Durban - Nongcebo “Noni” Langa, formerly of Pietermaritzburg, is sipping from the glass of sweet success and is now bursting with ambition to go places in the viticulture industry.
Langa, 28, was appointed winemaker at Delheim Estate last month. Delheim Estate is a celebrated winery based in Stellenbosch, a Western Cape town known internationally for its wine routes.
“It’s unbelievable to have reached this level, having started as an intern at Delheim Estate,” Langa enthused.
Langa has been entrusted with ensuring that each vintage produced at Delheim, located at the foothills of the Simonsberg mountain, enhanced their brand.
What makes her rise at the late Spatz Sperling’s family-run operation outstanding was her growing up in an Imbali township home where wine rarely graced their dining table.
“As a teenager, I managed an odd spot of JC Le Roux or Nederburg wines. “Where I come from, wine was not a big part of our lives,” she said.
Since her move into the industry, her family now has a greater appreciation for wine. However, not everyone who engages with Langa immediately believes she’s an expert.
When she tells people at wine tastings she’s a winemaker and familiar with its nuances, “they look at me funny”.
“A black person in viticulture, a winemaker?,” is the expression she has noticed at times. “They only believe me when I start talking about wines. That’s when they realise I know my stuff.
It is nice to bring that shock into people’s lives sometimes,” she said. How she got into the industry was borne out of her desire “to be different and adventurous”.
Langa said her sights were not set on the professions most students pursued. The former St Nicholas Diocesan and Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High pupil received a scholarship to attend Stellenbosch University where she eventually graduated with a BSc in viticulture and oenology.
It was during a career talk session facilitated by the Department of Agriculture, in her high school days, that her zest for winemaking budded. “One of the things they said was we would get the chance to travel the world. That has always been my desire and that’s how I got here,” she said.
She named Ntsiki Biyela, the first black woman winemaker in South Africa, who emerged in the 1990s, as a role model.
“I work closely with her, she has her own brand now. I want young black people to look at me as a role model and to know that they can make their mark by doing things out of the ordinary,” she said.
Langa said she has worked out that to be successful at winemaking, “you must be curious, have the desire to learn more and better the things you did previously”.
“If not, you will be stuck in a cycle. Paying attention to the advancements in technology, new trends around the world, what changes in the weather brings to your wine, those are the signs of a good winemaker,” she said.
Langa said there’s never an end to learning as she works continuously on consuming knowledge on wine tastes, terminology (mostly French) and tricks of the trade. She said there was always an appropriate wine for each season, dish and occasion, but the choice largely rested with the individual.
“On a summer’s day when you consume foods like salads and seafood, a white wine works better. “Red wines are preferred in winter when you eat hearty and rich food,” she said.
Langa said Delheim specialised in cabernet sauvignon (red) variants of wine. “Cabernet sauvignon, like most grapes we grow in South Africa, has its origins in France. “It’s a big juicy red grape.
This wine is good with steaks and stews. It is one of my favourites and we produce some of the best cabernet sauvignon wines,” she said. Langa explained that the local soil, atmosphere and elevation are factors that contributed to the growth of the vine.
“Stellenbosch’s weather allows for enough ripening, which brings out its sugars. If you grow in an area that is too cold, the grapes won’t ripen properly and it will affect the taste,” she said.
Given her career trajectory, Langa appreciates the role played by her parents, Nelisiwe and Sibongiseni Ngubo, who always encouraged and supported education excellence from her younger days.
With the attitude that she still has much to learn, she is currently enrolled for a business of wine management course, at the University of Cape Town.
She joined Delheim as an intern and became a full-time member in 2019. Delheim has a pioneering history, through the efforts of Sperling and others, who were instrumental in transforming wine estate legislation.
Sperling was one of the trio of founders of the first-of-its-kind “Stellenbosch Wine Route”. There was a time when Langa felt rejected by the industry, and couldn't understand what she was doing wrong.
“But that’s when I met Roelof Lotriet, Delheim’s recently appointed cellarmaster. He has guided me and showed me a different path and outlook of the wine industry,” said Langa.
“Nongcebo has proven herself time and time again, showing not only her winemaking leadership skill, but talent and deep insight over the past four vintages at Delheim. It is now time for her to express herself in a more senior position,” said Lotriet.