Jan Boland Coetzee: Soul of an Artist, Mind of a Wine Legend

 

Jan Boland Coetzee received the Wine Industry’s 1659 Medal of Honour at the annual function to commemorate the first Cape harvest. This extract from the book Kanonkop – The Making of a Legend  tells more about this giant of South African wine.

The sport of rugby can be a curious thing, combining aggression and physical strength with civility, gamesmanship and a camaraderie most other games have never had, or forgotten about. Those who play it well are likely to have a heart and a spirit as formidable as the bodies required to succeed, men who continue to leave their mark on the world and the lives of others long after the final whistle has blown on their sporting careers.

Jan Boland Coetzee is such a man.

The nickname “Boland” was acquired as a result from his early successes on the rugby field. After representing the Boland schools’ rugby team, he arrived at the University of Stellenbosch in 1963 to study Oenology and Viticulture. For a country boy from the Cape’s dry, rugged West Coast, coming to university required a certain decorum, including that of the sartorial kind. For young men, wearing a blazer around town and to class was deemed necessary, although Jan Coetzee only had one jacket to pack, namely that handed out to him when he was picked to represent the Boland Schools’ team.

The straight-haired, broad-shouldered figure became inseparable from the black blazer adorned with the Boland rugby emblem, and after one fellow-started with the name “Boland”, it stuck.

And an apt name it is. The Boland region of South Africa refers to a rugged yet majestically beautiful rural landscape where hardy Afrikaans-people have farmed fruit, grain, wine grapes, vegetables and livestock for generations. These farming stock are salt-of-the-earth folk, physically strong from manual labour in the fields and with a genuine, deep-rooted relationship with and love of the earth and the climate that determines the state of the produce they farm.

Hailing from a farming family in the rustic region of Porterville, some 145km north of Cape Town on the road to Namibia, Jan spent his early youth on a farm growing rooibos tea, a plant indigenous to this region of the Cape, and wine grapes. His family later moved to Lambert’s Bay, a fishing village on the West Coast where his father was a school-teacher, but Jan regularly spent time with his uncle on the family farm. Jan remembers his childhood ramblings in the vineyards and the winery, the wines being trucked over the Piekenierskloof Pass to the co-operative cellar in the town of Citrusdal.

“They distilled liquor on the farm, too,” Jan says, “I’d sit with my uncle at the distilling kettle while the residue from the harvest – the fermented grape skins – were being distilled into a fierce white spirit that’d put hairs on your chest.”

Jan Boland the Springbok giving All Black Sid Going a working over.

Jan was sent to boarding school in Malmesbury, the main town in South Africa’s famous Swartland region, where he began making name for himself as a rugby-forward destined to become one of the greats.

Between 1967 and 1979, Jan made the blue-and-white hooped number six jersey of the Cape’s Western Province provincial team his own. From 1974 to 1976 he played six tests for the Springboks and would have no doubt gone on to gain many more caps were it not for the sporting boycott against South Africa of the time.

Rugby bought Jan to Kanonkop and Kanonkop helped make him as much of wine legend as a sporting one, if not more so.

In between his studies and playing rugby for the mighty University of Stellenbosch first team known as Maties, Jan was gaining cellar experience at Simonsvlei outside the town of Paarl and one of the better co-operative cellars in the Cape.

“Simonsvlei was run by Sarel Rousseau, one of the true great wine people of his time,” says Jan. “For a big production cellar Oom Sarel had designed some revolutionary methods of handling, fermenting and pressing grapes, and I found the way that bunches of grapes were coming in in huge volumes and being turned into really good wine, fascinating. I had originally wanted to become a vet after school, but the more I worked with the grapes and the wine-making, the more assured I began feeling this was for me. I was young, man – 22, 23 years old.”

One of the most important decisions in the history of Kanonkop was made in 1968 when Paul Sauer knew that he had to begin making plans in finding a successor to Danie Rossouw, his old friend with whom he had planted the first vineyards and made the first vines on Kanonkop. Danie’s health had started ailing, and it was left-up to Paul’s son-in-law Jannie Krige to find a suitable person to take-over the wine-making and vineyard farming on the estate.

Being a rugby administrator at the University of Stellenbosch and having coached Jan Boland as part of the University’s under 18 team, Jannie knew that the quiet, strapping lad from Porterville was about to graduate in oenology and viticulture. And would he be interested in working on Kanonkop?

Jannie did not have to wait long for an answer.

“The idea was, I was going to work under Oom Danie for some time so he could show me the ropes, but that time turned out much shorter than for what we had planned,” says Jan. “I joined the farm in November 1968 and shortly after that Oom Danie was diagnosed with cancer. The harvest of 1969 I basically did on my own, and Oom Danie passed away in April of that year. The time I spent with him was short, but he taught me all he could about Kanonkop as he and Oom Paul Sauer had built-up everything from a bare patch of land. He was a fantastic man and I wished I could have had more time with him.”

Jan remembers that when he arrived the farm was annually crushing 1 200 tons of grapes, had over 100ha of vines and delivered some 700 000 litres of wine a year to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery in bulk.

He smiles. “But Oom Danie kept a little wine back, had an old barrel or two for ‘home use’. The spark of Kanonkop making its own wine, I tell you it began with those barrels of Oom Danie Rossouw.”

One of the first things Jan set about doing was to remove the Shiraz vineyards growing on Kanonkop and plant more Cabernet Sauvignon. Even though still a young winemaker, he had grown-up and worked close enough to soil and vines to have developed an instinct for the relationship between specific geographical sites and certain grape varieties. Through this instinct and the understanding of the concept of terroir, Jan has during his career made some of South Africa’s greatest wines and played a profound role in influencing generations of winemakers and creating a lasting legacy for the country’s wines.

Jan Boland and Paul Sauer in the Kanonkop cellar.

He is one of the greats, and always will be.

Recalling those early plantings, his steely gaze narrows at the onset of full-bore laughter.

“I’d just planted the first block when one of the neighbouring farmers, a Pierre Joubert, asked me he’d seen some new vines going in on Kanonkop and who was it that planted them? I told him, well, it was my work. You know what Oom Pierre said? He said, ‘Well, Jan, then you must have planted them under the moonlight, because those rows are bloody skew.’”

Jan admits that for somewhat straight out of university, being faced with a bare spread of soil needing planting with vines in aligned rows was a challenge, no matter how good your geometry. “After the first skewed efforts I’d take a hunting-rifle, stand in the middle of the site that needed planting and shoot holes into the ground to mark-out the spots where the vines were to come.”

At the top southerly slopes of Kanonkop Jan sensed the quality of the soils held incredible potential for viticulture due to the decomposed granite as well as the high clay content – perfect for water retention. But the more clay, the more acidic the soils, therefore Jan trucked in tons of limestone onto the farm, working the chalk into the soil and creating a near-perfect pH balance from which the Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon vines are still benefiting to this day.

In between managing the winery and the vineyards, as well as a staff component of over 70 permanent workers, Jan was becoming a national hero on the rugby field. He was an integral part of the powerful Western Province provincial rugby team, playing at the position of flank-forward.

Although relatively short for a senior provincial player, Jan was renowned for his tremendous physical strength, aggression and courage. He will be remembered for hurling himself into a pile of bodies, burrowing into the loose-scrum to grasp the ball from the arms of the opposition players. This was when the Number Six was not clearing-out anyone attempting to block his team-mates or pulverising opponents with bone-jarring tackles. Coupled to this was Jan’s never-say-die attitude on the field, playing his heart out for the full 80 minutes and winning the respect of anybody he played against as well as adulation from rugby-mad South Africans all over the country.

Back then the sport was amateur, players either being students or holding-down full-time jobs, with team training sessions held in the evenings. Starting in the vineyards before dawn, Jan would run the farm until five in the afternoon before driving the 60kms to Cape Town for training, getting back on Kanonkop well after ten at night. Saturday was match-day at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town or on the hard frosted fields of Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Bloemfontein or Johannesburg.

And Monday it would begin all over.

“The other players really used to mock me – as soon as I got into the changing room before training or a match I’d lie down on one of the benches just to get off my feet and have a few minutes’ shut-eye,” he recalls.

After two to three years at Kanonkop, it seemed to have become clear that something special was in the pipeline, both for the farm as well as for Jan Boland’s rugby career. The local wine community was talking about the young gun on Minister Paul Sauer’s farm who was planting new vines and showing a real knack in nurturing the grapes from harvest to good wine. And together with all this, it had been announced that the British and Irish Lions rugby team was to tour South Africa in 1974, a national event at that time only eclipsed by a visit from the All Blacks from New Zealand. (This happened in 1976, Jan playing all four tests in a series South Africa won 3-1.)

Jan Boland from Kanonkop was set to achieve what every South African boy at the time dreamed of, and that was to become a Springbok.

Whether the anticipation of having a Springbok winemaker or pure visionary ambition drove Jannie Krige, one will never know. But in 1972 preparations were being made for Kanonkop to start bottling its own wine, something the pater familias Paul Sauer was not too happy with on account of his close relationship with Stellenbosch Farmers Winery.

Current owner Johann Krige says his father saw the potential of launching a Kanonkop brand with a renowned winemaker as the face behind it. “I was still a student then, but you could pick-up the murmuring about this formidable character and rugby player with the name of Jan Boland making wine at Kanonkop,” he says. “I think my father saw the marketing opportunity, Jan Boland and Kanonkop both being powerful names. Plus, in the 1970s the demand for good wine, especially red wine, was growing in South Africa. The timing was right.”

Exactly how right this timing turned out to be is evident to anyone being fortunate enough to today taste the first vintages from Kanonkop, namely the 1973 and 1974. Both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage have aged into classic red wines capable of standing alongside the great red wines of the world of similar age.

A part of this greatness, says Jan Boland, can be laid at the door of that aspect he says is responsible for any great wine, and that is nature and terroir. He cannot emphasise this enough.

“There is just such a lot we don’t know, will never know, about the way soils, air movement, sunlight and the deeper forces of the earth influence plants,” he says. “And for us winemakers, well, we are fortunate to experience, to be subjected to these influences in the vineyards and through the wines we make and taste.”

He sits forward, becoming slightly animated. “You know where this hit me for the first time, is in Monet’s garden outside Paris. You look at the colours of the flowers that have just been left there for over a century to grow, and you can see they have mutated, picking up different shades among themselves as the light and the environment gives them each different personalities and ways of expressing themselves physically through changing colours.”

Asking Jan about the vines responsible for Kanonkop’s first own vintage, and the answer is not quite what one would expect.

“The most amazing thing, and this will have many of today’s wine experts coughing in their Bordeaux,” he says, “is that that first 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was made from vines of only four years old. I planted that vineyard in 1969 from rootstocks Oom Danie had propagated himself, on Kanonkop. We hardly had nurseries back then in the Cape. Four years old, that’s how old the vines were when this wine was made. It’s something only Cabernet is capable of.”

For those who know Jan, one of his many characteristics is having a memory that will put the brightest elephant in the heard to shame. Ask him what the vineyard flowering season was like in 1978 or how much spring rain fell in 1975 and he’ll tell you exactly, adding in some other comments about the natural conditions at the time to boot.

“That 1973 Cabernet of Kanonkop, it was fermenting in tank number eleven,” he says. “I let it lie on the skins, left it alone. Then when I guessed it had finished fermenting I drew a sample from the tank…..I’ll never forget the way it smelled. Just incredible. Magnificent. I tasted it and knew, this is something special, and if Kanonkop is going to bottle one wine, this is it.”

A man possessing a palpable calmness resulting from an inner strength, Jan is not known for surges of emotion. Yet upon tasting that Cabernet in the tank he phoned his friend Achim von Arnim who would also later become one of South Africa’s colourful wine characters.

“Achim arrived on the farm to taste this wine I was going on about, so I took him to the cellar and we had it from the tank. Typical Achim, once he tastes it he starts dancing to show what he thinks of it. Before I knew, I was dancing with him, two of us in an empty cellar. If anyone saw us they’d think we were crazy or inebriated, or both. But wine does that. Tasting something special that you have grown and made, wine does that.”

Jan’s jubilance at the quality of his 1973 vintage further committed Jannie and Mary Krige to embark on the first Kanonkop bottling, and this was also the beginning of the estate’s belief that new wood barrels are best for maturing its Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage.

It was during the Stellenbosch University’s rugby-tour to France in 1970 that Jan had encountered Jean Demptos from the famed wine barrel family in Bordeaux. In-between training and playing against the Bordeaux Bègles, Jan took time out to visit the cooperage and learn about the French tradition of crafting barrels from the oak forests in central France for the making of the famous wines of Bordeaux. The curing and toasting of these vessels and their potential for furthering the intrinsics of nature’s offering from the vineyard fascinated Jan.

“Back home, I managed to convince Jannie that if we were to bottle a wine with the name Kanonkop, new wood barrels would be required. It was not an easy conversation, I tell you: nobody was using new wood at the time, but more difficult was the decision to spend R78 on a new 225l French oak barrel imported from Bordeaux.”

But having come this far down the line in keeping back some of the great wines from the 1973 vintage, Jan got his way. The first Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotages, bottled under Kanonkop, were aged in a combination of new wood and larger foudrés, also from Demptos in Bordeaux.

“Wood is just a vehicle,” he says, “but an important one in allowing wine to reach its full potential. For Kanonkop, its use was non-negotiable from the start.”

Together with the eminence of this wine lying in barrel, waiting for introduction to the market, Jan’s stature was elevated to that of a Springbok rugby player when in 1974 he was selected to face the British and Irish Lions in the first test at Newlands.

The fact that the series turned out to be a disaster for South Africa, losing three tests to Willie-John McBrides’ all-conquering team and drawing one, did little to uncouple Kanonkop from the fact that its wines were made by a national hero and a character whose style of play and reserved off-field manner had endeared him to so many.

Add to this the brilliance of the Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 and Pinotage from the same vintage that was now for the first time on the market, and few other South African wines can say that their maiden foray into the wine world was destined for greatness.

“We were quite ambitious with the pricing,” says Jan. “Not quite prepared to eclipse the R2 mark when the wines were released later in 1974, Jannie and I decided on R1,95 a bottle.”

The wine scene in South Africa was totally different from what it is today, and in 1974 Kanonkop was but one of a handful of Stellenbosch estates who had ventured into the bottling and marketing of their own wines. But from day one, those present in the wine market sensed Kanonkop was the beginning of something great.

Duimpie Bayly, a true South African wine legend himself and erstwhile head-winemaker at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, recalls Kanonkop entering the market with a bang. “I was familiar with the farm as we were buying their wines in bulk, and well aware of what Kanonkop was capable of in making its own wine. This was vindicated when the first wines were released – you could sense greatness,” he says. “I’m not so much a marketing guy, but when you throw the person of Jan Boland into the mix, who was as good a winemaker as a rugby player, then you’ve pretty much ticked all the right boxes.”

Jannie Krige and Jan Boland’s foray into the Kanonkop Estate Wine proved a success from the start, and their belief in this venture vindicated. Their mutual friends in the rugby circles and curious wine-lovers among the general public scrambled to get their hands on a case or two of the wine. And many still have a bottle or – if lucky – a case stuck in their cellar today.

Monet’s gardens which inspired Jan Boland.

In the December of 2018 Johann Krige hosted Kanonkop’s three living winemakers in the atmospheric Paul Sauer venue for a braai, and Jan Boland put a glass of red wine before me.

The wine showed not the slightest sign of tiredness or excessive age, having a clear ruby rim, a bright aroma and an array of flavours held together with remarkable freshness. Jan introduced the wine as a Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1973.

“Taste that,” he said pointing to the 45 year old wine. “It’s almost ready to drink.”

It takes some courage to counter Jan Boland Coetzee, as many have found. But I’d say, the wine is quite ready now.

No talk of Jan Boland can omit the contribution he made in terms of creating an environment where farmworkers can live dignified lives. Up until the 1970s, living-conditions for farmworkers in the Cape left much to be desired. Alcohol-abuse, especially, led to myriad social evils in these communities as well as there being a general lack of ambition and a sense of self-worth.

“I talked to the people, visited their homes and sent to church with them to try to find out what the roots of the social problems were,” says Jan. “I laid it down to idleness, not having anything to do in their time away from work except to drink in an attempt to escape their problems.”

Kanonkop, thus, became one of the first wine farms to engage in a programme aimed at radically changing conditions for its workers. Houses with electricity and running water were built. Sports fields and a community hall followed, and within a few months there was a palpable improvement in the attitude of these workers and their families.

It is a sense of family among all at Kanonkop that exists until this day, another one of the lasting legacies of Jan Boland Coetzee.

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