Legend of SA Wine – Jan Boland Coetzee
Jan Boland Coetzee became a household name as a rugby legend before arising as a much-loved pioneer of South African wine.
On his formative years
A West Coast lad, Jan Boland recalls some of his earliest memories as a two-year-old sitting on bales of lucerne that his uncle would carry around. He was a farm boy and his own strength he says probably came from his father. “My father was exceptionally strong. We got up at four in the morning, had bible study and prayed together and then it was milking time.”
“I actually wanted to become a veterinarian. I love animals – horses and cattle. But those were the days of compulsory national service. I was turned down for the branch I hoped to join and later, I was turned down for veterinary studies too. My cousin was busy with his master’s degree and suggested I investigate farming. So, coming into wine as almost by accident.
“I’d been captain of the u/18 rugby team and got to know Dr Craven, an incredible person and mentor. During my studies, I took a little long to get my degree, but I did eventually get it. Fortunately, Oom Charl de Waal was our viniculture professor, so he looked after me because he used to play for Western Province. He’d give me a little extra help. I also had the advantage of the Doc who told the rector to just give me another chance when things were looking dire.
“The day I got my degree, Oom Tom the rector, also applauded loudly because I think he knew he was finally rid of this man!”
On getting his nickname
Johannes Hermanus Hugo Coetzee is more commonly known as Jan Boland Coetzee.
“I happened to become the captain of Boland Schools in my last year of school. They gave us a very nice jacket with a bunch of grapes on it; a yellow and black jacket. And that was the only jacket I owned. I was with amongst others, Andre Bruis, who couldn’t speak a word of Afrikaans and I couldn’t speak a word of English.
“One day, he said I speak like a Bolander. And so, the guys started calling me Boland, also because of the jacket and how I use my West Coast Afrikaans.”
On starting out at Simonsvlei
“I did two harvests at Simonslvei – it was something we had to do in those years. And I must say Sarel Rossouw was an exceptionally character. Both his sons are winemakers today. It was an outstanding time. They never ended – 24 hours a day it kept you busy and you knew you were at Simonsvlei.
“In 1967 I oversaw the red wine and that was probably, let’s say, the spark in the barrel because I really enjoyed it. I had a black man who worked with me, his name was Denvillio, and the two of us ran the whole red wine section of Simonsvlei, from the grapes coming in, to the skins leaving at the other end.
“He stayed at Simonsvlei and kept the car I’d sold him. It was a Prefect that I’d bought for R50. I sold it to Denvillio for the same amount and later I heard he drove to Transkei with that car when he retired.”
On Kanonkop and Cabernet Sauvignon
After his internship at Simonsvlei, Jan Boland took the reins from Danie Rossouw at Kanonkop.
“Oom Danie [Rossouw] had to teach me because Oom Jannie Krige was his son-in-law. He told Oom Paul he thought he’d found the right person for the job. Then Oom Danie unfortunately became sick; he died in April 1969, after harvest. He was so sick and I was left.
Jan Boland says he thinks Kanonkop liked him because as he says “I was built for hard work”.
“We started at four in the morning, digging the mounds in the vineyards, then at four in the afternoon I left for rugby practice. I’d say to the guys: ‘Just give me a minute to lie with my feet in the air,’ and they’d ask why. I’d tell them I’d been on my feet since four that morning.
“I planted Cabernet there in 1969. We called it the Moonshine Cabernet because soon after putting it in the ground, the neighbour asked if I’d planted the vines in dark…the rows weren’t in the traditional straight line!
“In 1973, I decided to make the Cabernet separately. It turned out to be an exceptional wine. Back then, Achim von Arnim lived next door, at Mike Woodhead and Le Bonheur. I called him. I remember I had a compost bag over the tank because it was still fermenting. It was weighed down with bricks. I wanted to taste the wine that morning. I still remember it was tank 11. We each got a glass and sniffed and tasted and so on. Achim grew just as excited as I was, and we started to dance. That Tank 11 is still a wine of reckoning. That was the beginning of a Stellenbosch Cabernet!”
On Pinotage at Kanonkop
“They planted Pinotage vines in 1927, so the oldest vineyard at Kanonkop is Pinotage.
“Unfortunately, the soil isn’t that good so I told Oom Paul [Krige] we need to mix lime into the soil and we got hold of calcium silicate, which is more soluble than calcium carbonate. We ploughed in a fair amount on the northern side and that vineyard is still one of the top vineyards.
“In the old days, they prepared land with horse ploughs. That comes back to the topic of technology – you can do leaf analyses and everything. Using the technology and science, you can make a big difference to young and old vineyards.”
On Vriesenhof and history
“I thought a southerly slope was the right thing when I left Kanonkop. On that southerly part of Kanonkop we acquired more land and cut down pine trees. The Cabernet that grew there was exceptional. The first harvest was ‘73 and it still lives. There’s nothing wrong with that wine. It was outstanding training ground for me, so (when I left) I was looking for soil and environment that was similar. Vriesenhof was that.
“The original part of the manor house at Vriesenhof was built in 1705. I was lucky to get an old Cape Dutch house. All the doors and windows come from a property in Malmesbury that was built in 1767. Everything was restored and then it took me 10 years to get this far.
“As for the vineyard, as climate change is happening, despite it having a cooler, southerly slope, the sun brings more…the morning sun more than the afternoon sun.
“Interestingly, for the past 50 years, this year for the first time, we’re seeing day and night temperatures differing by more than 20 degrees. In the past, it never went more than 16 degrees; it was even closer to 12. This year, it was more than 20. What that means, and I know this for sure…It doesn’t help to worry – you need to make plan so that there’s shade over the fruit.
“It’s not really a scientific assessment on my part, but a feeling.
“Even though there’s no word in French for ‘winemaker’, their description of the occupation is a combination of farming, science and research. So, if you have a passion for the industry, a guy like Danie de Wet; or, Neil Ellis, the man who ventured into the different regions, it’s actually a very important component. The diversity. We’re fortunate to have the older soils of the New World.”
On mentors and friends
“There are many! Oom Charl de Waal, Professor Orfer – the only professor I knew who couldn’t sit behind his desk. He had to lie down because there were so many papers in is office. He got his doctorate from Davis University within four months, and he walked at high speed. Those days at Elsenburg, we used the Welgevallen vineyards for practical sessions. He exhausted you within 15 minutes because you had to jog to keep up.
“He knew every plant and every leaf – he was an ampelograph. There are 1 300 grape varieties and without looking it up, he could name them all and knew how to work with them. He was an exceptionally viticulturist.
“There’s Eben Archer, of course, who had the combination of the plant and soil as his speciality. Also among them is Oom Danie Rossouw, the winemaker before me at Kanonkop.
“Many people made such great contributions – too many to name. Duimpie [Bayly’s] influence with his, let’s say, American background. Duimpie is a people person and Beyers [Truter] is a people person. Neil Ellis is the silent giant. Danie de Wet is like me; he’ll fight until something is right. There are so many good people, and I don’t want to name them for fear of leaving people out.
“There’s the new generation too. Hopefully we made our contribution.
“There was Neil with the different regions, and Danie [de Wet] in terms of Chardonnay. He really brought that knowledge forward. We’re all in the shade of big trees.”
About the ‘70s Lion’s Tour and vine smuggling
“It was the biggest luck for me to be in the team in the first place because we trained for a long time for the ‘74 Lions, and as you know the ‘69/’70 tour was difficult, with taxis and nails on the field. We were well prepared. They’d chosen 33 guys and back then, there were 15-plus reserves who could play if you were injured. Then they chose for the second test, relaced seven guys, and in the third test it went even worse. In the last one, at least it ended in a draw.
“A year later though, I started as a reserve against the French and played in the second test. We only played two tests that year against them. In ‘76 I was fortunate to play all of them with Jan Ellis and Morné, and at the end of that year we would have toured France, but it was cancelled due to sanctions.
“I decided to tour as a winemaker instead, which I did in 1981. The ‘81 Lions came and I stopped, after the French expedition. Let’s say I took up smuggling grapes because in those days we did our own vine grafting. We planted the wild vines and then grafted them, and that took priority.”
On lessons from the land
“I think that awareness of place on soil, as you say, specifically a place – you can’t transfer that. History of a place is written by plants and people. The better you understand the place, the more correct your history will be. There will always be secrets in the land, but there’s a lot you will know and a lot you will discover if you have passion. That’s what I’m engaged in. It’s incredible to see what influence those factors – the soil, the climate, the plants, and the people. It’s not something that is transferable from one place to another. A place is a place.
“All that history and knowledge is absorbed. There’s the land, the weather and everything, which is used as well as possible. You have to get to know it to be able to produce an excellent wine.”
“I’m reading a book by an Australian old-timer who has had 68 harvests. He says we are just humble servants of nature and the better we look after it and the better we can carry out our task, the better the final product will be.
“The better the land will be to you, for you.
“There will be things you will know, and things you won’t, but if you have a passion for that place then I think you can make it.
“If this old timer in Australia says you’re a humble servant of nature, you can’t make the harvest and grapes, you can only look after it. You can only be a guide of the vineyard, right through the winery into the bottle. The terminology changes and you also change along with the knowledge, but you’ll never know everything. That’s the most interesting.
“I think I now understand many of the secrets, but not all of them. That understanding of a man in his environment, I think, is like I said, about the morning sun and the hot sun situation that has changed and the rainfall that has changed. We shouldn’t work with averages. If I take the rainfall as a basis, then it’s still raining more than in the past, but the difference between more rain and less, is much bigger. So, when it rains, it rains more. We’ve just gone through a cycle of about six years where it rained a lot less than the average, which shows you can’t work with averages because that indicates the opposite.
“I’ve learned you can’t work with averages! When you draw a line, the rain seems to increase, but it’s the line of average. If you look at the detail, then it goes up and down.”
On a history of social projects
“My father’s two best friends were farmworkers. They grew up together and I was in that milieu.
“But don’t be mistaken, when I got to Kanonkop I was very ambitious.”
He joined a social organisation that held church services for farmworkers over weekends, “but how do you have a service for someone who is under the influence”.
He discussed another idea with the head of the organisation. “We needed to give people something else to do,” he says.
“And so, it evolved. I took them along to Newlands in the beginning and then gave people train tickets, but then some didn’t turn up for work until Tuesday. Then, there was the Rural Foundation in the late 70s and 80s, which was specifically about the welfare of people in terms of their health and activities.
“At that time there were 6 500 schools on farms, so we could use the children to get the parents involved. Eventually there were something like 4 000 farmers who saw 1.2 million people every day.”
On receiving the 1659 Medal of Honour
“It was exceptional recognition that makes you feel so small. There are so many people helping you up the stairs and few pulling you down. It was a wonderful celebration. It was nice to have my children there and everyone who helped push me up, but it still makes you feel small and humble.”
This feature was derived from a series of interviews conducted by radio personality Martelize Brink. It was compiled in co-operation with Wineland Media, part of the Vinpro Family, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2021.