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Long Days Of Sun, Rugby And Wine

Two men, bonded by rugby and wine, speak of the rich vintage they have reaped in Stellenbosch in the vineyards of South Africa.

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Alonely dirt road leads to a rustic farmhouse with old-fashioned shutters, wooden beams and creeping vines. By the entrance are a few ageing oak barrels, still sturdy and red from years of storing wine.

It is a fitting prelude to the man you are about to meet.

We are at Vriesenhof, a farm nestled between the Stellenbosch and Helderberg mountains in the Paradyskloof Valley of South Africa’s Western Cape. These winelands are rife with grapes and gossip, and boast a colorful cast of characters, mostly wine farmers who relate the valley’s stories, and often are stories themselves.

This is a world where wine and winning are spoken of in the same breath.

And in this cavernous house, a remodeled 18th century cellar, Jan Boland Coetzee, the renowned Springbok rugby player and venerable vintner, exemplifies both.

Within seconds of meeting him on this impromptu visit, Coetzee shows he is a true son of the soil. It is a warm April. Barefoot and brisk, in beige shorts, he darts from the living room, to the kitchen, to the backyard – where his elder daughter Hanle, who lives close by, is earnestly laying out tables for an evening do at the house.

In the kitchen – shelves laden with wine bottles – there are sizzling sounds on the stove, followed by the aroma of – possibly – deep-fried fish cakes. Coetzee is issuing instructions to a few laborers at the back. He soon returns to sit at the large yellowwood dining table, decked with flowers in vases set like a Vincent van Gogh painting.

Originally Dutch, Coetzee says his ancestors came to the Cape in 1679. It is here, in this valley at the foot of the Stellenbosch mountains, that he learned the game of rugby and the art of making wine.

Coetzee purchased Vriesenhof in 1980 – “for its south-facing slopes on the cooler side of the foothills” – and has been here since, cultivating plantings of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, pinotage and pinot noir, sold under the labels of Vriesenhof and Paradyskloof.

“I love to take pride in what is ours, what is South African,” says the valley’s doyen of pinotage.

“I focused on pinotage when I was young, as it is the only grape variety since its birth that has really taken on a commercial collective in the world of wine. And if it is doing well, it means we are proud of it, because it is born under the African sun, it is performing under the African sun, and we take pride because we believe it is ours.”

Coetzee pauses between words and sentences, but when he speaks, he makes you feel the earth around you: the air, the sun, the soil. Clearly, it is his territory – and terroir.

“Wine is a mirror of the environment first and foremost, because it is a product of the soil. In that, lies our future. Man needs to understand the soil, the plant, to put it in its right place in the right environment to give it its best. And the more you care, the better it gets,” he says.

The man has a deep love for the farm, and is happy just to be in it – with his glass of chardonnay.

“I love what I am doing, I love the farm, and I love drinking good wine. It’s as simple as that,” says the sprightly 70-year-old whose days on the 85-hectare farm begin at 4AM.

Coetzee studied oenology and viticulture at Stellenbosch University.

“I didn’t become a vet so I became a viticulturist. It’s amazing how many winemakers wanted to become vets,”

he laughs.

“I still have the record for writing the most exams before I passed. So I have a very broad knowledge. Like the wooden barrel, it’s [like] the un-opening of old wine.”

While still a student, Coetzee became captain of the university’s Under-18 rugby team.

“Everyone in South Africa plays rugby from a young age,” he says.

He played for his provincial team, Western Province, from 1967 to 1979, and played flank for the national team, the Springboks, from 1974 to 1976.

He stopped playing when a tour was cancelled in 1979 on account of apartheid when South African sport also took a hit.

“From a South Africa point of view, things were bad in terms of international rugby because of apartheid. We were isolated… When the tour was cancelled, I stopped playing and went to France in 1981 to work in a wine house in Burgundy for a year,” says Coetzee.

That was the tipping point. He returned wiser, and helped lift the profile of wine in Stellenbosch. Today, he sells his wine all over the world; Scandinavia is his biggest market.

Coetzee may have stopped playing rugby, but he uses it well in his wine analogies.

“We used to export 74 percent of our crop, but now try and get as close as possible. We do 50:50 local and export. Rugby has taught me to have two legs. If you kick [with] one leg, one can hopefully stand on the other,” he says.

Coetzee vividly remembers that tear-jerking moment when Nelson Mandela handed the trophy to Springbok captain François Pienaar during the 1995 World Cup final. Coetzee was present, as a spectator.

“It was a special day, not only for sport but also for mankind. I remember that moment clearly. I can still see it.”

Coetzee has ensured his legacy – in both rugby and wine – lives on.

“My grandsons [between the ages of five to 10] all play rugby. They also made their first wine in 2015. Each of them has a barrel from the vintage of the year they were born in,” says Coetzee.

Divorced, Coetzee lives by himself. Fortunately, his four children are all into farming in some way, and visit frequently. His daughter Hanle says the most remarkable thing about her father is his humility.

“He has 40 years plus of experience of harvests and climates in the wine industry. He has seen good vintages, and bad. The new, younger winemakers are well-traveled, whereas in his time, the exposure and material were limited. He has old-world knowledge. If he drops dead tomorrow, it’s all gone, I don’t know how to capture it,” she says.

How much is he worth? Coetzee thinks long and hard, before answering: “I actually can’t put a number to it; we are not [into] numbers. We want to be loving and caring people, and that you can’t measure in currency. Money is an evil necessity. I am a big believer of the barter system – milk farmers and cheese farmers must drink wine, and I must eat cheese. They must produce meat, and they must drink wine. I try to convince all my farming colleagues in the mutton, beef, cheese, fish and lobster businesses to [barter].”

And are they listening? For sure, he says with certainty.

Coetzee has many admirers in the valley, across generations. About three kilometers from his Vriesenhof farmhouse, at the Kleine Zalze estate, its owner Kobus Basson, another Stellenbosch success, says Coetzee was instrumental in exposing him to the lifestyle around the wine business. He turned the rugby-playing lawyer into one of the region’s top wine farmers.

“Jan Coetzee is one of the characters of Stellenbosch, you can’t tell a wine story without him,” says the 57-year-old Basson of the senior entrepreneur.

“He is the type of guy [who] if there is snow in the mountains, would still walk in his short pants, with muscles like he has. He is a Stellenbosch legend, one of the five wine personalities that built this industry.”

Basson’s father was a figurehead in the local rugby club and that was his first connection with Coetzee. Plus, Basson’s initial 10-year legal practice ensured he interacted with most of the wine farmers.

“When you work with them, it’s like a friendship. Jan was the guy who spent a lot of time in France, and knew all the wine areas well. In 1996, I went with him and a few other prominent guys – while I was still a legal guy – on a trip to Argentina, and that gave me a completely different perspective of the industry. They were much ahead of us.”

Basson says South Africa’s wine industry matured only in the last 20 years. After he finished his law degree at Stellenbosch University, Basson took a year off to go to central Europe to be a rugby coach.

“I went there to play and coach and work on relationships, in what they called the European B-League rugby countries. It actually exposed me to other things – to wine, food and the lifestyle around it… I understood how the Germans, Dutch and French work in a different way with wine… I immediately got this idea about lifestyle and food and wine combinations.”

Returning to Stellenbosch, he practiced as a lawyer, and got into the wine business more by default than design.

“My wife came from a wine family, and told me she wanted to live on a farm. I said ‘forget it, I am not farming’. Eventually, in 1996, her brother was running the family farm, and was looking for an opportunity with a winery, and I told him about Kleine Zalze [that I had heard] was on the market. He asked me for money to pay the deposit, and that’s how I got involved. He said ‘in the meantime, you can have 50 percent share of it’, and before I realized, I was sucked into it, because this is a business that sucks in money, in terms of capital investment.”

They bought the 40-hectare farm and after the first harvest, signed up with importers from Britain, who had high expectations.

“I thought, ‘either you do it properly or bail out’. In retrospect, I can see how the year in Germany helped, how my friendship with Jan Coetzee formed me,” says Basson.

During the nineties in South Africa, golf and wine tourism was just starting, so he thought: “Why do we go to Tuscany and Provence, when we actually have everything here? Why can’t we create it here?”

It was hard work. Every day, for a decade, Basson woke up at 3AM.

“I had no choice. It was crazy and difficult years, the interest rates went up between 1998 and 2002. I had to invest my shares and everything I had. Cash flow was the challenge during those years; we had to slowly and steadily build this up.”

Today, Kleine Zalze is 280 hectares, including the wine estate, an 18-hole golf course, a 47-bedroom lodge and the award-winning Terroir restaurant with chef Michael Broughton. Basson says all the businesses are doing very well.

“We are doing well in terms of exports [too]; I would say we do more than 200,000 cases of Kleine Zalze wines a year. And we have won several awards,” he says.

Chenin blanc is the brand’s specialty.

The last season for wine tourism in Stellenbosch was wonderful, adds Basson, who is also a director of the Stellenbosch Wine Route.

“If we stay calm and focused, it’s a very exciting period ahead… We have done research and the interesting thing is they compared different regions, and Stellenbosch has by far the highest visitor return rate. We have guys who have come to Stellenbosch 18 years in a row. You won’t find [a place] more beautiful. You have no idea how sexy Stellenbosch is.”

And like any good sportsman, he says his greatest asset is his team.

“You need strong players in your team… [The wine industry] is a little bit like top-end sport. It’s so competitive, if you don’t play with your best team, you are not going to win.”

What is it they say about wine and winning in the valley? It’s the same thing. And Coetzee agrees.

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