In the footsteps of SA’s elder statesman of wine

Vriesenhof Vineyards winemaker Nicky Claasen, left, and cellarmaster Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee follow a philosophy of winemaking in partnership with nature

Winemaking fashions come and go – these days there’s a lot of talk about minimal intervention, natural winemaking, letting the soil and grapes speak for themselves – but Vriesenhof’s Jan “Boland” Coetzee is unmoved.

He’s been pursuing his “wine made in partnership with nature” philosophy for almost nearly 40 years.
He’s been called “a national treasure” and an “elder statesman of wine”, no doubt in large part because of his relentless pursuit of a distinctive, classic style that reflects a particular place, and pioneering of the concept much talked about these days – the importance of wine that shows the unique nature of a region or specific site, his view that great wine “is a mirror of the environment first”.

His legend status extends beyond wine to rugby, having played for Maties and Western Province, and as flank for the Boks between 1974 and 1976.

Not long after he celebrated 50 years of involvement with the Maties rugby club in 2013, he marked 50 harvests since he started his winemaking career at Kanonkop.

At Vriesenhof, where he produced his first wine in 1981, he’s avoided passing wine fads and fashions and stuck to his aim of making wine that expresses the unique aspect, soil and climate of his vineyards at the foot of Stellenbosch Mountain.

To make great wine, “one’s footsteps must be in the soil, you must understand the soil, the plant and the climate”, he says, viewing the winemaker as a guide and a “humble servant of nature”.

The entire range had a “refresh” late last year, with the Paradyskloof second-label scrapped and all wines now bottled under the Vriesenhof label, a subtle redesign giving a clean, contemporary look, while continuing the classic style inside the bottle.

Winemaker Nicky Claasen says the unwooded 2015 Chardonnay (there is also a barrel-fermented version) was made in a style “to highlight the playfulness of the varietal” and he’s achieved that, with a wine that’s bright, fresh and very drinkable. Chardonnay lovers sometimes sneer at unwooded Chardonnay as being insubstantial, but this is anything but – it’s all got all the ripe yellow fruit and sunshiny-buttery notes and soft rounded mouthfeel, without any wood heaviness.

Lightness and brightness feature too in the 2016 grenache/ shiraz/mourvedre blend.
Like a Pinot Noir, its light colour is deceptive, with the fragrant floral and earthy nose leading into a great play of fresh red fruit and salty-savoury flavours.

The 2015 Pinot Noir balances its power and intensity with elegance and complexity, silky-smooth with ripe fruit, subtle earthiness and a flash of mineral tang.

Intensely jewel-red and chockful of dark fruit, the Pinotage 2016 feels a bit like digging into a barrel of liquorice allsorts and wine gums – not the sweetness but rather the combination of juicy fruit with savouriness, with a lingering tangy finish. It is distinctive and delicious.

At the top of the range, the Bordeaux blend, Kalista 2013, is velvety smooth and elegant, the underlying tannin and structure suggesting it would age well, but it’s also totally drinkable now. Inky, ripe fruit, some smoky notes and subtle spice, deep integrated flavours make for a well-balanced, mellow wine.

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