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Anson: South African wine after apartheid – One man’s story

Jane Anson writes an article that has taken two decades to reach maturity - bringing a personal angle to the new era created by the end of apartheid and the opening up of South African wine to the world.

This article has been 20 years in the writing.

I first met Jabulani Ntshangase in the wine shop of Spier Estate in Stellenbosch in July 1996. I can still remember the impression made by a black South African in the white Afrikaan-stronghold of Stellenbosch back in those early post-apartheid days. We chatted briefly, and I returned a few days later to interview him over a lunch of (I just dug out the old notebook) penne pasta, fresh tomatoes and Cape-grown olives in Spier’s beautiful onsite restaurant.

Spier was one of the original Dutch estates on the Cape, dating back to 1692 but newly renovated and restored by Dick Enthoven, a millionaire businessman who had at one time been one of the more left-wing MPs in South Africa. He had emigrated to England in the late 1980s in protest at the apartheid government, and bought Spier in 1993 with the intention of turning it into a model of integration for the new South Africa. He hired Jabulani in 1995, freshly back from his own exile in New York, to head it up.

It was a hugely significant moment in my life. The first wine interview I ever did, and one that opened my eyes to the possibility of earning a living writing about this magical substance. I have tried to follow his career over the years, but the closest I had got to seeing him again was meeting Ntsiki Biyela, the woman winemaker from Stellekaya Wines who knew him and was in Bordeaux to work a vintage back in 2013.

So meeting up with Jabulani in New York a few weeks ago, just over 20 years since our last encounter, was thrilling. We arranged to meet for breakfast in the Greenwich Hotel down on the southern tip of Manhattan. I arrived a little early and ordered a peppermint tea while waiting, choosing a table with a view of the double swing doors. After a few minutes, in walked Jabulani, smiling broadly, trilby hat on his head, looking exactly as he did that overcast July day in 1996.

Slowly, over three hours and several later conversations, we filled in the gaps of many things that I had wondered about since 1996.

‘When Mandela was released, I started considering exactly what I was going to do.’

This is a man who left South Africa ‘in a hurry’ in the late 1970s via Swaziland to first Kenya then London and from there to New York, securing a scholarship from the United Nations as part of the UNEPSA Educational Programme aimed specifically at, and I quote from the official UNEPSA guide, ‘victims of apartheid… so as to enable them to play a full part in the political, economic and social development of post-apartheid South Africa’.

The scholarship saw him arrive in New York in May 1979 to study business, and while waiting for the accompanying grant to kick in, he got a job hauling boxes at Acker and Merrall on 87 and Broadway, working his way up through the shop floor to eventually bringing the first shipment of South African wine into New York once sanctions were dropped post-apartheid. He could have done well out of being an importer and distributor, no doubt. But staying in New York by then was no longer a serious option.

‘When Mandela was released,’ Jabulani says, ‘I started considering exactly what I was going to do. It was like opening up my two hands, looking at them and asking how can I help? What have I learnt?’.

What he had learnt, clearly, was the wine business – perhaps the most ‘lily-white’, as he puts it, of all South African business.

‘I went back with tremendous fear in 1991, a year after Mandela was released, just for two weeks, and visited Stellenbosch, Constantia, Paarl. And looking around I thought, ‘okay, this is the reason why we’ve been hated, been locked up. They wanted to keep not just the economy and the power, but the landscape as well, the stunning beauty of South Africa’.

‘As I went round the vineyards, I saw the effects of apartheid on the population. None of the workers looked me straight in the eye, they were timid, beaten down. It was so painful, like a torture in many ways. At the same time I was being overwhelmed with offers of work. My friends were in Johannesburg, in KwaZuluNatal, but I had to be 1,000 miles away in Cape Town where the wine was. I was effectively still in exile, but I knew I had to do this’.

Back to South Africa full-time

He returned full time four years later, to a South Africa full of contradictions. ‘There was such suspicion and distrust from the establishment as to what could happen. The fear was so thick it was like a fog. It didn’t matter how you tried to explain what you wanted to do, the reaction was ‘oh we know about you.’ Their minds had already been made up. Truly when I came to the wine fraternity it was as a suspect. ‘We’ve got our eyes on you.’

His initial thought had been to buy a farm and make wine, but prices were prohibitive. Instead, his friend John Platter put him in touch with Enthoven, and he agreed to run Spier, providing that Enthoven would allow him to open a wine shop at the estate stocking all wines from the Cape (‘in the mould of the one I had basically grown up in in Manhattan, and a new concept at the time in South Africa’), and that he would allow him the freedom to set up a programme (along with John Platter, Michael Fridjhon, Professor Jöel Van Wyk and South African Airlines) at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Agriculture to educate disenfranchised black students, ‘giving a training in wine for people like me, those working from the bottom up. We needed training in viticulture, in oenology, in marketing, in management… if things were going to be different, the whole value chain of wine needed to be covered’.

I am picking one tiny part of Jabulani’s story here. I wish I had the space to tell you more, from his launching of brands such as The Spice Route, to the eight-year legal battle over his brand Thabani that (so I’m told from several people who I checked with this week) alienated some of his earlier allies, and now the launch of Highberry in partnership with Werner Engelbrecht and André Parker.

But the beginning is so key to appreciating the success he has had in fulfilling those UNEPSA goals, as difficult as it might have been at times. The South African Wine Education Trust programme at Stellenbosch University saw its first students in 1996 and is still going today –although Jabulani is no longer involved – receiving many thousands of applicants per year. Ntsiki Biyela was one of the early graduates.

‘The sad thing for all human beings,’ he says with a smile as we finally remember to order breakfast and his scrambled eggs arrive, ‘is that we all want change, but we want it to happen now. We over-expect. I always knew that in order to do this thing right it had to be from the ground up and that takes time’.

‘You have to find students, educate them, have them graduate and work their way through to positions of real influence. We are only 22 years into democracy in South Africa, 20 years since the programme started. We’ve had 30 successful graduations. Quantifying that against the whole industry – it is not even a drop in the ocean’.

The Wines

Highberry Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Soft berry fruits, an elegant style of Cabernet Sauvignon, the oak is nicely integrated. Good juicy structure, this has flesh and unfurls beautifully in the glass. This is a very good cabernet in a European style, elegant rather than broad shouldered. 92 points / 100

Highberry Sauvignon Blanc 2015

This is crisp, fresh, a citrus, grassy expression rather than gooseberry, so if we are going to stereotype thin Loire not Marlborough. Fruity yet lean and nicely defined, from biodynamic grapes grown in Helderberg, near Stellenbosch. 90

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