Nederburg's city girl

Monday, 26 November, 2012
It’s not often you find someone working under the wide skies of the vineyards, who chooses to live in a City Bowl apartment. Nederburg’s new viticulturist, Unathi Mantshongo (26) prefers the daily commute into the Winelands from Cape Town, so she doesn’t lose contact with the “urban energy”.
“I love the city’s vibrancy. It’s what fuels me. And I have a great view of the mountain from my balcony.”

By day she’s a viticulturist, but by night and on weekends she’s making the most of the restaurants, food markets and the movies in her neighbourhood. Sea Point’s promenade is where she goes for her regular run, while Table Mountain is her new favourite for hikes.

“I am so totally into wine and food pairing that I have to exercise a lot to keep in shape.” Slender, long-necked and graceful, she looks like a dancer but she says it’s athletics that keep her looking trim.

It was only after googling the word “viticulturist” she found out what she might want to do after leaving school. “I was looking at bursary options and that’s how the word came up. I grew up in Umtata and then as a teenager moved to Boksburg. I didn’t know much about the Cape and even less about the wine industry.”

Now a vineyard specialist for Nederburg, South Africa’s most awarded winery, there’s no other job she could possibly want. “Imagine this,” she says making a wide sweep with her slim, elegant arms, “my ‘office’ changes every day and it has no walls. I never know what to expect when I come to work in the mornings and I have to think on my feet. It is amazingly exciting. I’m working with a team who are so technologically ahead it takes my breath away.  I’m learning, learning, learning, every day.

“I am exposed to lesser-known varietals and new clones of established cultivars that we use in some of our trailblazing wines like Ingenuity. You have no idea what a thrill it is to work with vineyards all over the Cape, to understand the uniqueness of each and what specifically they can produce. I get to work in new wine growing areas, learning about the potential of new sites and I get to work with long-established suppliers who are teaching me the most extraordinary vineyard management detailing imaginable, so we can get the very best fruit possible, irrespective of the vintage conditions.

“One of the greatest aspects of my job is being part of a closely aligned network that has to ensure consistency from one vintage to the next when working with popular wines for global markets like Baronne. The quality of the fruit is critically important in achieving this.

“On the same day as I work in a vineyard where fruit is being grown for a major wine like this, I might also visit a truly tiny vineyard, coaxing the best out of the vines destined for a very limited-edition wine like Nederburg’s iconic Edelkeur.”

It’s the range of activities, the fact that she’s extending her skills virtually daily and stimulated at such a high level that makes the daily commute worth every minute of it. But then she is used to putting her head down to get what she wants.

Moving to Stellenbosch for her four-year degree, she learned the discipline of sticking it out. “I can’t even begin to describe the immensity of the transition.  It was bad enough making the switch from school to university but doing it in a strange place and in Afrikaans, which was not exactly my first language, was very taxing. I just switched off from everything else and focused on my studies. I kept telling myself I didn’t have a choice, that I had to make it. I studied all the time. It was a way to feel in control.”

She remembers fellow students on campus who weren’t able to tough it out. Some dropped out.

Even before she had graduated, she had secured her first job, as a viticulturist with KWV, where she spent four years. She joined Distell last spring.

A member of the Nederburg team since June, Unathi refuses to pick a favourite wine varietal or even wine. “Are you kidding! There are so many outstanding choices. Right now I’m loving them all. It’s like living in a paradise of the senses.”

She hopes to extend her thrill for wine to more South Africans. “A lot of people enjoy wine but almost at arm’s length. There is still a resistance to the way it gets talked about. Most don’t think about tastes of peach and litchi and berries and stuff like that.  Wine tastes like wine but you can make it relevant by talking about it in a language people use in their daily lives and communicate with them in a way that means something to them. Use the metaphors of perfume, fashion, cars, music and you can open up a whole new universe. I just love the idea of that possibility!”

Would she ever think about winemaking? “Oh no. Never. It’s too dark way down in the cellar. Give me the light any day.”