October 4, 2011 / 5:39 PM / 8 years ago

S.Africa's blacks branching out into wine industry

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A new class of wine makers is emerging in South Africa with blacks, many of whom once worked the land, now taking over vineyards in an industry dominated for centuries by whites.

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

There are only a handful of black-owned vineyards in the $3 billion a year industry but the number is expected to increase as the government tries to unwind policies under colonial rule and then apartheid that forced blacks off the land or into slave-like work at farms.

M’hudi wines is one of the black-owned vineyards that is a recent entrant into the industry, offering several mid-priced options in red and white. M’hudi means “harvester” in Setswana.

“The wine industry is still uncharted by African people,” says Malmesy Rangaka, CEO and matriarch of M’hudi.

The label is run by the Rangaka family of business professionals who chose to leave their well-paying jobs in major cities to pursue an industry they knew nothing about just a few years ago.

“Unless we take the risk, a calculated risk, we will forever complain that the industry is not transforming. Somebody like us and others who took the risk have to lead the way,” she said.

M’hudi now produces over 7,000 cases of wine a year with revenue of over 3 million rand ($364,500). It is hoping to triple production in five years.

Other new players include the Bayede, or “hail to the king” brand from Zulu royalty King Goodwill Zwelethini, which was set up to help create jobs in the eastern KwaZulu Natal province.

Another is Thandi, which means “nurturing love” in Xhosa. It was started in 1995 to help former farm workers and other people disenfranchised under apartheid. It is owned by 250 farm-worker families.

Most of the new entrants have benefited from government affirmative action and land redistribution programs. They are producing mid-level wines, hoping to branch into higher end vintages as they build up expertise and experience.

One change in the market dynamics that has favored all South African winemakers is that the country’s black majority is increasingly selecting wine as a drink of choice.

The Soweto Wine Festival, set in the township that became a center of black culture under apartheid, has grown into one of the biggest in South Africa.

“It’s a very progressive, young Sowetan market and it is wonderful to be part of that,” said one of the festival sponsors, Caroline Sunders.

South African wines date back to the mid 1700’s and the first vines were planted by Dutch settlers, at first to ward off scurvy.

“This is an industry that requires understanding of product from cultivation of the soils, understanding climate influence, making of wine, branding and marketing of the product, but most of all patience,” said Andre Morgenthal communications manager of Wines of South Africa.

Additional reporting by Ndundu Sithole; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Paul Casciato

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