HEARD IT ON THE GRAPEVINE: The Black Cellar Club aims to help black Africans get to know and enjoy wine. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

A new initiative is reaching out to black Africans interested in furthering their wine knowledge.

Not everyone knows their Chenin Blanc from their Chardonnay. Indeed, many black Africans across the continent don’t care much for wine, beyond broad descriptors like “red” and “white”. But a group of sommeliers and wine professionals are seeking to change that with the recently launched Black Cellar Club (Blacc).

“We want to create a platform where we share ideas within the community,” says chairman Gregory Mutambe. “We have seen that within the black middle class, there is the readiness to pay high prices – you see it in whiskies and brandies – so, it’s not about affordability; there is money there. We just need to raise awareness.

“We’re trying to make wine less intimidating to people who want to be in the wine industry as sommeliers or just to enjoy wine.”

Mutambe, who is head sommelier at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa in Cape Town, describes his career in wine as serendipity. “I thought being a sommelier was simply a job,” he says. “It does pay the bills, of course, but what I didn’t see coming was that being a sommelier would turn into a lifestyle. It’s an incredible way of making a living.”

A lot of research goes into putting together a comprehensive wine list, which is why Mutambe often updates his wine menu and is always on the lookout for new wines. On a daily basis, that means attending tastings, creating pairings, meeting with suppliers, training staff and more. It also means interacting with hotel guests and making recommendations.

“We not only connect the wine-loving public to the wineries but also guide them on how best to enjoy their wines in terms of the correct glassware, serving temperature and the right food to go with their choice of wine,” he says. “We create experiences and we are always keen to share our knowledge and new discoveries.”

When invited to judge wine competitions, and Mutambe regularly is, he might have to taste over 90 wines in a day, writing detailed notes about every single one.

It’s the same with Pearl Oliver, deputy secretary-general of Blacc and head sommelier at the Taj Cape Town.

“I never thought of becoming a sommelier until I started working on a wine estate and was exposed to wine for the first time,” she says. “Now that I am one, I can say that there wouldn’t have been any other career more suitable to my personality.”

Olivier likes the fact that no two days are the same. Sometimes she’ll walk into a calm day that includes checking emails, meeting with suppliers, touching base with management, serving dinner, and making her exit by midnight. On other days, she’ll be so rushed she’ll make it to 1am without remembering whether or not she ate at all.

“I always knew I would have to put in extra effort and work long hours,” she says. ”But the wine culture in our country is an important one. It teaches discipline, respect and love for the soil we walk on.”

Olivier is keen to expand wine perceptions, “one sip at a time”. For example, if you tell her you hate Chardonnay and only drink Sauvignon Blanc but want to try something different, it’s possible you could find yourself falling in love with an un-wooded Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc that may have technical similarities.

It’s about making wine less intimidating, something sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka strives to do.

“I’m a wine lover for certain but I’m more of a casual, approachable sommelier,” says Nyamudoka, who works at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town. “I try to use the same approach in and out of work to make wine enjoyment simple and straightforward. Wine is a keystone to pleasure but is buttressed by academics, intellect, science, history and, to an extent, psychology.

“Our role is important because we are able to bring all that into the restaurant environment and translate this conundrum into a dining experience.”

Like his fellow sommeliers, Nyamudoka has come to realise being a sommelier is hard work, despite the fact that wine is associated with relaxation and enjoying food at leisure.

“Call it fate, but I believe the profession chose me,” he says. “I took up the opportunity because I felt it was something I would enjoy.

“I was quick to realise it requires not only knowledge, but the proper approach, thinking process and respect for different opinions in a polarised industry. It’s demanding, contrary to what I thought it would be.”

What has helped the sommeliers, including Luvo Ntezo, deputy chairman of Blacc and head sommelier at the One&Only Cape Town is furthering their wine education.

While he was working as a pool porter, a guest asked him to open a bottle of wine. But he didn’t know how to use a corkscrew and had to ask for help.

“The first time I tried wine I was about 20,” he says. “It was something unexpected; a different experience to anything I had tried before! My family had never been big wine drinkers and I didn’t have any interest or knowledge of wine. At the time, I just needed cash to keep me going. I just needed a job.”

The next day, Ntezo asked winemaker John Loubser to take him under his wing and teach him all there was to know about wine. From there, his passion grew.

“Some of the most recognised sommeliers in the world come from countries that don’t even produce wine, which goes to show the relevance of academic study.

“My passion is to discover new wineries and emerging terroirs from South Africa. For example, the wines of the Swartland were not well known but the region is now fast gaining a reputation for exciting blends from micro-managed vineyards with young winemakers. I always try to encourage people to go off the beaten track.”

His day-to-day job involves ensuring hotel guests have memorable experiences. Whether it’s encouraging oenophiles to try prestigious vintages or helping people get to know up-and-coming South African boutique wines, it’s about taking taste buds on an amazing exploration of some of the best wines the world has to offer.

“Being a sommelier is more than just having a passion for wines,” Ntezo says.

“Wine can’t just be about taste, colour, and ‘mouth feel’, it must also tell a story. As a sommelier, you have to be that storyteller. And there are some amazing South African stories of the wines and the people behind them which need to be told.”

Follow @blacc_2016 on Twitter or contact Aubrey Ngcungama via [email protected] for information on how to become a member. Learn more about wine through the Cape Wine Academy (www.capewineacademy.co.za) and the Sommeliers’ Association of South Africa (www.sommeliers.org.za).