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Insight into the ever-growing township wine market

This article first appeared in City Press.

05 Feb 2017

The Soweto Wine and Lifestyle Festival is a 72-hour celebration of music, food, markets, urban farming and all the good things in life. Arriving at Morara Wine & Spirits Emporium in Mofolo Central, Soweto, I’m greeted by cowboy-like saloon doors leading to a small but impeccably laid-out boutique store. Bottles of wine on shelves and stands and in cupboards grace every wall your gaze falls on.

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Sitting on a suede chair and reading the newspaper is Mnikelo Mangciphu, owner of the emporium, legs folded and head swaying along to the ambient sounds of the light classical music he is bumping in the store.

We start chatting and right away he shares a funny story about a male customer who once walked into Morara in search of a bottle of wine for his wife. Turns out the wine was for the man himself, but he was embarrassed by the fact that he enjoys the beverage. “Real men”, of course, drink beer and spirits, not wine. “You know, as a black man, people think you are a sissy for drinking wine,” says Mangciphu with a little smile.

The understated but imposing entrepreneur and partner in the Soweto Wine and Lifestyle Festival has made a career out of trying to change this misconception and educate people about the joys of drinking wine. He believes in being hands-on when it comes to his business. He says it’s important to ensure that accurate, quality information is given to his growing clientele.

Being one of few black wine merchants in the township has its challenges. “An obvious one is the fact that our wine is made in the Western Cape. But interestingly enough, wine is consumed the most in Gauteng,” says Mangciphu. The drink, he says, can be intimidating – from knowing what wine should be paired with which kind of food to the alienating European jargon used in wine circles. This has been a turn-off for consumers in what Mangciphu calls the country’s “main market”, black people.

I agree. I mean, why call them sommeliers when you could call them wine stewards? The main idea behind this classy but laid-back establishment is to bring the wine lifestyle down from the penthouses of the affluent to street level. When he talks about wine, Mangciphu becomes dead serious, the rest of the world stops existing.

“Through the years we have managed to convert a decent amount of consumers to become wine drinkers,” he says. But he adds that there is a way to go before wine producers are convinced that they will receive a viable return on their investments in his market.

“Till this very day it is difficult for wine producers to believe that black people can appreciate wine.”

This is one of the reasons it’s important for him to pour his efforts into bringing the knowledge of wine culture to the hood in a space where producers can exhibit and sell their wares to black people – one that isn’t intimidating to the clients.

Mangciphu’s journey started with the vision of a boutique that also sells spirits, but after a while he realised that “wine needs more time, so we shifted focus”. It was a good move because the store, he says, is selling more wine than ever before. “With the rand-dollar exchange, wineries are beginning to find that it is making more business sense to cater to the main market.”

So what is Mangciphu’s idea of the perfect wine? Dry red, he tells me, will always have a special place in his life. But as far as his customers’ palates go, he says that black wine drinkers seem to prefer a healthy balance between sweet and dry. “One bottle comes to mind, the Lord Somerset soft, smooth red, which strikes a good balance and is enjoyed by beginner drinkers as well as more experienced people.”

And how did he fall for wine? Born and bred in the same neighbourhood where his business is, Mangciphu first got bitten by the wine bug when he was on holiday in the Cape.

He enrolled at the Cape Wine Academy, where he learnt his skills. Today he is a co-director of the academy and he’s doing his part to give back to the young, black and unemployed.

“In 2013 we were fortunate enough to partner with the department of tourism and together we ran a 12-month-long, full-time learnership. A thousand unemployed students were given the skills to become sommeliers.” Eight hundred of these students graduated and now work in the field of food and hospitality, advising chefs and restaurant owners on all things wine-related.

The longer I hang out in the shop, the more at home I feel. By the time I leave, I’m ready to recommend to everyone I know that they should head over to Morara Wine Emporium for any one of the many events they have – cookouts, pinotage nights, food pairings and, obviously, wine tastings.

“On the streets, perceptions are changing about wine,” says Mangciphu. That’s because people like him have a burning desire to establish a culture of drinking the fruit of the vine in the kasi.

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