Can South African Wines Bridge a Racial Divide?


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Well, America, it's over. The dream of the U.S. team making it to the World Cup semi-finals was a plausible one—but, alas, not meant to be. Perhaps the ESPN talking heads are right: our boys were too green, and they just didn't know how to seize the moment. Maybe it was just bad luck. As the World Cup continues without us, however, it's not just about soccer. Particularly for South Africans, who didn't advance beyond the group stage, the event is less about sport and more about showing the world how far their country has come since the end of apartheid. For the country's winemakers, it's the opportunity of a lifetime to showcase their wines on a world stage.

Murmurings began as early as last year among industry insiders that the country's indigenous grape, Pinotage—a crossbreeding of Pinot Noir and Cinsault—would finally get the respect it deserves once so many international visitors were exposed to it. The wines made from this varietal—often wild, tasting of bramble fruit and forest floor—have never found much of a fan base beyond South Africa. Perhaps it's because springbok and giraffe steaks aren't popular dishes outside the country. You really need a wine as big and animal-like as Pinotage to stand up to such gamey meats.

Wines weren't the only libations looking to capitalize on the World Cup. Amarula, the cream liqueur that is like a deeper, fruitier version of Bailey's Irish Cream, also made a big push to promote itself. You might recognize the fruit that is the base ingredient of the liqueur, marula, from watching Animal Planet: the yellow plum-sized berries are beloved by elephants, who trek dozens of miles to feast on them each year. Where Bailey's is milk chocolate, Amarula is chocolate-dipped strawberries and mangoes, making it as delightful in coffee as over ice cream. Capetonian cocktail bars are sure to be pushing their sweetest Amarula concoctions throughout the month.

More and more, he says, people of color are found not only in the vineyards or down in the cellars doing manual labor, but out on shop floors.

And yet, showing off homegrown products to tourists is not the only goal for South Africa's wine and spirits industry. The World Cup is also giving winemakers the chance to target the local market. Nederburg, one of the most recognized producers in South Africa and the official wine sponsor of World Cup, has already sold four times the volume of FIFA-branded wine it hoped to sell this year. So now, it has turned its attention closer to home. Traditionally, soccer has been the sport of the country's blacks, and beer has been their drink of choice. Whites, who make up the vast majority of the country's wine drinkers, generally prefer rugby or cricket. As a prominent World Cup sponsor, Nederburg hopes to increase its appeal among soccer fans and, effectively, blacks.

The issue was brought up in an interview I conducted for this month's Decanter magazine with Tariro Masayiti, the winemaker responsible for Nederburg's white wines (the country's first "black white wine maker," as he likes to call himself). Tall, lanky, and soft-spoken, the Zimbabwe native says his employer is hoping to change the image of wine among blacks simply by being associated with World Cup. Of course, part of the strategy is to hire people like Masayiti, who understands the target market because he is a member of it. He is even sent to schools to speak to black students about why they should consider careers in winemaking. More and more, he says, people of color are found not only in the vineyards or down in the cellars doing manual labor, but out on shop floors. And, in a few still rare cases, overseeing the entire winemaking process.

"It's still striking for people here when I introduce myself as a winemaker because it's rare for a black person to be in this position," Masayiti told me. "There is a perception that, to become a winemaker, it must be in your blood. I did not even taste wine until I was 23."

In Soweto, a district of Johannesburg best known for its history of fierce anti-apartheid uprisings, an annual wine festival is held, now in its sixth year. It features a number of black winemakers and attracts a predominantly black crowd. The festival's website proclaims its mission to be: "To shift the Black market's perceptions of wine drinking and wine drinkers ... integrating wine into Black people's homes and enhancing their existing lifestyles."

It appears to be working: attendance has nearly quadrupled since the festival's first year. Whether Nederburg's World Cup strategy will be as successful remains to be seen. So far, the tournament has inspired waves of African pride. Could a Michael Essien or Didier Drogba-endorsed bottle be far behind?