and twisted by the Eastern wind, Oom Jan having put steel rods into it to hold it together. The sheer might of the Eastern wind was displayed, as was Oom Jan’s constant efforts to guard against it.
But you can’t give up.
Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee is an illustrious figure in the South African wine industry. Part of the small band of merry men (literally) who ensured that South Africa received access to quality plant material in the early ’80s, he was a Springbok under Doctor Craven, winemaker at both Kanonkop and his own, Vriesenhof, a keen fisherman and diver, and as he terms it, ‘a humble servant of nature’. When you talk about wine, he says, you’re talking about three things. (Whether he knew he was alliterating, I don’t know, but I love it.) PLACE, PLANTS, and PEOPLE. And when it comes to the PEOPLE he says, they need to have Passion, Pride, Patience, Precision, and Perseverance in order to have just a little Pleasure and Profit. Do you see what Oom Jan did there?
Oom Jan purchased Vriesenhof on December 4, 1980 – he’s incredibly good with dates, reciting years and dates from memory without hesitation.
Having come from Kanonkop, Oom Jan was looking for land in Stellenbosch, Cab Country. He wanted a South Facing Slope, with only early morning light to ensure cooler conditions for slow ripening. In recent years we’ve discovered that the early morning light is, in fact, the warmest light, and Oom Jan has since planted cover crops and distributed straw between the vines to stop the early ripening effects of reflection light.
Having spent a lot of time in Beaune in France, Oom Jan has a lot of French influence in his approach to winemaking. He says the French don’t use the term winemaker, but vigneron, referring to a winegrower who marries grapevines to the soil and then kneels to pray. (Though I think he added that last bit from his own meandering experience.)
Having been the Chairman of the Water Association for 35 years (though he waves me off from writing that down), and coming from a farming background in Lambertsbaai, where his father was the third son of a farmer and therefore got education instead of the farm, it is no great stretch that these days Oom Jan prefers the farming side of things, even at 75 years of age.
Though he does qualify that these days it will only be in Africa: “Afrika is te nice.” Today, Nicky Claasens takes care of the actual winemaking at Vriesenhof, and Oom Jan focusses on providing him with the best raw material possible.
When Oom Jan talks about farming he talks about Agricultural Science, with an emphasis on the ‘science’. In the early ’80s, having established that if they had to wait for the government, they’d be waiting for a long time to receive quality plant material from abroad, Oom Jan and a few other ooms took it upon themselves.
Among the likes of Frans Malan of Simonsig, Sydney Back of Backsberg and Danie De Wet of DeWetshof, Oom Jan set about finding Chardonnay. Each oom took an interest in a specific cultivar, though it seems Danie De Wet and Oom Jan shared a love of Chardonnay.
Together they identified three clones of Chardonnay, 76, 78 and 95, and set about smuggling them into the country, be it in their children’s nappies, in Belgian Chocolate boxes, or by any other means they saw fit. Their endeavours made the government and greater wine industry aware of the deep-seated need for quality plant material and can be credited for our large selection of noble cultivars today. Because of his time in Beaune and his particular interest in Chardonnay, citing a 60- year-old Chablis as his muse, Oom Jan is particularly fond of his Chardonnay.
In fact, he called it one of his great milestones – and to be honest, I think that as a Chardonnay-loving audience we should thank him and the other ooms for their foresight. What would we be without Chardonnay? Oom Jan’s interests are not, however, limited to white wine. Of Sauvignon Blanc, he says he believes there to be a spider in every bottle (he hates the acidity), but given the PLACE, his PLACE, red wine is very much a focus. He says he dreamed of one wine, but that, that wine kept on changing. From a single-varietal Cab to a Bordeaux Blend, and once he arrived at the blend he struggled between his own interpretation of a Blend and a Fusion.
A Fusion denoting two varietals, while a Blend represented three or more. What we got was the Kallista three-way blend. He had to wait for 5 years to release it because he had to wait for the Merlot, but what came of that was a big Stellenbosch blend. In 1978 he dreamed of Pinot Noir but struggled for 22 years before releasing it, growing Pinot Noir successfully in Stellenbosch, a feat to say the least. In 2006 he replanted everything, his aim, always to ensure the quality of his vines.
Of people, there are many. When I ask Oom Jan why he thinks that all South African winemakers have this recurring indomitable spirit, he replies without thinking: “Genes.”
Look at Simon van der Stel, he says, he was a man of 40 who somehow, within 18 months managed to set up a hospital, establish Constantia, plant 10 000 vines and 30 000 oak trees, establish a plant calendar and map out the coastline… amongst the active threat of wild rhinos, lions, elephants, everything you’d expect of unchartered Africa.
GENES. I’d hazard to contend that Oom Jan is a link in the original grapevine that connects the South African Wine Industry (even today), in and amongst the merry men who worked with him to smuggle plant material into the country in the early ‘80s. Of this grapevine, his friends, he calls them his ’shoulder on the fireside’, the ones you choose to share a fire and a bottle of wine with, he says he’s almost scared to speak of how precious such friendships are, lest acknowledging them, weakens them. Though I don’t think that’s possible, he says he’s fortunate to have had the men and women who have helped him up the stairs all his life and I do believe this is a characteristic of the wine industry even today, learned from its pioneers and one of its biggest virtues.
He speaks of other friends as well, Billie Hofmeyer of Welgemeend who taught him art, music, and wine. And Frikkie (no surname tendered), one of the biggest fishermen on the West Coast and Oom Jan’s friend since primary school, taught him how to fish and dive and together they made enough money to put Oom Jan through university. He says not to forget his patient parents and the support of his family, with four children and numerous grandchildren. Oom Jan is the patriarch of a family steeped in wine, with Adi Badenhorst as a son-in-law and the greater wine industry as old family friends.
And then, there’s the Springbok. My question was: Being a rugby legend in South Africa is a sacred rite, how has your rugby legend influenced your winemaking? I didn’t expect his answer.
He speaks of Doctor Craven, another one of his mentors, with whom he walked for 35 years. He stopped a reporter once, coming from an interview with the Doctor and asked him how the interview went. The reporter responded: “I’ve never met a man with so much humanity and so much humility. If that’s a Springbok and I can’t be one, I’ll strive to become one.” And THAT’S how being a Springbok affects him still today, it is striving toward greatness – it is what makes him the ‘early-upper and plan-maker’ that has defined his career and continues to do so.
When I ask him why he still makes wine in South Africa he says: “I love this country and its people. But more specifically the West Coast people.”
Recipe: Mussels with parsnip and parmesan
Prep time: 20 mins
Cook time: 20 mins
You will need:
– 3-4 kilograms of fresh mussels, cleaned
– 250ml fresh cream
– 100ml dry white wine - 50ml chicken stock
– 4-6 leeks, thoroughly washed and thinly sliced
– 30ml butter, for frying
– 3-4 large parsnips, peeled and grated
– 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
– 4 large cloves of garlic, crushed
– 100g grated Parmesan
– Coarse ground sea salt and black pepper.
Place the casserole dish over medium heat and sauté the chopped leek in the butter until soft. Increase the heat, add the grated parsnip and cook to al dente.
Strip the thyme leaves from the woody stalks and add to the dish. Simmer the mixture for another minute then deglaze the dish with the white wine.
Reduce by half and then add the cream, chicken stock and the crushed garlic. Scatter in the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste, going easy on the salt.
Once the sauce has thickened, you can add in the mussels, as their liquid will loosen up the sauce again. Turn the heat to medium and place all the mussels into the sauce. Cover the dish with its lid and steam until all the mussels have opened – being sure to discard any that haven’t.
If they’re very fresh and have opened a crack, simply work the shell wider with the tip of a butter knife. Stir the mussels through the sauce and divide between four warmed bowls.
Serve the mussels immediately with lemon wedges to squeeze over the top, fresh crusty bread to mop up the sauce and a chilled bottle of Vriesenhof wooded Chardonnay.