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Exploring South Africa's Wine Country

Exploring South Africa's Wine Country
by Reese Erlich

Listen with RealAudio: South African wine

It's a Saturday morning in Stellenbosch. The sun is peeking through overcast skies, competing with a light rain. Nevertheless, middle aged, white South Africans have inundated the Simonsig winery tasting room. Pieter Malan, whose family has owned Simonsig for over 50 years, offers the traditional wine country greeting. He pops open a bottle.

Malan makes a toast in Afrikaans. And it sounds oddly familiar: Khesunheit, which goes to the German of gesuntheit "to your health."

Reese Erlich: Do you say gesuntheit when you sneeze?

Malan: Yes, absolutely.

Erlich: Does that lead to any confusion between drinking and sneezing

Malan: (laughs ).

New Beginnings, with Nelson Creek in background
South Africa is the world's seventh largest wine producer. The winemaking tradition here goes back nearly 350 years. And that tradition is intertwined with the country's colonial history. The Dutch Afrikaners brought continental European winemaking to the Cape. Those early settlers found the conditions just right.

Malan: "The development of the wine industry was so natural because we have the same Mediterranean climate than south of France, for instance. We have excellent weather conditions here, long sunshine hours, high humidity winters and no frost."

Afrikaners broke with European tradition, however, by developing wines to drink with South Africa's rugged, frontier cooking. Locals love a good brai, or barbecue. While Americans associate barbecue with beer, don't mention the malty brew in these parts.

Malan: "A lot of the wine is, of course, judged here in South Africa with how it will do with a barbecue. Many people judge the wine to say it will go with a steak or chicken, whatever they can put on the fire. I think a good red wine with well balanced acidity goes down well. If you have a pork rib, you need a really good Cabernet Sauvignon."

That very good bottle of Cabernet will cost only about $4. A 15-year-old varietal costs under $10. While cheap for Americans, those prices are out of reach for most South Africans. Even four years after the end of apartheid, South African blacks don't benefit much from the region's wine culture. Now, one Cape Town winery is trying to change that.

Anzil Adams is an administrator at the Nelson Creek winery, owned by white South African Alan Nelson. Nelson bought the wine farm, or winery, in 1988.

Adams: "He had a childhood dream to have a wine estate of his own. On his first day, he abolished the dop system. The dop system is whereby farmers used to pay workers with wine instead of money. You had a whole generation of people being enforced alcoholics."

Jack Mbabo with grandson
Photo: Alan Nelson
Alan Nelson made other significant changes in South Africa's oppressive agricultural system. He increased wages and promised future rewards for hard work. After Nelson Creek wines won a major prize, Nelson fulfilled his promise by giving his workers, all of whom are black, 25 acres of prime grape growing land, which became a cooperative.

Today children play in front of a neat row of farm worker houses. At the co-op, called "New Beginnings," farm workers decide which grapes to grow. They farm the land and produce the wine, with technical assistance from Nelson. Co-op leader Pete Jacobs says the project has given the workers hope -- and been a financial success. He, like many rural blacks, speaks Afrikaans.

Jacobs: "I'm very proud because I now have access to my own land. We're mostly investing the profits in education, such as a child care center for our children. We're providing burial insurance and life insurance for the first time. Most importantly, we're buying land so we can build our own houses."

So far, New Beginnings has sold its entire stock of wine, mostly to white South Africans or to European importers. Black South Africans don't drink much premium wine. Co-op members plan to build their own tasting room for tourists, but for the moment, they use the one at the nelson creek wine farm. New Beginnings has produced very drinkable table white and red wines, and is bottling varietals for release next year. Anzil Adams pours a glass.

Adams: "You're tasting a New Beginnings Chardonnay. It's a very pleasant and light Chardonnay with typical citrus flavors, combined with woody undertones. Very enjoyable, easy drinking wine."

Adams hopes their co-op becomes a model, showing other South African wineries how to both produce quality wine and share their wealth.

Adams: "When you open this bottle of wine, it's a bottle of liberation. It's not just wine. It's really and truly a bottle of liberation. It's a liberation of 300 years of oppression, particularly for farm laborers who have been treated so badly."

Adams says the New Beginnings wine has become a symbol for the new, post-apartheid South Africa.

In Cape Town, I'm Reese Erlich for The Savvy Traveler.

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