Jantjie Jonker: Meet the maverick of Jakkalsvlei

by | May 3, 2021 | Article, Blog

The term ‘maverick’ is usually reserved for someone who dares to do things differently. Winemaker Jantjie Jonker, owner of Jakkalsvlei Private Cellar, has thrown away the rule book, as Maryke Roberts discovered on a recent visit to the farm.

Jantjie Jonker is the third generation Jonker to farm at Jakkalsvlei. He bottled the first wines under the Jakkalsvlei label in 2008. Although not a qualified winemaker, Jantjie made Jakkalsvlei wines until 2019 when winemaker Louis van der Riet joined the team. He says the secret to his success lies in good-quality grapes – and a bit of luck.

Jantjie says he never set out to be a maverick winemaker, but the farm’s location at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains near Herbertsdale made him realise he could do something special there. “It was against all the rules  . . . and I love it!”

Jantjie studied agriculture at Elsenburg and worked as a trainee at Merwida Winery in Rawsonville. He also did a stint in the Napa Valley in California, where he says the desire to make his own wines under the Jakkalsvlei label was sparked.

Jantjie’s dad, Andrew, planted the first Chenin Blanc vines on the 512 ha farm in 1987. Until then they’d farmed with wheat, merino sheep and beef cattle. In 2008, the first 1 000 litres Hanepoot and 2 500 litres Mount Cuvée, a Pinotage/Merlot blend, were bottled under the Jakkalsvlei brand. The output has since expanded to two tiers – the Jakkalsvlei label with 13 wines and the more exclusive Lord Jackal label with four wines, boasting nine awards between them won at authoritative competitions such as Michelangelo and Veritas.

Water from the Jakkals River and an average rainfall of 400 mm a year is sufficient to drip irrigate the vines. The region’s characteristic hot summer days and cool evenings with an ocean breeze provide ideal climatic conditions for growing grapes.

The farm now has 52 ha under vine: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage (8 ha each), Cabernet Sauvignon and Hanepoot (6 ha each), Chenin Blanc (5 ha), Shiraz (4 ha), Red Muscadel and Merlot (3 ha each), Chardonnay, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Pinot Noir (2 ha each) and Cabernet Franc (1 ha). Jantjie is in the process of acquiring an additional 120 ha to plant another 25 ha of vines.

Jantjie additionally buys Grenache Blanc and Roussanne from the Kammanassie ward, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc from the Waboomskraal ward, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc from the Langeberg/Garcia ward and Cabernet Sauvignon from Ladismith.

His biggest frustration is not being classified under Wine of Origin Klein Karoo, but Wine of Origin Garden Route. “Jakkalsvlei is situated on the Garden Route and we get some of our grapes from four different wards on the Garden Route, but we can only use Wine of Origin Western Cape, when we make our blends.”

The original tasting venue, which opened in 2009, was expanded to include a restaurant and opened in 2014. Bedouin tents are erected on the lawn in front of the restaurant to accommodate the up to 1 500 visitors a day.

The menu includes gourmet build-your-own pizzas and delicacies such as pork belly, chicken fillet, lamb shank and line fish prepared by chef Thomas Potgieter, formerly head chef at the Reserve Bank.

In the early years, Jantjie prepared the cheese platters, handled wine tastings and compiled menus. Today a team handles the restaurant and wine tasting menu, but Jantjie can still be found among the tables, chatting to guests. Jakkalsvlei also offers a craft beer range, brewed by KCB, under the Jackal & Wolf Brewing Co label.

When it’s harvest time about 25 tonnes of grapes are handpicked annually and visitors can also pick their own Hanepoot grapes. Jantjie says contrary to conventional wisdom, putting all his eggs in one basket has proved to be the best thing he could do. He also ignored advice to not invest too much in infrastructure for visitors because people wouldn’t make the effort to drive all the way to visit them. Today about 60 000 visitors a year flock to Jackalsvlei.

Jantjie admits attracting visitors was no easy task. “To convince wine drinkers we can make good-quality wine on the Garden Route and persuade them to drive 50 km from the nearest town to taste our wines was hard work. The only way to tackle this challenge was to work hard for 10 years to make sure we had a good-quality product and through constant marketing.”

There were many days when he just wanted to give up. “To start a wine farm and brand in the middle of nowhere in a very competitive market is challenging to say the least. But if you have a dream, you’ll always have the strength to carry on.”

Last year’s lockdown and alcohol bans presented a whole new challenge. “It was a very tough time for the wine industry, but it also gave us time to reflect on where we are as a brand. We decided to change the packaging of all our wines – from the label, bottle, capsule, cork and box. The result is very satisfying.”

Now he has a new challenge. “With a bigger harvest this year, our market needs to expand and we need to make sure our wines are distributed through national retailers.” The most important lesson he’s learnt over the past 13 years? “Never give up and always listen to the consumer.”

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