Meet the woman behind SA’s first female, black-owned winery

Carmen Stevens is a trailblazer for black women in South Africa. Not only was she the first black South African to study winemaking, she also registered her own wine brand, Carmen Stevens Wines, as the first 100% black and woman-owned winery in South Africa in January 2019.

The unique label on the Carmen Stevens’ wine bottles are very special to the winemaker. Her eldest daughter painted “Tiger” at school when she was only six years old, and when Stevens saw it, she knew she wanted to make a wine with a label featuring the art.

On closer inspection, “Tiger” hides three figures: a man on the right side of the tiger, a bird with a red beak on the left side of the tiger, and a face of a dog between the man and the bird – all taken together by the body and colour of the tiger.

“Our label is an expression of how different people experience wine. Some people pick up a glass and identify all characteristic immediately while others take time to ‘see’ everything that the wine is expressing in the glass.”

Steven is one of the exciting winemakers in Food for Mzansi’s “21 faces of summer.”

Carmen, wow, what an inspiration you are! How did you get started in wine?

I got interested in wine through reading novels as a child. In my family, I am a first generation winemaker. I studied at Elsenburg Agriculture College and got my diploma in winemaking and cellar technology in 1995, officially becoming the first black South African to study winemaking.

What has surprised you about being a winemaker? 

How much a glass of wine can tell you by just smelling and tasting a wine. For example, the colour, acidity, tannin structure and alcohol can indicate a warm or cool climate wine, therefore where the fruit was grown. From there you can surmise region and soil.

Flavour expression can also indicate climate, also if the wine was made in a new world country (Southern Hemisphere) or old-world country (Northern Hemisphere). More expressive indicates the new world while subdued (less obvious) indicates the old world.

What are your most memorable wine moments?

Having made wines that make people go, “Wow, that is beautiful!” Another memorable achievement for me is qualifying as South Africa’s first black winemaker. I also registered the first 100% black and woman-owned winery in South Africa in January 2019.

I am also proud of my school food programme. Winemaking has put me in a position to plough back into my community through a programme that we have been running since 2011.

What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

Growing my own grapes.

In the world of wine, who do you most admire and why?

Anyone that gives an opinion about wine. People experience wine differently and that makes everyone’s opinion count. I love that, it is so personal, and no one can really prove you wrong. I also admire winemakers that have a marketing flair to assist in getting the wine to the attention of the consumer.

What is your favourite wine to pair with your favourite meal?

If a wine is in balance and my palate enjoys it, I can have it with any food.

What is the most challenging thing for you about wine making? 

Getting the South African consumer to taste more black-owned wine brands.

What stands out for you when you taste a particularly great wine?

Balance of all components, and depth of character, complexity on both nose and palate – a wine that has many layers that just complement each other.

Do you have any “guilty pleasures” when it comes to wine?

Salted chocolate with heavy red wine and even white wines with prominent acidity. I think salt lifts the flavours of the red wine and the salt and chocolate combination adds a sweet mid-palate to the food-wine pairing.

Any funny wine stories?

A lot of people see winemaking as this glamorous job. I always get the impression that people think when we make wine classical music plays in the background and everything magically falls into place. The irony is that winemaking is very labour intensive and attention to detail is what makes everything fall into place.

More about Carmen Stevens Wines

Sauvignon Blanc 2018

Winemakers don’t come much more talented and passionate than Carmen Stevens. She’s worked her magic on a premium, pure and pristine South African Sauvignon Blanc, and it is divine.

This Sauvignon Blanc has an inviting summer expression on the nose, with lots of limes, ripe figs and just a drop of ripe passion fruit. The palate entrance is clean and zesty. Flavours of figs, passion fruit and lime fills the mouth while the mid-palate shows the concentration and depth of fruit. The zesty lime is alleviated by the creamy texture of the wine. A real refreshing wine with great balance of all components and a linger that is true to the Sauvignon Blanc varietal.

Enjoy this with a lovely chicken salad or any seafood (especially if it has a squeeze of lemon or lime!) for only R120 per 750ml bottle.

Carménère 2017

Yet another varietal that loves what the South African terroir can offer. A varietal that is synonymous with Chile and believed to be the sixth variety of Bordeaux. The result is a powerful wine that has depth of colour, aroma and flavour.

This premium wine’s deep vermillion colour and lovely spicy red fruit aromas will impress anyone at an elegant meal, or be a perfect gift for your favourite boss. Fresh with an almost minty detail gives precision to the aroma and a real line to the palate.

Enjoy this pure and elegantly textured red wine with poultry, lamb, roast vegetables or smoked meats/fish/poultry at R390 per 750ml bottle.

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