Sani wines on ambitious journey


Mamohlakola Letuka

A MASERU family’s bid to have their wine served at the royal wedding of Prince Harry in England later this month hit a snag last month after it was rejected.

According to Mothiba Thamae, the son of the Phatela Thamae who owns Sani Winery, based in the South of Maseru, they made their bid to supply the wine way later than schedule.

He said they are however still in talks with the British High Commission office in Pretoria.

“When we contacted the High Commission in Pretoria, we were told that the wine selection for the wedding had already been done,” Mothiba said.

“We were however, advised that there would be a ceremony in celebration of the royal wedding in Pretoria later in May so we can still send the wine there.”

He said they had hoped to use the wedding as a strategy to market their wine given that they are from a small country that is completely surrounded by South Africa which is one of the biggest wine producers in the world.

Lesotho enjoys a cordial relationship with the United Kingdom owing to the similarities in their monarchy system of governance. Lesotho was also a colony of the United Kingdom and relations have continued through the Commonwealth.

Lesotho’s Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso is also the only African monarch invited to the wedding.

The Thamaes embarked onto the winery project in 2008 after a tourist, Eric Verhaak, who saw their table vines encouraged him to embark onto wine production.

Previously, Thamae was a mere trader of fruits and vegetables at the Masianokeng junction in the south of Maseru.

Mothiba said Verhaak, who also happens to be a wine maker in Paarl, South Africa, took soil samples that he got tested in South Africa.

“When the results came he pledged to hand hold us through the process of establishing a winery as we did not have any experience,” Mothiba said.

Narrating his journey, Thamae said he had always loved farming from childhood but social expectation sent him off to gold mines in neighbouring South Africa.

He however, came back a few years later and upon his arrival, the farmer started sowing vegetable seedlings for commercial market.

“I was the first person to sell cabbage seedling at Masianokeng junction,” Thamae said.

He quickly went back to his gardening duties leaving his son, Mothiba, to take over the interview.

Mothiba said they bought and planted 500 vines in 2008 and had their harvest four years later where the yield of 200kg of grapes gave them 50 bottles of white wine.

After the first harvest, the family never looked back and today they produce at least 400 bottles of white wine each year.

The family hoped to venture into sweet wine but were deterred by their failure to control the temperatures in their still ill-equipped winery.

“We have grown from the initial 50 bottles to 400 or more depending on the harvest. We have tried to venture into sweet wine but then we ended up using the 100 bottles that we produced as sweeteners,” Mothiba said.

“We have also planted new vines for red wine and we have so far only managed to get 250 liters from the harvest. The wine has not yet been sold commercially.”

At M150 for each bottle, growth has been at snail’s pace for the Thamaes and Mothiba says they hope to secure funds to broaden their operation so that it can become commercially viable.

So far, the winery cannot export its products as it has to increase their volumes first before they can apply for their exportation license.

The Thamaes however, take solace from the local hotels, liquor stores and restaurants who have supported the business and Mothiba attests that they are even failing to satisfy the local market.

Mothiba said they also hope to increase their capacity so that they do not have to wait for the few barrels that use to ferment their wine.

The whole operation relies on just eight barrels but these are inadequate and the family only has to wait for their sales so that they can add two barrels every year.

A brand-new barrel stores 225 litres of wine and costs at least M10 000 while a used one costs anything from M3000 upwards.

He said they have tried to secure financial assistance from the government through its various schemes that support local businesses but that has not helped.

“The barrels are not supposed to be empty for long, so we have to wait for the wine that is in the barrels to ferment before we can ferment more. The process is longer and it means our capacity remains low.

“We also need electricity if we are to grow the business and be able to produce more. For instance, to produce sweet wine, the temperature needs to be controlled. There are times we need to stop fermentation so that the wine doesn’t go sour but without electricity we can’t do that.”

The family uses torturous manual processes to control the temperature in their makeshift cellar by blocking the windows so that the barrels are not exposed to direct sunlight.

Initially they used to use a cellar in Roma but because of the long distance, it also became expensive and they have since converted one of their rooms into a cellar.

“It was difficult to monitor our product so we resorted to coming back here.”

The vines also rely on rain water and Mothiba says they long to have boreholes so that they can enhance their production.

“Every cent of profit made is regenerated for production since we are not making any significant money as yet. We have salaries to pay for the seven full time and five part time employees,” Mothiba said.

He said their dream is to expand the vineyard from a hectare to five hectares.

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