South African wine-making legend Jan Boland Coetzee, one of the most famous names in the country’s wine industry, has been awarded with the 1659 Medal of Honour at the annual Wine Harvest Commemorative Event held at Groot Constantia Estate.
This event, a highlight in the Cape’s wine community, is held each year to commemorate the first pressing of grapes on 2 February 1659 under the watchful eye of Commander Jan van Riebeeck, a date seen as the start of the country’s wine industry. The 1659 Medal of Honour is awarded to an individual who has made a profound contribution to the South African wine industry.
Coetzee is currently cellar master, viticulturist and co-proprietor of the Vriesenhof wine estate in Stellenbosch where he has farmed and made wine since 1980. He began his career in 1968 at the famous Kanonkop estate, where he was responsible for making the first wines bottled under the Kanonkop label in 1973. Coetzee’s love of and fascination with the concept of terroir, namely the influence of soil, topography and climate on the vineyard and its wines, also led him to Burgundy in France where he worked for the well-known Joseph Drouhin winery.
His legendary status spilled over from the wine industry to the sporting world, with Coetzee playing six tests for the Springbok rugby team between 1974 and 1976 as well as being an integral part of the Western Province XV between 1967 and 1979.
Accepting the award, Coetzee said his approach to winemaking and viticulture is inspired by a fascination with nature. “Anyone that grows grapes and makes wine is just a servant of nature,” said Coetzee, who hails from the rugged Cape West Coast region of Lambert’s Bay.
“In winemaking, nature is your master and wherever in the wine world I have been, it has been nothing but a privilege to work in the natural environment. Besides the environment where I have been fortunate enough to live and work in, my family and friends have had a profound influence in my life and my career, with this receiving of the Medal of Honour being a highlight. From early on I learnt that there is no elevator to success – you have to take the stairs. Luckily I have had lots of help up those stairs towards this accolade, for which I am truly humbled.”
Speaking at the event on Groot Constantia to honour Coetzee, Danie de Wet from De Wetshof and a previous recipient of the Medal of Honour, said that Coetzee had been ahead of his time in the South African wine industry.
“Jan understood and lived the true meaning of the word ‘terroir’ before the rest of us had heard of it,” said De Wet. “From the beginning of his career he realised that the origin of any good wine begins with the plants in the vineyard and these plants’ relationship with the elements of soil, topography and climate. Today everybody talks of terroir and making wines that show site-specificity, but in South African terms Jan was the father of this concept. He paved the way for generations of winemakers with his knowledge and the selfless sharing of this knowledge, and we are truly indebted to him.”
Jan’s legacy in the wine industry extends beyond his contribution to winemaking and viticulture. He will always be remembered for the pioneering role he played in improving the living conditions of the Cape’s farmworkers and helping to uplift rural communities.
Herman Bailey, former chairman of the Rural Foundation, said that Coetzee set an example for other wine farmers by ensuring his workers lived under conditions fostering self-worth and dignity.
“In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, while working on Kanonkop, Jan set about improving the living conditions of farmworkers by building better housing, installing running water and creating sporting facilities,” he said. “His deep compassion for his fellow human and realisation of the importance of dignity, both in person and in community, is one of Jan’s many attributes that have helped make him a true inspiration and role-model in the South African wine industry and society as a whole.”
Last year Coetzee also received an honorary doctorate – Doctor of Science in Agriculture – from Stellenbosch University.