Monday night, at the French Cheese Board in midtown Manhattan, I attended a wine and cheese pairing hosted by House of Mandela wines. In case you’re wondering, yes, the house of Mandela. South African wines have been growing in popularity, so it is only fitting that the family of the most famous South African (also one of the most famous humans) should have their own wine. Nelson Mandela’s daughter and granddaughter, Maki and Tukwini Mandela, came to New York to launch the newest collection of their wine. Tukwini sat down with me to answer a few questions before the tasting began.
When Tukwini enters a room, her presence instantly commands respect. With her decided walk and her piercing glance, she bears a visible inner depth. Her words are carefully chosen, yet very fluid. She looks very much like her grandfather. The nose and cheeks are similar. The smile is identical.
As we sat down, I was overcome with a feeling of reverence, and began to worry that my questions would be irreverent. It felt disrespectful to be speaking to that great man’s granddaughter about anything except his immense sacrifices, endeavors, and achievements. And to speak about something as lighthearted and luxurious as wine, well that felt just plain rude. But, as I soon learned, I was wrong.
The interview began with the very predictable question about how her grandfather’s legacy inspired the wine, a question I’m sure she’s been asked many times.
With a steady look, she began, “Before we launched the brand in 2010, we wanted to tell the story of our family without necessarily politicizing it. The story of Nelson Mandela as a politician is a well known one. And people seem to think that my grandfather just fell from the sky, he has no sense of place. He’s a father, he’s an uncle, he’s a grandfather. And we wanted to tell that part of the story. All the ideals my grandfather espoused he learned from somewhere and someone. We wanted to explore that angle more, and the wine is a great vehicle for us to do that.”
Before tasting the wine, what strikes the eye instantly is its beautiful, intricate design. Every aspect of the décor on these wine bottles is drenched with symbolism. Symbolism of Mandela, symbolism of his culture. The design of the label on the Deep River wine is inspired by the dashiki shirt, the shirt Mandela was most often pictured wearing. The dotted label on the sparkling wine, a celebratory drink, mirrors the decorative makeup that brides of Mandela’s culture wear on their wedding day. The emblem of the House of Mandela is the bee, and Tukwini explained its importance:
“The bee is a literal translation of my grandfather’s Xhosa name, ‘Rolihlahla,’ which means one who is brave enough to go fetch the honey from the honeycomb. It means one who is brave enough to challenge the status quo. When my grandfather was released from prison and he was going back to his ancestral home, he was followed by a swarm of bees all the way from the airport to the house. It meant that the ancestors were welcoming him home and giving him good tiding.”
With the wine industry in South Africa being predominantly run by whites, the majority being men, this wine run by black women, much like the bee, challenges the status quo.
“The addition of black women in the South African wine industry is a serious challenge. I can count the number of women that I know in the wine industry on my hand. They are all making great strides to transform the wine industry. They are passionate women who really believe in South Africa’s wine industry. South Africa’s wine industry employs 350,000 people, and the majority of those people are black. It would only make sense that you would have a black woman own a wine business, or be involved in one way or the other, other than being a farmworker. We’re trying to encourage young people to enter the wine industry, whether they go into marketing, or become wine makers, we think that would add such a positive slant to it. The wine industry contributes 3% to South Africa’s GDP. That’s quite a huge contribution. Hopefully, with all of those statistics in place, more young black people will join the industry.”
In the past few years, South African wine has become increasingly popular in the west. I was curious to learn about the culture of wine in South Africa itself.
“There is a huge movement to create a wine experience in South Africa,” Tukwini says. “While we create a lot of wine, for all intensive purposes South Africa is a brown spirits drinking country. Wine consumption is still very low. The challenge for us is to create an experience around it. People from all walks of life can enjoy wine. Before, wine was seen to be a very unattainable thing. It was a lifestyle thing. Now, more black women in South Africa are experimenting with wine because there has been a huge growth in the black middle class.”
For wine, location and vegetation are everything. The land and weather in South Africa provide a great landscape to make some of the best tasting wines.
“We have the best of both worlds in South Africa, because with the mountains come the cooler areas. Stellenbosch is well-known for creating great red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon,” Tukwini says. “You’ve got the benefit of a great cool climate near the mountain, and that allows you to grow a certain type of grape. You have Paarl, which is incredibly hot, and you have a chance there to make great Shiraz. In Darling, you have the benefit of the cool sea air, and you make great white wines from there. One of the areas where we source our wines, Breedekloof and Swartland, there is soapstone, and that adds great minerality to the wine. In South Africa, because we have the best of both worlds, we have the ability to create very different, exciting, and interesting styles.”
With their new selection of wine being completely sourced from certified fair trade farms, House of Mandela wine embodies a philosophy of corporate conscientiousness. They don’t have their own vineyards, but source their wines from locals, supporting the small farmer in a large way. The House of Mandela pays a premium to the farmers, which goes for education and housing, and the employees get a respectful salary. Through their wine, they’re not only changing the face of business, but generating capital and sustainability for the country. After my conversation with Tukwini, we went on to the tasting. After learning the importance and history behind the wine, it felt good to drink it. And it tasted as good as it felt.
The Thembu Sauvignon Blanc’s fruity taste was refreshing, and expertly paired with a buttery Brillat-Savarin. The richness of the Deep River Cabernet Merlot was a foil to the sharpness of the orange Mimolette. The spicy complexity of the Royal Reserve Shiraz paired with Comté was a delight to the senses.
As the flavor of this wine lay on my palette, and the buzz from the alcohol began to bring clarity to my clogged brain, the importance of what I was drinking slapped me across the face. House of Mandela wine goes above being just a wine. Every batch is a step towards a better life. Every glass is a remembrance and a toast to the great man and the family that made him great. Every bottle shared shares the inspiring ideals that changed a country, and the world.
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