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Wine touring in Mandela's South Africa

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My first wine tour ever was in South Africa, in 2005.

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I had been born in South Africa, the same year that Apartheid became law. My British parents and family left 18 months later. For many years, I was ashamed to admit it was the land of my birth. I boycotted South African wines as well as other products. Ten years after Mandela had been freed, it seemed the time to go back and visit.

I discovered an incredibly beautiful country that had undergone a massive social change. There was a black middle class and elite as well as the many poor. Black South Africans were discovering new opportunities and were increasingly taking on leadership roles in all aspects of life.

Nelson Mandela's name was golden, and new schools, arenas, roads and subdivision were all named after him. Black celebrities from the US and other countries were flocking to South Africa to be part of the 46664 outdoor concert for Aids victims. 46664 being Mandela's prisoner number.

Although you could never take your personal security for granted and many people lived in homes that resembled medium security prisons, it was probably better than many developing countries.

Our wine tour was full of the signs of the new South Africa. Our wine tour leader was white but he was being job shadowed by a young black intern who was studying hospitality and tourism.

Our first stop was at Nelson's Creek near Paarl, a winery that made history for attempting to empower its black farm workers. When Allan Nelson bought his winery which had been abandoned during the years of the wine boycott, he made a deal with his workers that if they managed to help him produce a medal winning wine in five years, he would grant them a share of the winery property. If they chose to grow grapes, his winery would help them produce their wine for the first three years as they became established.

For the poor black farm workers the opportunity to own land, and have their own business was a real incentive. Nelson’s Creek won medals in its first year and the workers began their winery called New Beginnings.

Their spokesman ,Victor Titus, a retired "Cape Coloured" school principal, promoted their wines across Europe and the UK to enthusiastic support for the new black South African wines and history was made. Victor Titus was our host at the winery. He taught us how to do a wine tasting and introduced us to both Nelson’s Creek and New Beginnings wines.

The New Beginnings experiment has gone through rough times since but valuable lessons were learned.

Since then, a number of South African wineries have been involved in helping their workers get established in the wine business and the government’s BEE Black Economic Empowerment fund has also pumped money into the industry. Look for names like Ashanti, Thandi, Freedom Road, and Thabani. Even wineries that have not shown the same leadership have provided far more opportunities to their black workers to progress than ever before..

In the town of Stellenbosch, we stopped for lunch at a vine covered outdoor restaurant. A voluntary tax was put on our bill for AIDS orphans. Stellenbosch is named after Simon Van de Stel, the mix race son of a Dutch East India Company official and a freed Indian slave from Goa. Although, he was the first governor of South Africa and responsible for the start of the wine industry in colony, there are no true portraits of him in existence as the white supremacists of apartheid did not want reminders that their first governor was mixed race

Near Stellenbosch, we visited the huge Spier winery,a true destination winery, which even had a train station stop for day trippers from Cape Town and an onsite hotel for longer visits. Its huge outdoor pergola restaurant fed hundreds and it had a large market filled with booths of black African artists and craftsmen. The property also housed a cheetah rescue centre.

Spier Is 100% organic and promotes biodiversity among its vines. A well informed black company representative who ran our tasting gave us samplings of wine from their bargain brands through to their aged wines that sold for the equivalent of $80 a bottle of aged red wine. For the first time, I understood why people pay those prices for really good wine.

Although Sauvignon blanc is a popular varietal in South Africa and I personally prefer white wines, Pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and hermitage grapes, was the signature wine of the new South Africa that was getting rave reviews at the time and was helping to put South Africa's wine industry back on the map. It is one of the few reds, I never turn down.

It's fitting to raise a glass of Pinotage to the memory of Nelson Mandela a man who forged a new vision for all the people of South Africa -land of my birth.

Veronica Leonard writes as a wine tourist, visit her blogsite at http://thewinetourist.wordpress.com /

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