I can scarcely think of a South African person more deserving of having his or her name printed on a wine label than Jan Boland Coetzee. With 55 years of winemaking under his belt, Jan’s reputation for having skilfully presided over the creation of an array of formidable wines is grafted to his personification of all that is true and great and admirable about the world of wine.
There is his sage-like wisdom that has inspired winemakers and others since Jan’s first Kanonkop vintages in the early 1970s. Through the years, his uniqueness has been admired for that intuitive understanding of the relationship between the natural world, the plant that is Vitis vinifera and the winemaker’s sole role as nothing but a carer. A nurturer of that which is gifted by nature through the process of vinification so as to express Jan’s very being in a bottle of wine.
And Jan never asked or looked for greatness as a man or a winemaker. It found him, made him and placed him on the pedestal where he is today recognised as a true icon of South African wine and wine in general.
Two addresses are attached to Jan. Kanonkop, where he began in 1968 and paved the way for the Simonsberg estate’s route to becoming the finest red wine farm in South Africa. And Vriesenhof, out Stellenboschberg-way, which he bought in 1980 after being seduced by those north-facing slopes. The shifts in air circulation. The light and the mounds of decomposed granite the mountains had cast down onto the floor all those millions of years ago and left them on a bed of clay. Because as Jan says, “all the great wines in the world are made from vines growing on soils with a substantial clay component”.
Now, Vriesenhof is Jan-less. He has sold-out, finding himself in a state of so-called retirement, although those bare-legs and broad smiles still frequent the place he called home for over four decades.
With lots of fresh stuff going down on Vriesenhof, to be revealed in due course, one of the developments is the recent release of the aforementioned Jan Boland Coetzee, a red Bordeaux blend not only purporting to be a fine wine – as all things Vriesenhof are – but to honour its founder. And yes, there have been many honours bestowed on Jan: 1659 South African Wine Legend and a Stellenbosch University doctorate in agriculture, to name two. But somehow having your name on something that defined your very being, well, of all honours, this is the one.
Thus, Vriesenhof Jan Boland Coetzee 2020. Surprisingly a Cabernet Franc-led blend with this cultivar’s 51% contribution being complemented by Merlot (29%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (20%). Yes, I too would have predicted Cabernet Sauvignon to command the compilation, as it was this variety that put Jan on the map with his Kanonkop 1973 version. But evolution is natural, and today’s Stellenbosch Cabernet Franc is gifted in its ability to bring an old-worldly, classical element to a red wine.
Other details, for the sake of giving them, is that the wine was aged in French oak for 18 months, the spread ranging from new to fourth-fill.
And Vriesenhof Jan Boland Coetzee might be named after an icon, but the wine itself has no will to offer itself under the pretence of a statuesque, idolised cult-wine. Simple labelling. Average-weighted bottle. And priced at around R155 a jar. No airs, just like its namesake, solely made to honour the farm’s founder through a bottle of very good and immaculately structured red wine.
It lies all very dark here in the glass, the colour of maraschino cherries in a forgotten jar hauled from the loft. The nose is firm, brooding and stern – almost tight – but after a few swirls, the heavens open and scents of potpourri and crushed pomegranate drift on a cirrus-cloud of fresh moss, graphite and pine-tree bark.
Upon this first palate attack, it is structure that alerts. The wine throbs and pulsates, there is the tautening of sinew and muscle with which presence is asserted, a formidable presence not of the overpowering and the bullying, but one of life and that beauty which is dramatic. Tannins are sleek, but they ask questions and stir curiosity. Then flavour takes hold, and a tapestry is spun from cords bearing tastes of fig paste and warm-tar; Lebanese prune and those squishy mulberries, with an ever-so civilised presence of fennel to bestow a mark of mystery, the sleight hand of the exotic.
And as you sip and swallow; think and savour, there will be something in your ear you are hearing, and that is his master’s voice.
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