The path to becoming a great winemaker is rarely a smooth one. For Carmen Stevens of Amani Vineyards, the trek was more arduous than for most. As one of South Africa’s first black female winemakers, she faced numerous hurdles along the way. Early on, Stevens not only had to deal with the usual difficulties that all aspiring winemakers do, but she had to do so in the twilight of her country’s vicious apartheid rule. The path might seem to have been difficult, but her story is surprising.
Through vision and talent, as well as some unlikely support, Stevens emerged as one of South Africa’s most exciting winemaking talents—her 2007 uQamata, for Xavier Flouret, is particularly remarkable. She recently shared with us thoughts on her role as a trailblazer, South Africa’s place in the wine world and, most important to her, the wines she crafts at Amani.
WINE ENTHUSIAST: Achieving what you have, you must have faced some resistance along the way.
CARMEN STEVENS: I’m going to be very honest: When I studied, I got a lot of in-your-face [questioning]. And I really struggled with that. And I asked myself, am I making the right decision to actually get into the wine industry? At the end of the day, would I really be happy with the career path I chose? And I can honestly say that from the first day that we started meeting the winemakers of South Africa, I was completely amazed at being a female, being from a completely different background, being not a white person, I was respected for what I was trying to get into my life. I mean, I’ve never been to any winery where people asked me ‘what are you doing?’… Nothing like that. As a matter of fact, I only got the opposite: I was welcomed.
W.E.: That open-mindedness among South Africa’s wine professionals must have had an impact on the wines produced there, especially post-apartheid. Has South Africa developed its own unique style of wine?
CS: You have a distinct mineral taste, but also what I would characterize as a very good blend between an Old and New World style of wine. You can have the power of the New World, but then you can have the flintiness and acidity of the Old World.
W.E.: The wines that you produce at Amani have won numerous awards. What makes them so successful?
CS: The owners are from Oklahoma, and there was lots of money available to really build up the vineyards, and we really invest a lot of time and money and effort into what we do in them. But also in the cellar, I have really fantastic equipment…[and can pay] more attention to smaller details.
W.E.: And what are the results of those efforts?
CS: I would say the wines I make, firstly, have an appealing, sweet, ripe, berry nose profile. It shows the sun and reminds me of holiday time. On the palate, the introduction is often fresh and citrus-like, followed by ripe sweet fruit and a finish with a salty mineral aspect that pulls the flavors together and adds to the lingering aftertaste. The wine gives the impression of sweetness without being so.