What started out as a pilot project growing grapes and producing wine in KwaZulu-Natal is now, nearly 10 years later, a vast vineyard of Villard blanc grapes that spans three municipalities, with social upliftment at its heart.

Despite high humidity, sandy soil, financial challenges, and a lack of skilled labour, a Villard blanc cultivar is being grown, harvested, and turned into wine across three municipal borders in KZN. 

With their Seventeen87 project, the Enterprise iLembe Economic Development Agency, a government-owned organisation based in Ballito, KZN, is attempting to address not just socio-economic divides in agriculture, but also the politically loaded wine industry. 

Barossa Valley vineyards near Angaston, South Australia

A Labour Of Love

Named after the auspicious birthyear of King Shaka Zulu, historically one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu kingdom, the wine is a labour of love.

It is also an exercise in patience, since growing grapes is hardly the fastest way to economic growth, with the first harvest only viable three years after planting these particular French hybrid grapes   

Since 2012, the project has been under the guidance of Enterprise iLembe’s viticulturalist Daniel Maerkla Cape import to the region with a solid background in winemaking 

The vineyards are spread across the municipalities of Mandeni, Maphumuloand Ndwedwe, where cooler climes and more suitable inland conditions have helped to establish these plants, chosen for their hardier temperament, and their resistance to mildew and other diseases  

But it’s not just the environmental conditions that pose a challenge. It’s an entirely rural project, and the communities involved had never seen a grapevine before, let alone knew how to tend to them.  

“They’re not exactly impressive-looking plants!” laughs Daniel, explaining that these dried out “sticks in the ground” had to show their first green shoots before the local communities even entertained the idea that this could be something to buy into

It was a tough sell, but the recruits are finally seeing the potential of this pilot project. 

The Seventeen 87 vineyard


The 46 locals employed under the Seventeen87 umbrella are the chief beneficiaries of this endeavour, while Enterprise iLembe operates and oversees the project on their behalf, offering the opportunity to both empower and train them. 

The name is significant for obvious reasons: It’s a nod to indigenous heritage, and the intent is to make it a source of pride for those involved. 

There is also the obvious knock-on effect of creating new jobs for 46 people in a small community. “We’ve seen the positive effects these jobs have had on these small economies,” Daniel says. 

“The first two to three years formed the biggest part of the training. We taught the community everything from pruning to spraying, and they were nearly in tears when we had to cut back for the first time, essentially reducing the plants back to sticks! he chuckles. 

Seventeen 87 wines
Seventeen 87 wines

Solidifying The Brand

Currently, the total of 10.8 hectares produces around 12 000 bottles per annum at the winery, based at Sugar Rush Park, just outside of Ballito. 

The stock is limited to brand activations and events, but with support for a social upliftment project will come the increased supply, and the hope is to increase the vineyards to about 35 hectares.   

One of their main aims is also sustainability, says Nathi Nkomzwayo, CEO of Enterprise iLembe.

This entails the inevitable juggle between cost and income, which led to the decision to bring in five other cultivars under the Seventeen87 umbrella, from a cabernet sauvignon to a chenin blanc. 

Grown elsewhere, yet produced within the same winery, the alternative grapes have helped solidify the brand until the project can secure its market.  

The wines retail between R45 and R75. 

Getting There 

SAA flies to Durban daily from Johannesburg and Cape Town. Book your tickets today. 

Words by Melanie Reeder-Powell