Food & Drink

We heard it through the grapevine…

Did you know that the North Coast has its very own wine? What started out as a pilot project is now, nearly 10 years later, a pioneering Villard blanc vineyard with social upliftment at its heart.

Despite the humid climate, sandy soil, and many other obstacles to growing grapes, our very own Villard blanc cultivar is being grown, harvested, and turned into wine, right here on our doorstep.

The South African wine industry has taken centuries to hone and develop world class products, yet it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore the historical inequities, from the division of labour to the economic rewards (but that’s an article for another day).

The Enterprise iLembe Economic Development Agency is attempting to address, not just socio-economic divides in agriculture, but also the politically loaded wine industry, with their multi-faceted Seventeen87 project.

The wine is a labour of love, and an exercise in patience, since growing grapes is hardly the fastest way to make a buck; the first harvest is only viable three years after planting.

KZN’s very own Villard blanc cultivar is producing the North Coast’s signature Seventeen87 wine.

Since 2012, the project has been under the guidance of Enterprise iLembe’s viticulturalist Daniel Maerkl, who has been based here full-time to focus on Seventeen87. The vineyards are spread between the three local municipalities of Mandini, Maphumule, and Ndwedwe, where cooler climes and more suitable inland conditions have helped to establish the Villard blanc plants.

But it’s not just the environmental conditions that pose a challenge. Since it’s an entirely rural project, the communities had never seen a grapevine, nor did they know how to plant or tend to them, and training had to begin in earnest from day one.

“They’re hardly impressive looking plants!” laughs Daniel, and it was only when these “sticks” in the ground began to shoot their first flash of greenery that the communities really bought into the idea.

The locals are the chief beneficiaries of the project, while Enterprise iLembe operates and oversees the project on their behalf, offering an opportunity to both empower and train individuals, imparting skills and business know-how.

The name was inspired by the birthdate of King Shaka Zulu. The name is significant for obvious reasons, it’s a nod to indigenous heritage, and the intent is to make it a source of pride for the 46 people involved in the vineyards.There is also the notable knock-on effect of creating new jobs in small communities, and Enterprise iLembe is happy to see the positive effects of this on the local economies in the three municipal areas.

“Currently, the 10.8 total hectares produces around 12 000 bottles per annum with the winery based at Sugar Rush Park, just outside of Ballito.”

“The first two to three years formed the biggest part of the training,” explains Daniel. “We taught the community everything from pruning to spraying, and they were nearly in tears when we had to cut back for the first time,” essentially reducing the plants back to “sticks”!

Currently, the 10.8 total hectares produces around 12 000 bottles per annum with the winery based at Sugar Rush Park, just outside of Ballito. These boutique batches are perfect for events and private sales at this stage, as the project continues to establish itself.

One of their main aims is sustainability says Nathi Nkomzwayo, CEO of Enterprise iLembe, and this entails the inevitable dance between costs and income. Enterprise iLembe is committed to ensuring the stability of the project, and part of this lead to the decision to bring in other cultivars to expand the range of wines under the Seventeen87 umbrella, to suit a variety of palates, from a cabernet sauvignon to a chenin blanc.

Visit enterpriseilembe.co.za for more information, or email cheryl@enterpriseilembe.co.za.