Tri-City Herald, Sunday, June 26, 2002

New Wine in the New South Africa

©2006 Valerie Kreutzer

Black empowerment enterprises add to the renewed flow of South African wine.

“Our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay got gold medals at the 2004 London wine festival,” recites Susan Kraukamp as she pours samples into our glasses.  Following etiquette, we swivel the wine and inhale its aroma before taking a sip.

“Very nice,” I tell Susan who seemed to expect a little more poetry. “Rich with a nutty flavor, complex with a delicate balance,” are some of the lyrics that describe the wines of South Africa’s Eastern Cape area.

“Can you learn to appreciate and distinguish wine?” I ask Susan.  “Of course!” she exclaims.  She certainly did in the course of becoming manager of Thandi Farms, South Africa’s first black-owned winery.       

Thandi—pronounced taan-di—is the Xhosa word for love.  “With love we grow together,” is the motto of this eight-year-young black empowerment program in the beautiful Elgin Valley, about two hours from Cape Town.

Before Thandi, Susan was a secretary at the neighboring Paul Cluver Estate, one of the area’s largest and best-known wineries.  She lives in Lebanon, a village of forestry workers who were left jobless when the government halted deforestation a decade ago.

If we don’t intervene, we’ll have trouble on our hands, reasoned Paul Cluver, a neurologist, whose father had founded the 2,000-hectare winery.  “Dr. Cluver is a very, very enlightened farmer,” observes Alan Clowes, a retired businessman who volunteers time and know-how as Thandi’s advisor.

As Clowes relates the story of Thandi’s beginnings, Cluver decided to donate 100 hectare of his land and prevailed on the government to add another 100 hectare to provide the Lebanon community with a new livelihood.  With financial assistance from the government, 147 villagers became shareholders in the new enterprise.  Cluver donated the first plants and paid for Lebanon resident Patrick Kraukamp’s studies at a local wine academy and further training at the Montinore Wines Estate near Portland, Oregon.  Susan, Patrick’s wife, also earned a certificate at the wine academy in Stellenbosch, the hub of South Africa’s wine country.  Now the Kraukamps serve Thandi as winemaker and manager.

No-nonsense Susan knows her facts.  “Right now we export to Sweden, Japan, and the U.K.,” she reports.  “We plan to export to the U.S., but with only 300,000 bottles a year, we don’t have enough volume yet.”  

Last year’s prize-winners were bought by Tesco, a British supermarket chain.  “My husband is especially proud of his Pinot Noir,” says Susan. “Patrick says that you have to have passion making it.  It’s like a woman,” she adds with a giggle.  

The Elgin Valley, home of Thandi Farms, is ideally suited to grow French varietals because of its cool climate, similar to Burgundy’s.  Right now, three French winemakers are in residence while French national television films Susan in the country store and the restaurant where she pours Cabernet Sauvignon for her mentor, Alan Clowes.

“Fruity and refreshing,” says Clowes appreciatively as he sips.  It’s lunchtime and Thandi Kitchen serves a hearty meal of local cuisine; bobotie, curried beef patties, and bredie, a lamb and tomato stew.

Clowes and his wife Chris, a business consultant, volunteer three days a week.  They spend the winter months in nearby Hermanus, an upscale beach resort but are at home in England.  They have a financial investment in Thandi and feel committed to its success.

“In the past, many new businesses failed because of poor management,” Clowes explains.  “We help Thandi with bookkeeping and personnel issues.  For example, the shareholders were demanding double pay for working on Sundays.  ‘That’s what we got when we worked at Cluver’ they said.  ‘But now you’re working for yourselves!’ I told them.  ‘This is your very own business!’”

At another table, Chris Clowes pours over numbers of recent purchases.  “We need to find better prices for these goods,” she says, pointing to her data.  “Failure is not an option,” declares Chris, “we must and will succeed!”

Napoleon Craved It

Success characterizes South Africa’s wine industry as it bounces back from worldwide boycotts during the Apartheid regime.  Since the end of Apartheid in the early 90s, South Africa’s Cape wines have recovered their reputation and continue a proud tradition. 

Wine has been growing in the Cape region for over 300 years.  The oldest center, Franschhoek (French Corner), was founded in 1688 on land granted to the Protestant Huguenots who fled Louis XIV when he revoked their right to freedom of worship.  The 300 French refugees knew a thing or two about wine making and as they planted their vines, harvested the grapes and began pressing, blending and bottling wine, they inspired their Dutch neighbors who settled in the shelter of Table Mountain in Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl.  Sun, wind, oceans and a fertile soil conspired to bring forth wines of rare quality.

Cape wines were favored by Europe’s aristocracy and it’s said that Napoleon on his deathbed asked for a bottle of Constantia.  When the British took control of the Cape around 1800, their Empire opened further export opportunities.  Cape wines soon accounted for 10% of British wine consumption and many a bottle has been immortalized in Jane Austin novels. 

Today, South Africa is the eighth largest wine producer in the world with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc the most popular varietals.  Add to that Pinotage, South Africa’s very own wine, a cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage.

The Good Life

“Pinotage is our most popular wine, “explains Piet Swart, my host at an outing to Groot Constantia, the oldest and stateliest winery, noted for its three restaurants.  “Pinotage has a rougher and hardier grape than Noir,” Swart continues as he fills our glasses.  “Very nice,” I mumble but stand corrected by the cellar’s description of “earthy character of cherry and strawberry flavors with a dash of vanilla.”  At $12 a bottle, Swart considers this Pinotage a good buy and loads two cases into his Audi on the way home.

Wine and the good life prevail in Stellenbosch, the oldest European town in South Africa.  Pricey boutiques and flowering bushes line streets with Dutch and Victorian architectural gems.  Oak trees shade Cape Dutch houses date back to the early 1700s.  The whitewashed, straw-thatched cottages with curved gables are the area’s landmarks.

Stellenbosch is the hub for over 100 wineries and the Afrikaans-language university with 17,000 students.  Afrikaner culture and language dominate.  At the Blue Orange the menu is printed in English and Afrikaans, two of South Africa’s 11 official languages.  Plaaswinkel means farm shop, koffiehuis is coffee shop—I can almost decipher it, knowing German.

We order sandwiches and fruity milkshakes.  On this February day it’s way too hot to taste yet another wine with a string of accolades.  We feel wilted, lazy, content to sit under the umbrella of the garden restaurant.  Kei, my friend’s faithful dog, dozes under the table.  Our pretty and efficient waitress used to be classified as “coloured” and had limited rights; now she is a citizen of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation.

In South Africa, old stories and new realities always co-exist.  “Imagine trekking your wagons over these huge mountains,” suggests my friend, as we climb the Hottentots on perfectly paved roads.  It’s hard to fathom the ordeal of the first European settlers who came to conquer.

Heavenly Wine

We’re headed for cooler climes and newer vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven on Earth) Valley—an apt description of this region where first-generation wineries stretch their patches like quilts into the mountains’ fynbos of low shrubs and wild flowers.

Sumaridge is the newest winery in the valley, built in 1998.  Perfectly straight lines of vines with rosebush borders extend from a cathedral-like mansion sitting by a lake.  The view from the restaurant’s terrace is breathtaking.  In a rare feat, money and ingenuity have here combined to create a contemporary jewel.  The estate’s prize-winning Pinot Noir and Shiraz are served on South African Airways.

Reginald Melusi is Sumaridge’s cellar master.  He is a Zulu of royal lineage, a former shepherd whose daughter is attending college.  Melusi knows his way around the gleaming cellar with its huge steel vats and piles of oak barrels.  The white grapes for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have just been harvested, he reports.  Seasonal workers are trucked from the nearby Black townships and earn 45 Rand ($7.50) a day.  That’s barely enough for one of the estate’s cheapest bottles.

As I approach a group of workers in the vineyard, they erupt into an avalanche of Xhosa.  Am I unwanted with my Nikon, I wonder and retreat.  No, no, they gesture, now we’re ready.  As I click I realize that the women and men want their portrait to show them upright, not bent, unsmiling and proud.