May 22nd, 2024/ BY Jessica Dupuy

South African Wine: An Era of Change for the Better

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 print issue of Quench Magazine.

Thirty years after the fall of apartheid, the wine industry in South Africa is looking very different. Though there is still much to be done, there is evidence today of diversity and inclusivity in all areas of the industry.

In 2019, Berene Sauls drained her entire bank account and purchased a 16.6-hectare plot in Tesselaarsdal, a small village in South Africa’s Western Cape. It was a leap of faith in more ways than one. Sauls was a single mother of two boys. She grew up in this part of the country known as the Overberg, about 23 kilometers northeast of the Hemel-en-Aarde wine region. She planned to plant a vineyard.

Purchasing a plot of land was something she couldn’t have done 30 years ago. She would not have been allowed. That’s because Sauls is a person of colour, and in the early 1990s, people of colour were just gaining their freedom in South Africa. A third-generation daughter of farmers, Sauls possesses deep ties to the soils of her upbringing, but she now lives in a time with substantially more opportunities available to her.

Aerial view of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley | photo credit: Courtesy of Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Though the COVID-19 pandemic halted her plans to establish her vineyard, Sauls was able to maintain her day job in logistics at Hamilton Russell Vineyards. For Sauls, who has worked at the company for more than 20 years, her job was much more than a nine-to-five gig. It represented an entire career of growth and opportunity that afforded her the chance to save for her land purchase. It also meant a lifetime of mentorship and empowerment that she worked hard to repay in gratitude and commitment. Her story is a powerful snapshot of what the South African wine industry is working to become.

Wine has been produced in South Africa for more than five centuries, beginning with Dutch settlement in the Western Cape in 1652. But its modern industry could only begin following the foundational shift from apartheid in the early 1990s. The momentous power shift opened the door for meaningful progress in diversity and inclusion throughout the country. But overcoming a long and complicated history of oppression is no easy task. As such, South African wine as we know it today, is really only a few decades old.

The country’s wine industry has witnessed a crescendo of innovation, transformation, and ambition in the past decade alone. Some of this is thanks to government and industry-wide regulatory changes. Still, much is owed to forward-thinking pioneers in the industry who have endured failures and celebrated successes to influence positive change.

According to a recent book, The Wines of South Africa by Jim Clarke, the South African wine industry employs more than 467,000 people between farming, production, logistics, and tourism. But the current industry snapshot shows farm and winery owners as almost entirely white. At the same time, more than half of the job opportunities include low-wage, unskilled positions, which are primarily held by Black and Coloured workers.*

To bridge the gap for the disadvantaged in the wine industry, numerous initiatives have been launched in the areas of land ownership, equity, education, and skills development, among others.

* [Note: In South Africa, the terms “Black” and “Coloured” are commonly used throughout the country. Locally, Black people are Black Africans of native descent from tribes such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Bapedi, Batswana, South Ndebele, Basotho, Venda, Tsonga, and Swazi. The term “Coloured” refers to the mixed-race group primarily in the Western Cape who descended from the local Black Khoisan people from the time of European colonization and slaves from Madagascar, Angola, and Java, where the Dutch had colonies. Throughout the Western Cape, and by extension within the wine industry, the backbone of the labour on wine properties is made up of the Coloured community. In contrast, the Black community has been largely divorced from agriculture—though this is beginning to change.]


In 1910, the parliament passed the Natives Land Act, which dispossessed all Black South Africans of more than 90% of the country’s land. The event took land from original Black ownership and offered it to white owners. Undoing such drastic legislation has been challenging. Though the government has introduced post-apartheid land restitution programs, they have not restored a significant amount of physical land into the hands of original owners. Instead, the majority of the almost 80,000 cases filed have been settled via cash compensation. As a result, very few original owners now own land at all.

Independent of this restitution initiative, the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) program was implemented. It focuses on farming rather than housing. Recipients of LRAD can use government grants to purchase property from the state. However, there have been hurdles. As of 2017, the target, according to Clarke, for Black-owned vineyards in South Africa was to reach 30 percent by 2030. But at that time, ownership was only at 1.5%.

Simply owning land may seem like a worthy feat. But it also comes with its own set of problems. It is capital-intensive to not only plant a vineyard after purchasing the land but also to maintain it.

“Owning land is the least profi table part of the wine industry,” says Clarke. “Prior to COVID, most of the 2,600 growers in the country were breaking even, if not losing money. So, handing over vineyard land to people without training or capital to invest in equipment for harvesting isn’t really doing anyone any favours.”

Chardonnay harvest | photo credit: Creation Wines

As a result, many Black and Coloured wine producers who entered the industry forgo land ownership. Instead, they purchase grapes and make wines through connections with existing facilities.

Of course, there are jobs not directly related to winemaking within the industry that are available as well. In 2010, Meerlust Estate started Compagniesdrift, a bottling, storage, and logistics entity for a few sizable producers, including Meerlust, Vriesenhof, and Ken Forrester. The company employed workers from each of the farms. Over the years, it has expanded as a service provider to more than 42 clients.

“When you want to talk about a profitable part of the wine industry, logistics is a big part of that,” says Clarke. “They’re making all the money without having to invest in large assets because all they’re doing is storing other people’s products.”


For those seeking land investment, the wine and fruit industries developed programs that allow workers to use government grants to partner with new wine companies that own land and other assets, or with established, white [race] wine farmers. These Equity Share Schemes (ESS) enable people to purchase more quickly and equitably a portion of the farm where they work without having to start from scratch. According to Clarke, as of 2021, approximately 90 farms throughout the Cape have embraced the ESS model, accounting for one fifth of the LRAD projects in place.

“This is where I think the industry has been much more creative in adapting the land ownership issue,” says Clarke. “They’re offering to let people buy a piece of the property and allowing them to use the winery and necessary equipment, [and] receive coaching. This lets workers be part of an endeavor that is more viable.”

In 1996, producer Paul Cluver’s De Rust farm brokered a deal with the state-owned forestry company to acquire 180 hectares of forest land adjacent to his property. The project, known as Thandi farms, became a joint venture between the two companies and was explicitly donated to the workers and members of the local community. This would be the first Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) company in the agriculture industry and is heralded as a great success. By 2009, the local farming communities owned two-thirds of the company, which had become fully independent (the remaining third is owned by their exporter, The Company of Wine People). Today, Thandi is the biggest Black-owned wine exporting company in South Africa.

In Wellington, Bosman Family Vineyards had been farming in nearby Hermanus for eight generations and began focusing as a grape grower and nursery in 1957. But in 2007, the family started making wine and subsequently took the opportunity to negotiate a joint venture with the Adama Workers Trust for its employees. The concept was to make employees co-owners of the Bosman Family Vineyard brand, not just the land but all company assets. Through this trust, Bosman pays dividends on that investment. To date, it has dispensed more than one billion rands, amounting to a yield of about 3.5%. The trust also pays dividends from its Fairtrade certification to community and social services, such as buses for the community to use for work, school, and medical services. It has also built a crèche for childcare, adult classes for computer skills, and a medical clinic on the farm to serve workers and members of the local community.

Rudger van Wyk | photo credit: MAN Family Wines


With respect to education and skills for the wine trade, programs to improve worker skills pre-date the end of apartheid. The Wine Training South Africa program was formed by the Elsenburg Viticultural College in 1987, offering accredited training for cellar workers. The program has trained more than 6,000 enrollees since 2006.

Since 2015, over 250 training programs benefitting more than 4,500 workers have been instituted by Vinpro, a non-profit company developed out of the former KWV cooperative to aid in the profitability and sustainability of the wine industry.

But many other programs have also contributed to helping individuals within the Black and Coloured communities gain winemaking and viticulture roles. Global organizations such as Fairtrade International and the South African Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association (WIETA) have brought substantial returns in education, community development, social services, transportation, medical access, childcare, computer skills classes, and reasonable working hours.

In 2006, the Cape Winemakers Guild introduced a Protégé Programme, providing internship opportunities for wine students as they complete their studies. More than 30 protégées have completed internships and gone on to work within the industry. (See Sidebar.)

Rüdger van Wyk was one of those protégés. At age 32, van Wyk is the youngest of three brothers, all raised in the small town of George on the east coast of South Africa. His parents were teachers who raised their boys in a sport-loving home with a particular affinity for rugby. His middle brother was the first to take an interest in wine and left to study winemaking at the Stellenbosch University. Van Wyk remembers staying with him when he had rugby tournaments near the university campus.

“He worked at a co-op winery in Paarl and lived in a house close to the cellar. I was only 15, and he would take me to the cellar and show me how to taste wine. It was the first time I’d heard of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc or seen stainless steel tanks and barrels. I was so intrigued by all of it.”

His parents hoped he would follow in their footsteps as teachers, but, in 2009, van Wyk started at Stellenbosch University to become a winemaker. Before graduating, he applied to, and was accepted in, the Protégé Program. The opportunity afforded him a winemaking internship at Kanonkop, followed by a brief time with Nitida Wine Farm in Durbanville to work with white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, and a harvest trip to Burgundy with other participants in the program.

For van Wyk, it was the trip of a lifetime.

In 2014, van Wyk was offered a full-time position as the winemaker for Stellenbosch-based Stark-Condé. He has been making Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc with the company ever since.

But his experience in Burgundy remained fresh in his mind, and he wanted to work with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 2017, Stark-Condé allowed him to do it. He named his brand Kara-Tara, a nod to Knysna, the small town where van Wyk grew up. The name is from the native Khoisan language meaning “deep, dark shadows,” and refers to the Karatara River that runs through the town. Today, Kara-Tara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are distributed in the UK, Japan, Mexico, 30 US states, and Canada.

Van Wyk hopes to help create a future for his family, “My parents worked so hard to educate us and put knowledge into our brains, and I want to do the same to help bring my family to that next level…when I breathe my last breath, I hope my children and the rest of my family will have something I didn’t.”

Van Wyk recognizes a significant shift in his story compared to his brother’s, given the seven years that separate them in age. “We both took different directions. I don’t think he had the same opportunities in the co-op cellar where he worked in the years before I got into the industry. It wasn’t the right time or place,” says van Wyk.

His brother eventually started a business for contract work in vineyards throughout the region and has successfully grown his company over the years.

THE CAPE WINEMAKER’S GUILD’S PROTEGÉ PROGRAM: Helping Educate and Equip People of Colour in South African Wine.

But just as the identity of South Africa has shift ed since the Guild’s inception, so have the goals of the membership. In 2006, the Guild launched the Protégé Program, a project that allows aspiring winemakers to work side-by-side with members of the Guild. All participants receive an opportunity to work with different members of the Guild over three years. The internship is a targeted three-year program that off ers skills, practical experience, knowledge sharing, and mentorship. In 2014, a Viticulture Protégé Program was launched in conjunction with Vinpro. The hope is that the membership of experienced winemakers can impart wisdom and knowledge to a new generation of winemakers and grape growers.

Rüdger van Wyk, the winemaker for Stark-Condé wines in Stellenbosch, was a protogé in 2014. He remembers the interview process being a rigorous, nerve-wracking experience. Upon being accepted to the program, he joined up with winemaker Abrie Beeslar at Kanonkop Wine Estate.

“It was a huge stepping stone for me to have that experience,” says van Wyk. “I still talk to Beeslar about things, especially red wines. He changed my whole way of thinking about winemaking when I was there, and it has shaped how I make wines at Stark-Condé.”

Following his internship with Kanonkop, he spent some time with Nitida, a small producer in Durbanville. In 2014, he and other participants in the program were invited on a trip to Burgundy. The six-week experience included the opportunity to work harvest alongside Burgundian producers and travel to other regions of France, including Bordeaux, Champagne, and the Rhône Valley.

“To experience the contrast from Bordeaux to Burgundy and knowing how things were done at Kanonkop was such an eye-opening experience for me,” says van Wyk. “That trip alone was like an entire college education. It was interesting to hear the diff erent perspectives for each wine style and the grapes for each region.”

There are many winemakers in the Guild whom van Wyk has never officially met but have positively impacted him.

“It’s little things like how they walk and talk during a wine tasting, their comments, and how they handle people. All of those things were very intriguing to me in the beginning and very inspiring. Many of them have been mentors to me without even knowing it.”

To date, 34 participants have completed the three-year internship, and seven are participating in this ongoing program. Of the graduates, 18 now either hold leading winemaking roles or have their own winemaking projects.

As part of the project, the Guild hosts an annual auction of wine lots produced explicitly from each of its member wineries for the CWG. These unique wines are made in small quantities—usually no more than two barrels—and are auctioned each year to raise money for the Protogé Program. In October 2022, the annual auction off ered 513 lots and raised more than R13,985,500 (approx. $768,000 USD), resulting in an average bottle price of R1,227, an overall 30% increase on funds raised in 2021.


While work-related skills would directly allow a worker to command a higher income, there is a dire need for developing life skills. This includes economic literacy; addressing alcohol abuse, HIV and AIDS; education; and general household, budgeting, and management. In addition, housing and permanent versus seasonal labour are issues that are being addressed. Each area has seen successes and failures.

Organizational eff orts such as the Pinotage Youth Development Academy have implemented a focus on training people to work in wine, tourism, and hospitality, but has also invested more than 40% of the program in personal development and life skills.

Producers such as Hamilton Russell Vineyards have created schools for early childhood development within the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley community to help prepare them for grade school.

“Early childhood development has been largely overlooked where children have two working parents who must leave their kids with family or friends during the day,” says Anthony Hamilton Russell. “This is a preschool where they can build self-esteem and confidence in doing well in a school environment.”

It’s also important to note that South Africa—white, Black, Coloured, and Asian—is generally more of a beer-drinking culture. While many factors play into this, the combination of a lack of wine awareness and appreciation within the general population plays into lower wine consumption (at all quality tiers) and less desire for entry into the wine industry. It’s a problem, but the primary solution for this is time. As the country moves into second, third, and fourth generations born into a post-apartheid environment, this—along with many things—can only improve.


In addition to institutional efforts, it’s worth noting the impact of individual initiatives. In 1995, Jabulani Ntshangase, following an education and early career in New York, approached South African Airways about establishing the Wine Education Trust, which would sponsor grants for Black and Coloured applicants to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University. For many recipients of this grant, it was the first time they would ever taste wine. The initiative ignited the careers of the likes of Ntsiki Biyela, owner and winemaker of Aslina Wines; Dumisani Mathonsi, winemaker of white wines at Zonnebloem; and Unathi Mantshongo, the former CEO of the Vinpro Foundation.

Which brings us back to the Berene Sauls story. Hers is one of hard work and vision. But none of it would likely have been possible without the help of Anthony Hamilton Russell, whose belief in shepherding individuals along their journey is the best way to move the industry forward.

Berene Sauls in her Tesselaarsdal Vineyard | photo credit: Tesselaarsdal Wines

When Sauls first came to Hamilton Russell Vineyards at the age of 19, it was to interview for an au pair position for Anthony Hamilton Russell’s four daughters. It soon became apparent that she had much more to offer.

“I remember asking Anthony, ‘Why do people pay so much for wine? I come from a beer-drinking community,’ and that’s when he suggested that I see the process from grape to bottle,” says Sauls.

That was at the end of the 2002 harvest and as soon as Sauls set foot in the cellar, she was sold on wine. Sauls was given the opportunity to work for the company in several different capacities over a tenure that spans more than 20 years. She learned winemaking, administration, certification, how to operate a forklift, and more before eventually settling into a management role in logistics.

“I have always felt that if we can give someone a chance to get a foot on the ladder and develop that, it’s our duty,” says Hamilton Russell, who has fostered the careers of numerous staff members whose tenures at the estate span decades.

By 2015, Sauls had mastered everything that had been put in her path. Hamilton Russell suggested she launch her own wine brand and offered her the capital to get started.

Sauls gratefully accepted the opportunity, leveraging the skills she had learned and guidance from Hamilton Russell to help steer the path. She contracted the brand’s winemaker, Emul Ross, to help with the winemaking and reached out to grape growers with whom she had already established relationships to purchase grapes.

“One of the main things that I found as being the stumbling block for so many start-up wine businesses is the wrong strategy and trying to do too many things at once,” says Hamilton Russell, who advised Sauls to start with Pinot Noir and eventually add Chardonnay to the mix.

Her first vintage was a 2015 Pinot Noir released under the name of Tesselaarsdal Wines. In the coming years, Hamilton Russell would begin to step back from his advisory role, keeping himself available if Sauls needed him. Her next big step was to own land. When a piece of property became available near her hometown, she invited Hamilton Russell and Ross to take a look. The property was beautiful with a north-west facing slope and clay soils. When drilling for water and looking at soil samples of the land, Sauls discovered a common thread: everything was salty. The water. The soil. It all had high salinity.

The parcel has a unique history. In the 1800s, just outside the small village of Tesselaarsdal (after which Sauls’s wine brand was named), Johannes Tesselaar, a Dutch general, was given the land along with eight Khoisan slaves. Upon his death in 1810, he left the property to his then-freed slaves. Sauls is a descendant of those slaves.

In late 2022, with the help of family and friends, she planted the initial 50 experimental vines.

“I want to honour my history and continue my family legacy here,” says Sauls. “This is something I’m very passionate about. It’s not just a wine brand. It’s something my sons can help bring into a new generation.”

While it’s true that apartheid put South Africa on the back foot when participating in the modern global wine industry, you can’t deny the efforts to make things right. “One thing I really admire about South Africa is its openness to address its past through initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” says Clarke. “This approach remains a central principle in the country’s efforts to change and improve itself.”

Most South Africans you speak to are open and honest about past and current challenges regarding their political and racial history. And equally as open about focusing on a bright future.

Jessica Dupuy is a wine and spirits columnist, certified sommelier and WSET Diploma candidate. She is the author of several books including Uchi: The Cookbook; The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family and Love; The United Tastes of Texas; Tex-Mex: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods from Both Sides of the Border. Her latest book, The Wines of Southwest U.S.A. covers the emerging wine regions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Dupuy lives in the Texas Hill Country, just west of Austin, with her family. Among the things she enjoys most are cooking with her kids, sharing great wine with friends, and fly fishing with her husband.

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