Malu Lambert: South Africa’s black-owned wine labels on the rise
By Malu Lambert, 1 June 2023
Banele Vakele uncorks a bottle of Tembela Verdelho 2022, his own-label, at a corner table at Furny’s in Noordhoek. Vakele has been acclaimed winemaker Duncan Savage’s assistant since 2019. Tembela is now in its third vintage. There is also a Polkadraai Hills syrah, and production is tiny with only 750 bottles of each.
“We have a three-year plan to get the business sustainable and up the volumes before I go on my own,” Vakele says. Featured on the wine’s elegant label are two women carrying oak barrels on their heads. The reference is to how isiXhosa woman have traditionally transported heavy loads. “The label tells the story of two things I am very passionate about, where I come from – I am a Xhosa man! – and wine.” The second woman he says represents the universal community of mother figures.
“My mother’s name was Tembela, which means faith, hope and belief,” says Vakele. “She passed away in 2020 from cancer. I was actually in the verdelho vineyard with Duncan when I got the call, it felt right to create this homage.”Born in the Eastern Cape, his family moved to the Cape in the late ‘90s to the city’s largest township, Khayelitsha. Fate had its way when Vakele earned a scholarship to go to a high school in wine-producing region, Constantia. Upon seeing the vineyards something clicked and Vakele decided to pursue winemaking as a career.After gaining his B. Agric degree from Elsenburg in 2015, he was enrolled in the three-year Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme. An incubator for young talent from previously disadvantaged communities, the programme pairs aspiring winemakers with members of the Guild. Since its inception in 2006, 18 graduates have either secured winemaking positions or have their own projects. Two other notable protégés are Kiara Scott, now winemaker at Brookdale in Paarl, as well as Rudger van Wyk of Stark-Condé (Van Wyk also has his own-label range, Kara-Tara).
“I used to think differently about wine,” says Vakele. “Initially it was to get paid so I could feed my family.“I saw the bigger co-ops paid better. I’ll never forget my first interview in Robertson. They basically said they didn’t think the cellar workers would listen to me.
“There are always hurdles to overcome,” he adds good-naturedly. “But there are also always people willing to give you a chance.”Fortuitously for South African fine wine one such person was Duncan Savage. “Going to Burgundy inspired me to work with winemakers like Duncan,” states Vakele. As part of the protégé programme he worked stints in Oregon, Australia, and the aforementioned famous French region. “I was drawn to minimum intervention winemaking as well as working with organic or biodynamic fruit.
“Things are changing. Though there is still a lot of injustice within the rural farmlands. But… there are more of us – the younger generation and people of colour – that want to play in the fine wine space. It’s exciting because there’s more diversity within the industry now.
Is the rise of black-owned South African labels a growing trend?
“It’s more like the future than a trend,” remarks Aaron Meeker of Vine Street Imports, who imports Tembela Wines into the United States along with many other new wave producers from South Africa. Meeker has observed the South African wine category growing Stateside. He attributes importers like Broadbent, Pascal Schildt, Skurnik, Wine 4 the World, Blue Crane and others for “laying the groundwork for us as well as for future importers.”
Though he cautions the market is still small. “There’s a long road ahead, we are behind the U.K’s headstart. Inclusiveness of producers and diversity of wines has done more for the perception – and sales – of South African wine in the past five to seven years than the previous 50.
Meeker comments there is still pushback from the market with the perception that South African wines are ‘cheap, or just pinotage’. “The prices of new-wave wines still get some resistance, especially from the older American generation. Getting consumers to spend $20 to $30 a bottle is the long-term goal, and move out of the $10 to $15 bracket. The value in South Africa sits at the $25 to $35 level… and those wines drink as well, if not better, than anything on the planet at that price point.”“South Africa is a diverse country, and the ‘new wave’ more broadly reflects this.”
In this spirit, he says: “I hope we see more black-owned brands from the Cape and that those wines continue to push the boundaries of style and quality. South Africans are making some of the most exciting wines on the planet right now. The best wines are still yet to be made, which I’m not sure other more established regions can say.”Taking a bite of the Big Apple
Tinashe Nyamudoka’s Kumusha Wines is now on shelves in 31 different American states. He launched the négociant style brand in 2017 and says he found it difficult to get traction locally. “There was always some skepticism – it’s tough to get on the books of the big distributors in South Africa. It was quite disheartening.”
In contrast, Nyamudoka found interest for his wines outside of South Africa. First in his country of origin, Zimbabwe. Then he got his big break when journalist Lauren Buzzeo listed Kumusha in a Wine Enthusiast article entitled “A Global Guide to Black-Owned Wine Labels”. This he says was at the height of the country’s Black Lives Matter movement. “It got me in… but we know how tough the American market is for South African wines. I had to pound pavements.” He’s since shown his wines in over 40 American cities.
Kumusha’s Cape white blend the ‘Flame Lily’ he says has captured the Yankee imagination; and is currently being poured in a Michelin-star restaurant in New York. His pinotage, meanwhile, is sourced from David Sadie in the Paardeberg, and he’s also pleased with how well this is doing in the States.
With the American market largely sewn up, Nyamudoka is expanding into other African countries, Kenya and Ghana amongst them. He also has his sights set on the East with trips to China and Taiwan planned for the near future. One day he says he hopes to own some vineyard land in the Cape, but in the meantime, he says “I just want to share the beauty of wine, the beauty of inclusiveness, and the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
Fellow sommelier Joseph Dhafana has also started his own-label, Mosi Wines (also based on the négociant model). Dhafana’s wines have spread across the globe, in territories all over Europe as well as in a few American states. Also following this pattern is Lindile Ndzaba of Khayelitsha’s Finest Wines (another project where wines are sourced and then branded). Ndzaba is sending his portfolio of wines to five American states and has plans to further expand into the market, saying: “We sell out there quickly, so we are slowly increasing the production. We are on to something really good.”
There’s a grassroots movement here at home too. The Wine Arc in Stellenbosch for example is a wine bar and tasting room that offers 13 different black-owned wine brands for people to sample, among them Carmen Stevens of the titular wine brand. Stevens was the first person of colour to qualify as a winemaker in South Africa, graduating from Elsenburg in 1995. And, in 2019 it was time again when she registered the first 100 per cent black-owned winery facility in the country. You’ll also find her wines – and many other black-owned offerings – at the Cultivate Collective, a wine bar and events’ space in Salt River (and online shopping portal).
Back in Noordhoek, my tasting of Tembela wines is over. Vakele pulls on his characteristic bucket hat and says as we part ways: “Honestly I don’t want you to buy my wines because I am a black winemaker. I want the wines to be able to stand on their own. It seems that they do – see reviews of the latest releases by editor Christian Eedes here.
- Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert
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