In Conversation With Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Banele Vakele

Banele Vakele, winemaker at Tembela Wines, is more than a rising star in the world of winemaking; he represents a new generation of winemakers who are breaking barriers and redefining the South African wine industry.

BORN AND RAISED in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, Banele began a journey to winemaking that is characterised by determination and inspiration drawn from the land that shaped him. After completing his degree in oenology and viticulture at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch, he entered the wine world via a three-year stint as part of the Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG) Protégé programme, with time spent at Ernie Els, Groot Constantia and Savage Wines. Today he continues to nurture and shape his passion for winemaking, resulting in wines of exceptional quality and character.

Growing up in Khayelitsha, what inspired you to pursue a career in winemaking, considering it might not have been a common choice in your community?

I wasn’t really introduced to anything wine-related until I stepped outside Khayelitsha. So my inspiration for winemaking didn’t come from home. We were never really exposed to any vineyards until I started high school across from Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate – that’s where my love for wine started. It’s all about being curious and interested in something unknown and wanting to find out more and more about it.

What does Tembela Wines mean to you and how do you express your personal style and background in your winemaking? With Tembela Wines, I try to express my personality in the winemaking and also in the label and design. The label shows two women wearing isiXhosa traditional attire, which represents something I’m really passionate about – my heritage and where I come from. That keeps me grounded and humble. The women are carrying wine barrels, and that represents where I am now and my love for wine. So the wine label blends two things that are really important in my life.

What does it mean to you to be a gra­ duate of the CWG Protégé programme?

I really enjoyed it and learnt a lot during the programme. It’s not only about winemaking; you get training in life skills as well, get to travel overseas, get exposed to other winemakers and go to tastings. I always struggled with tasting wines and how to describe them, but listening to more experienced people helped me a lot; just learning from them and absorbing as much as possible. They are always willing to help out whenever they can and are trying to be supportive as much as possible.

Travelling overseas was really big for me. Coming from a previously disadvantaged background, you can’t just afford a plane ticket to France and stay there for two months. So that helps you a lot in terms of international exposure and gives you the opportunity to learn different ways of making wine.

How has the CWG Protégé programme influenced you as a winemaker?

My winemaking philosophy is very close to that of Duncan Savage’s from Savage Wines, who was my mentor during the programme. That gives you an idea of how big an influence the programme has been on me in terms of my winemaking philosophy and how I want to approach making wine. For me, it’s all

about starting in the vineyards and knowing that you can never make great wines if your vineyards are not at their best. I’ve always seen winemaking as studying the vineyards and that quality comes out if you treat your vines well. If you’re able to produce really good, quality grapes, it makes everything easier in the cellar. Lessons have been learnt over the years – you can never make miracles in the cellar if the grapes are bad. You need to start with the basics. If you do the basics right, hopefully everything falls in line.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring winemakers, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds who may be looking to break into the industry?

If you work hard, sometimes it will pay off. But working hard does not only mean doing a good job; you have to pay attention to detail. The industry is there and open to everyone. The CWG is like a springboard: you get to be part of a bigger network, a network of really good winemakers. Use that wisely. You have three years there, make sure you grow your network and that your name is known. Don’t shy away; make yourself known. Be open to new things, be willing to learn, give it your all – and be present in the moment.