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Meet South Africa's First Black Female Winemaker

Sun, 07/27/2014
uQamata_Carmen_Stevens_AmaniA nine year old girl was reading a romance novel with a plot she was perhaps too young to read. But it wasn’t the romance between the hero and heroine that left the biggest impression: it was the novel’s setting – vineyards, a wine cellar and wine that she never forgot.Her name is Carmen Stevens, South Africa’s first Black female winemaker, and today, some three decades later, this petite, energetic woman is the winemaker at South Africa’s Amani Vineyards, producing award-winning wines since joining the winery in 2005. In her previous position at Stellenbosch Vineyards, she worked with four other winemakers as a team, the five of them blending with each other’s wines so that they were all part of all brands, all part of a large production. She had no opportunity to create a wine of her own.At Amani, her situation is the reverse. Here, Carmen makes about 107,000 bottles of wine each year, a small production that befits a boutique winery. She alone decides what to blend, what not to blend, how long to age, in oak or not and the right time to release each wine.Although she was born and grew up near Stellenbosch, the center of the South African wine world, Carmen did not come from a wine making family. And becoming a winemaker was not a simple path. In 1991, when she applied to the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute (then known as the Elsenburg Agricultural College), she was refused, she said, “because the college was open only to white South Africans.” She applied again the next year and again she was refused, this time, she was told, because she had not served in the South African military and had no agricultural background.
Finally, in 1993, she was accepted. “In my first year, there was one other Black student, a second year male. But there were five women and that was the surprise. Until then, the school would only admit one female student per year.” She was the only Black among the five.

After graduation, Carmen’s maiden vintage was the 1999 at Tukulu where she made an impressive Pinotage. “I still have a soft spot for that grape, South Africa’s own,” she said.

To extend her knowledge, she went to California, to Simi Winery in Sonoma, and found it “a fantastic experience. I was to work in the harvest, but I was privileged to work also in all sections of wine making. So I experienced much more than most cellar interns do. I also learned how hard women can work.” And, she added, “I took home a major message: how important it was at harvest time to taste the grapes constantly to be sure not to miss the optimum picking date for each variety.”

Carmen also spent time in France’s Rhône Valley. “That was a good old-world experience. In the Rhône, I learned how to work with natural ferments, and I learned that wood must be used to complement a wine, not overpower it.”

Amani, which means peace in Swahili, is located on the slopes of a high hill west of Stellenbosch. It was bought in 2002 by Jim Atkinson, an American, who then turned over its operation to his daughter Lynde and her husband Rusty Myers. From the beginning, they set their standard. They were to be a small, high quality, low volume winery. Carmen was a perfect fit.

After being at Amani through eight harvests, Carmen particularly relishes having “the opportunity to experiment with small batch wine making, to be able to go through and pick the same block of grapes as many as four times because soil difference, growth difference and ripeness levels vary. And I appreciate seeing how irrigation styles can influence a vine’s reaction and how it brings another dimension to the fruit.”

At Amani, Carmen makes a range of wines, among them, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinotage, Cabernet Franc and a wine named I Am One, a blend of Bordeaux grapes plus a bit of Shiraz.

Currently available in the U.S. is her rich red wine called uQamata, a Bordeaux blend imported by Cognac One and sold under the Xavier Flouret label.

Carmen has also launched wines under her own label which will be marketed through Naked Wines. “I rent space at two cellars, and my two first wines, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz, will be in the U.S. this October. My 2014 Chardonnay will be available in early 2015.”

The label? “From a painting by my 10 year old daughter Caitlin–my younger daughter Victoria is eight–that she made when she was six. She wanted to paint a tiger, but there’s a crow, a dog, a clown and yes, the tail of a tiger. I thought it was a perfect example of how people experience wine–each one is different for each person.”