The rise and rise of Koelenhof Wine Cellar
Wines from the Koelenhof Wine Cellar are increasingly making headlines. Clifford Roberts set off to find out why.
There’s a story to be told about Koelenhof Wine Cellar, a winery in the Bottelary Hills ward of Stellenbosch. For decades, it lumbered on without really stepping into that limelight reserved for darlings. And that was fine.
But how did it get from there to a winery with a super-premium range with serious stand-out appeal that just recently burst onto the scene?
Traditionally, the limelight hasn’t been for everyone, even though in Stellenbosch, it has been a crowded space. This hallowed limelight has however increasingly become the path to realising better prices for grapes, and to ensuring sustainable businesses for farming families. But getting there means greater expense and before that, winning the hearts and minds of those with their hands on the purse-strings. Then, seemingly suddenly, the name Koelenhof with greater regularity began showing up in the line-up of awards that count. For one, in his 2021 report on South African wine, UK-based Master of Wine Tim Atkin anointed Koelenhof his Producer of the Year.
The winery’s history, laid out briefly online, doesn’t provide any clues: “Koelenhof Wine Cellar emerged from humble beginnings as a bulk wine producer,” it reads. “The grower-owned winery was established in 1941, with the De Vries family at the helm.”
Along with the new range, its portfolio included Stellenbosch Gold, a selection of white and red wines; Koelenbosch, a premium collection with a Cap Classique too; and, Koelenhof “entry-level, easy-drinking” wines.
I dropped an email to company MD Andrew de Vries, descendant of the winery’s original De Vries’s. “The realisation of the Stellenbosch 1679 range must be a cracking story,” I wrote. “I can only imagine that committing to a range demanding a substantially higher premium than anything ever attempted at the winery – and getting the buy-in of shareholders (not to mention customers accustomed to particular pricing) – takes some doing.”
I got the sense from his response he was eager to tell a story they were very proud of. “Yes. As an 80-year-old producer cellar where our main focus is to pay our 70 shareholders every year enough money to keep them on their farms and to keep on farming, it was a huge step to ask for additional investment,” he wrote.
Extra money was needed for new barrels, premium packaging, design and premium grapes – a tough ask when everyone’s main focus was to sell the 10 million litres of bulk wine each year.
“It’s not easy to sell this idea to a shareholder who needs every bit of finance to keep going on the farms, and more so with a new winemaking team,” said Andrew. “But we were blessed to receive more than expected fruit from our new venture.”
The team already knew they wanted to harness the outstanding international cachet of the region and have their new range tap into Brand Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch 1679 was born, reflecting the date the famous town’s name was first recorded.
Its first wine, however, would take it a step further.
“Stellenbosch is famous as the Bordeaux of South Africa,” he says. “Our first wine would be a traditional five-cultivar Bordeaux Red blend, with Cabernet Sauvignon – a premier grape for Stellenbosch – as the main component.”
The team set up a meeting with the small family cooperage in France of Tonnellerie Bossuet who provided guidance on the best barrels to use for the premier wine they had in mind. The new project was on a tight leash, so the budget was tight. Only eight were bought. The first vintage was 2017 – fortuitously, a widely acclaimed zinger of a year for South African wines.
Its name would be The Legacy, a blend that immortalised the families that have built Koelenhof: De Vries, Sam, Cloete, Kama, Wirth, Du Bois, Huskisson, Nqanabe and Ncume.
“Some were producing grapes in the Koelenhof area of Stellenbosch, some played an integral part in the establishment of Koelenhof Winery … and some came to work in the winery and played a major role in … production…,” the tale is told.
It was soon joined by more wines, decided by the most well-known for Stellenbosch and the Koelenhof area: Pinotage, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The first vintage of ‘The Legacy’ and the Stellenbosch 1679 Chenin Blanc were made 2017,” said Andrew. “The maiden vintage Chenin Blanc was released in September 2018 and the Legacy at the end of 2020, after 24 months aging in new French barrels.
“The first Cabernet Sauvignon was made in 2018, and a year later, the first Pinotage.”
The year 2018 was to deliver another great step for Koelenhof and its new baby. An independent initiative called the Old Vine Project was gaining momentum in the industry, seeking ways of raising the profile of South Africa’s old vine heritage. The hope was that “the renewed focus on the quality that old vines in South Africa can give will help to raise the price of grapes in our country”.
“The Old Vine Project reached out to [us], because the fruit we use for the Stellenbosch 1679 Chenin Blanc was already a [heritage] certified vineyard, planted in 1982,” said Andrew. “[Adding the Certified Heritage Vineyard label to our bottles] would add prestige to the wine and range.”
The necktag was added to the 2019 vintage Chenin Blanc followed by the 2020 vintage of the Stellenbosch 1679 Pinotage, whose vineyards were planted in 1975.
Soon enough, the recognition of the quality and investment started rolling in. The Legacy 2017 set off a high note when it received the Best Bordeaux Blend award at the 2021 National Wine Challenge as well as the title of Best Red Wine of the competition that year.
Other prominent awards have included, for the
- Stellenbosch 1679 Pinotage 2019 – ABSA Top 10 Pinotage 2021, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles 2021 Grand Gold (only 100 wines out of more than 10 000 tasted receive this recognition) and 2021 National Wine Challenge Grand Cru National Champion title for Best Pinotage;
- Stellenbosch 1679 Single Vineyard Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2019 – Novare SA Terroir Wine Awards 2021 Trophy for SA Top Single Vineyard Wine, Veritas 2020 Double Gold and Concours Mondial de Bruxelles 2021 Gold; and,
- Stellenbosch 1679 Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 – Winemag Prescient Cabernet Report 2021 Top 10 and Global Fine Wine Challenge 2021 Double Gold.
More recently, Stellenbosch 1679 The Legacy 2018 scored 97 points, receiving a Platinum medal at the 2022 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Awards, however, are one thing and success is measured in many other ways.
“After the first year of success with competitions, the producers and shareholders became prouder of being associated with Koelenhof,” wrote Andrew. “They saw the results of putting in greater effort to produce quality grapes.
“To have this super-premium range where winemakers used only the best, we could pay our producers more,” he said.
Wines in the Stellenbosch 1679 range sell for between R200 and R525/bottle.
Furthermore, the achievement bled into other areas of the business. “Our premium wines in other ranges are also being acknowledged for great quality and this eventually leads to better prices for the producers of grapes for these wines too. We are immensely proud of the three Double Golds awarded to our Koelenbosch range red wines at the 2022 Michelangelo Wine Awards.”
For Koelenhof, the future is certainly changing. It currently presses 16 000 tons of grapes per year, also providing comprehensive services through facilities including an onsite laboratory, processing facility, bottling plant and storage facility. It has storage capacity for 4 000 pallets, 2 000 crates and 1 600 vats.
To this, they hope to add a facility that will expand its focus on quality. “We would like to build a small batch cellar,” wrote Andrew. “All our wines to now have been made in a large cellar with big equipment. Just imagine what could be achieved with a specialist facility.”
Source: Koelenhof Winery