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South Africa's black city hipsters get to know wine

AP , SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA

Zanele Xaba of Johannesburg tastes a Sauvignon Blanc 2004 during a wine festival in Soweto, South Africa on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Far from the Cape winelands' fertile valleys, black city hipsters mingled with wealthy white farmers to swill, sniff and sip from a selection of South Africa's finest vintages this weekend.

Soweto, a sprawling black township that was at the center of the anti-apartheid struggle, was hosting its first wine festival. An exclusive, mostly white industry attempted to tickle the palates of a nation of beer drinkers at the three-day event that ended on Sunday.

Festival participants could think of no better place to reach out to the largely untapped black market than the township that has long defined black urban style in South Africa.

"We have been neglecting the black market for many years," said Jannie le Roux, chairman of Boland Vineyards International, one of the country's largest producers. "We would like to expand our business. We want to be part of the new South Africa."

Wine has been pressed near Cape Town since the arrival of French and Dutch settlers in the mid-17th century. They found the sandy soil and moderate climate ideal.

Buoyed by the end of white rule and the isolation it brought, South African wines have acquired a growing international following -- and picked up numerous awards.

But exports have been hit hard by the strength of the rand, which has more than doubled in value against the US dollar in less than four years. South Africa has lost its competitive edge against other emerging wine producers such as Australia, Chile and Argentina.

Its producers are now trying to grow the domestic market by wooing an emerging black middle class. South Africa is the world's ninth largest wine producer, but ranks 33rd in consumption.

"I grew up with beer," said festival-goer Wellington Tshomela, a recent convert who was exposed to wine through his work in events management. "Now when you go to the pub, all you are going to see is people drinking wine."

More than 500 wines from 86 producers were featured at what organizers promise will be the first annual Soweto Wine Festival, staged in one of the township's more upmarket sections.

They included a dozen black-owned labels with names like Ses'Fikile -- Xhosa for "we have arrived" -- and Lindiwe -- "the one we have been waiting for" -- since South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994.

Connoisseurs enthusiastically shared their passion with novices -- and even repeated power outages on the first night didn't dampen the exuberance.

Organizers hope the festival will both stimulate interest in drinking wine and encourage aspiring young blacks to consider careers in the industry.

Distributors Thami Xaba and Mnikelo Mangciphu have lined up 10 Soweto taverns -- popularly known as "shebeens" -- to carry some of the featured wines after the festival.

For decades under apartheid, black entrepreneurs struggled to get licenses to make or sell liquor. So they ran illegal bars out of their homes that were frequently raided by police.

Eleven years into black-majority rule, the wine industry is still just over 1.5 percent black-owned.

The industry is also plagued by the legacy of the notorious "tot" system under which white farmers paid their nonwhite workers in rotgut. While the practice has largely stopped, the consequences are felt in high levels of alcoholism, illiteracy and other social ills.

The government aims to empower workers to acquire a meaningful stake in the R16 billion to R18 billion (US$2.5 billion to US$2.7 billion) industry. A variety of approaches have been tried, including allocating shares of established vineyards to employees and parceling off land for them to cultivate under their own brand.

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