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This South African winemaker is savouring the sweet taste of success

Nongcebo Langa, a winemaker, holding a bottle of wine at Delheim Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo: Delheim Wines

Nongcebo Langa fell in love with wine after a chance encounter with a winemaker at a fair. She went on to study the craft at South Africa’s renowned Stellenbosch University and her passion and mastery of the industry’s technical processes has resulted in her creating award-winning wines, like the 2022 Delheim Gewürztraminer.


Taurai Maduna, bird story agency


As Nongcebo Langa walked between the barrels of a beverage enjoyed worldwide, a bubbling sound could be heard from the gas emitted during fermentation - part of the journey of every great wine. It's a sound Langa said now makes her feel at home - and stirs her imagination.


“We have fermentation, then you age (the wine). You can age three months, six months, nine months, 18, 24 months to five years for MCC - Méthode Cap Classique. This is the method used to make South African sparkling wines,” she explained.


Langa didn't grow up expecting to make wine. It took a careers fair and a chance encounter with a winemaker there to open her eyes to what is now her career as a South African winemaker and one of the few black women in the industry.

Nongcebo Langa, a winemaker, posing for a photo at Delheim Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa. February 2023. Photo: Taurai Maduna, bird story agency

“It hasn't been our thing, but now it's becoming our thing,” Langa said of her community's interest in wine.


Nongcebo grew up in Pietermaritzburg’s Imbali township where family gatherings were stocked with beer and spirits. This is no longer the case; because of her knowledge of wines, she has become the unofficial ‘family sommelier’ and wine is now a popular choice at family functions.


“'I got this wine, how do I drink it, how do I enjoy it?' are some of the questions I get asked by those close to me who have started to enjoy drinking wine,” she explained.


KwaZulu-Natal Province where Langa comes from is known for its sugarcane production and dairy and cattle farming and the thought of studying wines never crossed her mind till she visited the careers fair and heard a winemaker there talk about their work.

Nongcebo Langa, a winemaker, holding a glass of wine in Delheim Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo: Delheim Wines

After the fair, the idea of making wine seemed like an exciting challenge, so she decided to give it a go by enrolling at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape Province to study Viticulture and Oenology.


“Viticulture is a study of grapes and the grapevine. From the soil to the insects in the ground to the weather, the climates, everything around the growth of the vine. And then Oenology is the study of wine. So wine sciences, the microbes, the machinery, the processing of the grape itself, once it gets into the cellar,” Langa explained.


She went further in her education and pursued a Master's program, focusing on the influence of wildfire smoke on vineyards.


“It's actually becoming much more relevant in the wine industry all over the world where we are seeing a lot of wildfires around winemaking regions. So my research actually focused on trying to help out once the incidence of this has occurred,” she said.

Nongcebo Langa, a winemaker, holding her award at the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year Award. November 18, 2023. Photo: Diners Club International

After completing her studies in 2018, Langa interned at the renowned Delheim Wines in Stellenbosch - and never left. She rose through the ranks and was appointed winemaker in May 2022.


That same year, she produced the 2022 Delheim Gewürztraminer - a white wine classified as off-dry - which won her the 2023 Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year Award.


“The Gewürztraminer is quite a nice and unique grape in South Africa. I think there's about maybe five or so wine farms that actually make wine out of Gewürztraminer. It's exciting to work with and the flavours that come of it are very, very amazing. It's a nice combination of fruits, you've got a nice balance between the acid and the sugar on the palate”, Langa said.


Her award came with prize money and a trip to any wine region in the world. She is planning on going to Bordeaux in France in September.


“It's one of those regions that are iconic in the world. The wines that come from there are very well known. And, you know, the quality that comes from there is also well-known in the world.”

Nongcebo Langa, a winemaker, holding a glass of wine at Delheim Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa. February 2024. Photo: Taurai Maduna, bird story agency

Langa plans to travel when it's harvest season to learn as much as she can - both inside the winery and out.


“Wine is a lot about culture as well as the drink and the winemaking itself,” she said, adding that she considers her profession both a science and an art.


“Everywhere you go in the world, you're going to learn the same thing about winemaking and then how you express that science, because you learn the science of it, the basics of it, but how you express that, that's up to you.”


Langa is certainly in the right environment to grow as a winemaker; according to Statista, South Africa ranks eighth in wine production out of the top 10 traditional wine-producing countries globally.


As a wine master, Langa’s work involves monitoring thousands of litres of wine at various stages of production in the cellars. It also involves regularly tasting wine. In the white wine barrel fermentation cellar that houses the Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, she uses the ‘wine thief’ to get a wine sample from the barrel, so as to assess how the wine is fermenting.

Nongcebo Langa, a winemaker, holding a glass of wine in Delheim Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo: Delheim Wines

“As you can see this is raw wine, it won’t be as clear as you will find it in a shop, so it still has to go through a lot of processes and there is high CO2 (carbon dioxide) that keeps the particles in suspension and that is why it is cloudy. But it will settle down over time.”


Langa works closely with Delheim cellarmaster, Roelof Lotriet, who advised management to hire her when she was an intern. Lotriet was impressed with her work ethic and her curiosity. He recalled how she responded when he asked her what she wanted out of the internship, and she jokingly replied that she wanted his winemaker job.


“With wine, you’ve only got one shot on a vintage. There isn't a redo or undo button. What you do is what you do. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I don't think [Delheim] will be her end place, I think it'll be just the start of a fantastic career for her,” Lotriet said.


“I wanted to learn more and work under Roelof as well, it's just been quite a beautiful journey and I’ve adopted a lot of the philosophies that I have actually learned from him. And what he sort of preaches in the cellar. So that's been quite a fascinating and worthwhile journey. And then to be at Delheim so full of history, so full of traditions. It's been a learning experience,” Langa said.


Shame Mumba was one of the five panel of judges at the 43rd annual Diners Club Winemaker of the year awards. A certified sommelier and board member of the South African Sommelier Association board member, Mumba described Langa’s wine as having shown a lot more purity.

Nongcebo Langa holding a bottle of her 2022 Delheim Gewürztraminer after winning the 2023 Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year Award. November 18, 2023. Photo: Diners Club International

“The wine showed more identity, which simply means that sometimes you don't have to interfere too much in the making of the wine, but the less you make, the better the results will be like.”


Mumba added that winning such an award for a young winemaker was a huge confidence booster.


“It’s also a big inspiration for the young winemakers that want to become a winemaker and especially somebody of colour. That is even a massive boost for our industry as South Africa.”


So what makes a good wine? Langa is quick to point out that it’s a very personal choice. It’s about how one connects with the wine.


“I always say, I pair my wine with my mood and the company that I have. If I pick up a Rosé I know I’m going to be chilled by the pool or outside with the braai.”


She added that for a serious dinner, she would go for something like her cellar's Grand Reserve.


bird story agency


Useful links:

https://www.delheim.com/

https://dinersclub.co.za/news-events/winemaker-of-the-year/

https://www.statista.com/topics/11626/wine-industry-in-south-africa/#topicOverview

https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2024/01/south-african-wine-exports-see-volumes-fall-but-value-growth-increase/



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