My sweet winemaking journey

Unathi Mantshongo didn't know anything about winemaking.
Unathi Mantshongo didn't know anything about winemaking.
Image: Supplied

I was born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. I went to school there until I was in Grade 10, when we went to live in Boksburg on the East Rand, Gauteng, where I completed my schooling.

Growing up, the only liquor I knew about was beer. I knew nothing about wine and I definitely had never heard of winemaking as a career.

In fact, I only learned how to pronounce "oenology" when I was standing in line to register at Stellenbosch University! My mother applied for a bursary from the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (DAFF) for me to study for a BSc in viticulture and oenology.

... my mom got a call. I answered, because she was driving but when she heard it was from DAFF she stopped the car on the side of the highway to talk to them. They were offering me a comprehensive bursary that covered my studies, books, food and accommodation. She talked, took down notes, asked questions and made the tough decision there and then to send me to Stellenbosch to study winemaking. My mom turned the car around and we headed back to the East Rand Mall to buy me bedding for res.

When we got home my mom and I googled "winemaking" to find out what it was all about. I still wasn't sure what I was going to be studying! My mom was more concerned than I was.

She assured me that if I didn't like it, I could get a job and pay back the sponsors or graduate and study something else. I saw it as a new experience, but had no idea of how much hard work was involved.

Being a black student at Stellenbosch was pretty difficult. It was almost like being invisible. But I did make some good and interesting friends there from all over the world.

It was also hard because our lectures were in Afrikaans.

Studying winemaking was literally a new experience every day for me, because I'd never even seen a vine in my life. I remember being very surprised the first time we went to the university farm. I was studying science, so I wondered what we were doing farming. Then I realised that my other major was actually about growing grapes!

The first time I tasted wine was in my third year. We had to experiment and make our own wine. It tasted terrible. I couldn't believe people were drinking it. I couldn't believe it took four years to study to make something that was quite tough to swallow.

It was only in my final year when we got to taste some expensive wines, that I tasted something that I thought was drinkable. Only when I started appearing in magazines, because I was a black woman working on wine farms, did we tell people that I'd studied winemaking, with the disclaimer that it was "very different to beer".

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