February 2, 2010 / 5:44 PM / 9 years ago

Wines imbued with post-apartheid struggle

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The best wines come from vines that struggle, so it is not surprising to find some of the most interesting South African wines are produced by people who have known hardship.

An employee prepares a wine tasting at the Boschendal winery in Stellenbosch, about 80km southwest of Cape town, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Until 1994 when apartheid ended blacks had been banned from owning land and wineries. Today, there are about 4,000 wineries in South Africa but only two are owned by black families.

“I thought someone needs to tell these stories. Why not us,” said Selena Cuffe, 34, who runs Heritage Link Brands, a U.S. company that imports wines produced by black South Africans.

“The wine industry in South Africa is analogous to the cotton industry here ... Those two industries were built on the backs of slave labor,” Cuffe, an African-American originally from California, added in an interview.

Her life changed after an impromptu visit in 2005 to South Africa and Soweto’s annual wine festival where she met Vivian Kleynhans of the Seven Sisters winery.

“Now this was before I knew anything about wine or the wine business.” said Cuffe, who asked if Kleynhans’ wines were available in the United States.

“Sister, we’re struggling to get it distributed in South Africa,” Kleynhans replied.

About a month after returning home from South Africa Cuffe, who has an MBA from Harvard University, and her husband, who holds the same degree, started their importing company.


Kleynhans and her siblings, who grew up under apartheid, were separated as children after their father lost his job and they lost their home.

“Two sisters went to live here and one sister went to live there and they never got the chance to live together as a traditional family from that point on,” Cuffe said.

But 25 years later Vivian decided to rally her sisters and create something to pay tribute to their family.

“So they made wines. Each reflecting the personality and style of one of the sisters,” Cuffe said.

Their Bukettraube, a rare grape believed to have originated in Germany produces a white wine not unlike a Riesling, according to Cuffe.

“And it is a reflection of Odella, She’s the youngest of the sisters, sweet and fresh,” she added.

The Pinotage/Shiraz blend has a deep ruby color filled with the scent of berries and plums and a spicy finish that Cuffe said reflects the sister Dawn. Like Dawn the wine is very approachable “but has that peppery finish - that’s the don’t mess with me side,” she added.

Cuffe also imports wine from M’hudi winery, which is owned by Diale and Malmsey Rangaka, a retired professional couple who sold everything when they finished work to own a farm.

“In South Africa, land ownership is everything,” Cuffe explained. “The couple’s philosophy was if not the educated among them to go and venture into uncharted territory, than who else would do it?”

So in 2005 the pair bought a 103-acre (42-hectare) farm in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa where they produce Sauvignon Blanc and the South Africa’s signature wine Pinotage.

Cuffe is hoping that some of global attention that will focus on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, which begins in June, will also fall on the country’s wines.

Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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