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Carmen Stevens - an exciting new winemaker

Carmen Stevens makes good wine and she loves her job. There are other things you need to know about her, but that's the first thing that you notice and it's what she really enjoys talking about. 'This is the first year I have made my own wine. I spent most of the time at the tank just watching it. I'd come in at night and just look at it. It's the most exciting thing I've ever done and it's the only thing I want to do.'

Carmen has made two wines in the 1999 vintage. A Chenin Blanc to be released this year and a Pinotage that she is lovingly nursing to maturity for release in 2001. The Chenin Blanc receives an equal amount of her attention, but her heart clearly lies at the bottom of the Pinotage barrel.

'My personal favourite is Merlot. I like the link between eating the grapes and drinking the grapes, and I like drinking Merlot, but for a wine-maker, Pinotage is a bigger challenge, because you must make exactly the right decisions at exactly the right time.'

Winemaking is obviously a passion for Carmen, but what is the most exciting moment of winemaking? Carmen stops to think 'Umm, the moment when the grapes come in and you see them picked for the first time
or when you get to taste it.
or when it changes from sweet to dry.
and the colour. Definitely when you start to see the colour.
and now, when the Pinotage is in the wood, and you taste it, and you must decide on your own, how long to mature it?

'Especially for this Pinotage, the longer it stays in wood, the darker it becomes - it's almost black - a deep, deep red.' Carmen pauses again. 'Maybe after all the most exciting moment is when people taste it. Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux tasted it when he was here as Stellenbosch Farmer's Wineries' wine consultant and that was an important moment for me. He said the wine was a big wine and he liked it.'

For Carmen, wine-making is a scientific process, but a lot of what goes into making a good wine is inspiration - closely linked with asking for advice and then listening to it. Carmen acknowledges with gratitude the influence of her mentors - SFW Cellarmaster Wouter Pienaar and wine-maker Rasvan Macici.

'You as wine-maker make the decision - what's best for the wine. It is your decision, and they respect you for that - but it is very important to have someone who believes in you. You should be positive by yourself and be able to do everything yourself, but you need that encouragement.

'It never ceases to amaze me that you can take grapes and turn them into wine. My first year in the cellars I would taste every day, it's incredible how the wine changes within a few hours. You have to know your grapes, know your wine and I also believe that a wine-maker must know her vineyards. Travelling broadens perspectives, but I noticed when I was working in California how closely the Californian wine-makers watched their vines. This grape must come in at three o' clock tomorrow, they would say, because they knew that was the right time for that grape to come in. That's the way I want to make wine.'

The other things you might want to know about Carmen is that she is young, she is a woman in male-dominated industry and she also happens to be the first coloured female wine-maker in South Africa. But these things are of little importance. What makes speaking to Carmen so interesting is her passion for wine, her excitement about wine, and her total dedication to a career she sees as her life work.

'People must believe that the wine industry is for everyone - especially women. Go for it. This is a very exciting industry to be part of.'

Carmen's own tasting notes on her maiden vintage:
The Chenin Blanc - easy drinking, crisp and refreshing, lemons and citrus, a little bit of oak. Twelve percent was wood matured for three to four weeks to add a little complexity.

The Pinotage - is still young of course, but it's a big wine with a lovely colour, lots of berries, liquorice, what's nice - no acetone - it's big, it's fruity, complex - the tannins will need quite some time to mature.'

Stellenbosch Farmer's Winery (SEW), South Africa's largest producer and wholesaler of wines has pioneered the country's first fully-fledged black-empowerment project in the wine industry. The groundbreaking venture, trading as Papkuilsfontein Vineyards (Pty) Ltd, involves the development of a 975 hectare farm where quality grapes will be grown to create an own-label range as well as to supply SFW.

The purpose of the project is to promote the entry of historically disadvantaged communities into the wine producing process through ownership and the transfer of skills. What makes this unique is that the shareholders include black retailers and taverners as well as a local community trust representing both workers and residents in the area. The intention is for SFW to divest itself of the 49% shares it currently holds, with ownership ultimately vested in the black retailers and the local community.