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Introducing the New Generation of South African Winemakers

In a country where access to land is tough, a new generation forges a path

Tšepang Molisana By July 12, 2021
photo illustration of South African winemakers
Illustration by Allison Kahler.

After 14 years in a prestigious job, Duncan Savage resigned to invest more time in his own label. But he is doing more than just making wine — he is helping to mentor the next generation of winemakers, including talented university graduates who wouldn’t otherwise have access to wine.

Some of the graduates will get jobs. Others will take their place among a new wave of garagiste winemakers who are shaking up South Africa’s wine scene, finding their place in what has traditionally been the preserve of people with access to resources like land and money.

The challenge

Savage had been the winemaker at Cape Point Vineyards near Noordhoek in South Africa.

“Cape Point was a great learning curve, as I started there straight from Elsenburg Agricultural College. It was a great opportunity as a young winemaker, to have access to fruit of that quality, and the site is second to none,” Savage explains.

In 2016, he left to invest more time in Savage Wines, his own label at a cellar in Salt River, in the heart of Cape Town.

Banele Vakele, winemaker, Savage Wines. Photo courtesy of Savage Wines.

“A good dose of passion can make just about anything work. Savage was a natural progression for me. I’m ambitious and I love what I do,” he says.

He’s also a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild, a prestigious group whose members mentor protégés and transfer their skills. While this happens in many wine producing countries, it’s vitally important work in South Africa, which has an official unemployment rate of 32.6% — but where youth unemployment rate soars to 46.3%.

The Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Program is part of the reason that Banele Vakele, a talented young winemaker, could begin his career at Savage Wines, after completing his own agricultural qualification. It’s a job that will stand him in good stead for a progression through the wine industry.

Another such program is the Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Development Trust, developed in 1999 with the intention to mentor and empower promising viticulture and oenology students. With South Africa’s history of racial and economic inequality, it’s a vital skills transfer opportunity for historically disadvantaged winemakers and viticulturists.

Vakele follows the legacy of prior Protégés who have found gainful employment in the wine industry. Winemaker Rudger van Wyk was one, who is now employed by Stark-Condé Wines.

Van Wyk left the three-year-long Protégé Program a year early when he had the chance to be employed as the assistant winemaker at Stark-Condé Wines. In 2016, he was promoted to winemaker — and won the 2018 Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year Award for the Stark-Condé Stellenbosch Syrah 2016.

“I learned a lot about myself through leadership programs, where we worked with life coaches who taught us our strengths and weaknesses, and that you should believe in yourself and your abilities,” says van Wyk.

A tough road

For many who aspire to produce wines for themselves, however, things are arduous. Statistics from Vinpro, the South African wine industry body, show that only 28% of South African wine grape growers were profitable in 2019. On top of that, it’s almost impossible for people without wealth to even consider entering the world of vineyards and wineries.

Mphumeleli Ndlangisa has a profound understanding of the South African economy. A former investment banker, Ndlangisa founded Magna Carta Wines without owning his own land or cellar. When he first pursued his passion for winemaking, Ndlangisa was often supported by friends who lent him their couches.

His winery is named for the Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Liberties, which, in 1215, offered justice to peasants for the first time. It inspired Ndlangisa to liberate himself from his career in finance, and pursue natural winemaking as a garagiste.

Justin van Wyk, the winemaker at Constantia Glen, is another young South African winemaker who has garnered international acclaim. The 2015 vintage of the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend, the Constantia Glen FIVE, has won numerous awards, including the International Trophy at the 2019 International Wine & Spirits Competition in London.

Van Wyk began his career at Constantia Glen as an assistant winemaker and is currently the head winemaker. But in 2016, he also shifted gears to pursue Van Wyk Family Wines, a side-hustle that is vinified, bottled, and sold at Constantia Glen.

“I was inspired to pursue old vine Cinsault, Chenin Blanc, and Rhône varieties,” he says. “It is sometimes enticing to experiment with more interesting varieties, but one has to consider the costs and ensure that one makes good quality, that has focus and integrity and produces an enjoyable beverage.”

Fairview Wine Estate, one of South Africa’s most prestigious wineries, has also produced its own garagistes. Stephanie Wiid began her career there and worked with more than 30 cultivars, alongside chief winemaker Anthony de Jager and owner and pioneer Charles Back. She describes working there as winemaking heaven, where “I focused on learning and absorbing all I could.”  In 2015, she and viticulturist Etienne Terblanche founded Thistle and Weed.

image of man and woman holding wine glasses up excitedly

Etienne Terblanche and Stephanie Wiid. Photo courtesy of Robyn Davie Photography.

Starting such a venture isn’t easy at the best of times, but on March 1, 2021,  during harvest, Wiid’s baby arrived.

“I managed to make all the whites and left the red winemaking this year to Etienne!” she says, adding that the majority of their fruit arrives at the end of January and the beginning of February. “We also did a few things differently to manage stress. For instance, we got a reefer to chill all of our fruit and outsourced our transport – small luxuries, especially for the pregnant winemaker.”

What lies ahead

While Wiid describes the pitfalls of entrepreneurship as paying school fees, the success of many South African garagistes relies on their thirst for opportunity.

The tight-knit nature of the industry, where winemakers help each other out, also helps. Rudger van Wyk has entered into a joint-venture with Stark-Condéto produce his own label, Kara-Tara Wines. In 2017, he produced his first vintage of Pinot Noir and currently produces 30,000 bottles a year.

photo of South African man holding a bottle of wine.

Rudger van Wyck, former Protégé and now winemaker. Photo courtesy of Rudger van Wyck.

Translated from a language of the Khoi and San people, Southern Africa’s first inhabitants, Kara-Tara refers to the coastal town near George, where van Wyk was raised. Karatara is a river that runs through the town and means deep, dark shadows.

“I would like to show every person in my community, and all over the world, that if you put your mind to something and you really want to do it, you can do anything,” he says.

Likewise, Vakele, Duncan’s protégé has recently released his own label, Tembela Wines.

“One never stops learning in this industry,” Duncan Savage says.

It’s a process that’s making South African wines some of the most exciting in the world.

3 South African garagiste wines to try:

bottle of Aslina Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Aslina Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($26)

Ntsiki Biyela, South Africa’s first Black female winemaker, only studied wine because she got a scholarship to Stellenbosch University. Not only had she never tasted wine, she thought of vines as little trees. When she finally had her first taste of wine, she thought it disgusting. Today, she is not only a wine lover, but is also a renowned garagiste winemaker with a thriving export business, built on easy drinking wines. Her Cabernet Sauvignon is a perfect example, being smooth and full of juicy blackberry fruit.

bottle of Thistle & Weed Khakibos White

Thistle & Weed Khakibos Verdelho Stellenbosch 2018 ($30)

The khakibos, or khaki bush, earned its name during the Boer War, because its leaves were the same color as the khaki uniforms worn by British troops. A rich, weighty blend, it’s always predominantly Verdelho but, depending on the vintage, can have a variety of other grapes including Palomino and/or Chenin Blanc.

bottle of Savage South Africa White Blend 2018

Savage South Africa White Blend 2018 ($45)

This white wine has won international acclaim, regularly winning high scores from top critics. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Chenin Blanc, it offers an alluring blend of citrus aromas and flavors, along with herbal notes and plenty of texture. It’s a wine worth aging.