The story of Joseph Dhafana –
Zimbabwean Refugee Turned Celebrity South African Winemaker
In October 2017, the first ever Team to represent Zimbabwe competed in France at the world blind tasting championships. I found myself intrigued by the stories surrounding the team which consisted of four gentlemen, also known as the “Zim Somms”. A couple of months ago I reached out to one of the Sommelier’s, Joseph Dhafana (aka the Wine Poet) via Instagram. He responded immediately, graciously offering to send me some wine and indulge me in my questions and curiosity.
Turned out, we had everything, yet nothing, in common with one another.
The year was 2008 when both myself and Joseph would arrive at separate ends of South Africa to build new lives.
Myself, a privileged white Canadian girl coming from a cushy upbringing – moving to South Africa on a tidal wave of romance and love.
Joseph, a black Zimbabwean born and bred in rural Chirumhanzu, who made the decision to flee from the tyranny of Robert Mugabe.
He told me, he just had enough. “There was nothing left to do but struggle. There was no food on the shelves, no money in circulation and no jobs available.” Joseph and his wife arrived first in Johannesburg with absolutely nothing. They slept on the streets for two weeks and eventually found a temporary home with a cousin.
Joseph applied for his asylum permit at a refugee camp in Musina, a border town in South Africa directly adjacent to Zimbabwe; a hopeful golden ticket for a brighter future in a new country.
While Joseph was sleeping on the streets, I settled into my sometimes challenging, but comfortable life in South Africa. Myself, in Johannesburg trying to decide what to cook for dinner, and Joseph who moved onwards to Cape Town not knowing where his next meal would come from.
A passion for wine still written in the stars and completely unbeknown to both of us.
After working a few years as a gardener for a fellow Zimbabwean, Joseph landed a job at a restaurant called the Black Sheep in the Swartland; starting again as a gardener and slowly working his way from dish washer, to barman, to waiter.
On the 7th of March, 2010, Joseph tried his first glass of wine; it was his 28th birthday. It was a glass of Pieter Cruythoff Brut Bubbly.
As time ticked forward in the Swartland, Joseph’s love and knowledge for wine accelerated as he worked his way up the ranks in the Black Sheep.
Well known winemakers Eben Sadie and Chris Mullineux would pick Joseph up on separate days and take him to taste wines from their barrels. Joseph still remembers vividly a day in 2013 when Chris Mullineux brought a glass of his white to Joseph and asked him about the acidity. It was the Mullineux White Blend. Joseph claims this to be his ‘ah ha’ moment in wine. He thought to himself, “how can Chris Mullineux ask this small rural boy if the acidity is balanced? Those guys never underrated or undermined anyone.” It was then, that Joseph also realized his natural flair and skill for tasting. He began to emerge from his self-identity of “small rural boy knowing nothing of wine” and embrace his natural talent for taste. He opened his mind to the beautiful world of South African wine and little did he know that world would soon give right back to him.
All of Joseph’s gut, grit and determination would finally start to pay off.
Joseph took part in the 2013 harvest with Chris Mullineux and recounts it as one of the most valuable experiences of his life. The Mullineaux Granite Chenin 2015 remains Joseph’s favorite wine.
In 2014 Joseph decided to produce his maiden vintage, a modest 400 bottle collection of 100% Syrah. Which sold out its first year of release.
In 2015, Joseph entered the blind wine tasting competition at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town. He came third, made it through to the finals and found himself representing South Africa in France that October. He also produced his second vintage of Mosi Flavian Syrah, the wine I had the pleasure to taste and review (notes below).
In 2017, Joseph produced another vintage under the label Mosi (which is still sitting in barrels) – the same year he represented Team Zimbabwe in France.
Fast forward to 2018 and he is on his 4th vintage.
Grapes for the Mosi range are sourced from Antebellum wine farm and hand harvested by a team from Wellington. When explaining his process, Joseph says that he first cools his grapes and follows with some good old-fashioned foot-stomping. Grapes are not destemmed, and only natural yeasts are utilized in the fermentation. Grapes are whole bunch fermented (carbonic maceration). Joseph has an affinity towards Crozes Hermitage Syrah, so he bases his Mosi Syrah on this style. He leaves his wines in barrel for an average of 14 months before bottling and the wines will generally sit in bottle for an average of 3-6 months before release.
A sketch of the Victoria Falls by artist Janine Muller is the image on his labels. Victoria Falls, also known as the Mosi-Oa Tunya directly translates into “the smoke that thunders”. It’s the world’s biggest waterfall that divides the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is a representation of the remaining beauty, rawness and attraction associated with Zimbabwe, which will always be Joseph’s true home.
I tried the Mosi Flavian Syrah for the first-time the other day. I found it elegantly light and fresh. Medium ruby in color with a slight watery garnet rim. Aromas of forest floor overwhelm the senses with some wet wood, leaves and stone, pine needles and mushroom. Fruit aromas of sour cherry, stewed prunes and spices such as cardamom and aniseed. On the palate the body is delightfully light and fun. More fruit presents itself and I got a distinct flavor of chocolate chili, well done toast and eucalyptus. The alcohol is 13%, sweetness level is dry, tannins and acidity are medium plus. The vines were grown on decomposed granite soil and this factor really presents itself in the wine. Overall, I found it very enjoyable and playful. Everyone should try it for themselves and share their notes to Joseph, he loves the feedback.
So what next for Joseph Tongai Dhafana? Well, if 2018 doesn’t look exciting enough, 2019 serves to be even bigger with the anticipated release of the “Zim Somm” documentary in New York City. The movie will document the four Sommeliers from Team Zimbabwe and their unique individual journeys into the wine world.
This year, Joseph plans to expand his range with 400 bottles of Merlot, 400 bottles of Mosi Syrah and 400 bottles of Chenin (a collaboration with two friends). He already has a hefty waitlist of dedicated customers where the wines will go first, then after it’s fair game for consumers.
As two foreigners celebrating their first decade on South African soil this year, it’s safe to say we’ve both settled in; establishing roots and permanent lifestyles. Our individual journeys into wine were extremely different, but thanks to an ever-shrinking global wine community (and Instagram) Joseph and I could strike up a friendship through commonality and mutual passion. Despite our starkly different backgrounds, we were able to connect and collaborate. Amazing isn’t it? The increasing ability for wine to connect people, regardless of their personal journey’s, challenges and backgrounds. This is what South African wine is all about! Community through commonality. Wine should not know race, gender, or background. Wine is quite simply…for wine lovers.
A story such as Joseph’s should absolutely be celebrated, but it should also be more common. It’s been twenty-four years since the end of apartheid and the South African wine industry remains glaringly white and male-dominated, unreflective of South Africa’s true demographic. Various organizations and groups have been set up to encourage change, and there indeed has been positive change. However, today’s current demographic for winemakers, influential figures and estate owners in South Africa are still reminiscent of the wine industry that existed over a decade ago.
Joseph is an example for all of us in the industry. He showed motivation when most would feel unmotivated and demonstrated strength and determination when others would have thrown in the towel.
Cheers to you, Joseph and I wish you only the most success in what is sure to be a very bright future in wine. I will be following along, on the edge of my seat with great excitement.
Cheers for now,
About 1500 bottles remain on the 2015 Mosi Flavian Syrah – so if you’re keen to snag a bottle for yourself you can order directly from Joseph (email firstname.lastname@example.org). Cape Town residents can pick up a bottle at Wine at the Mill in Woodstock, Norman Good Fellows or Wine concepts in Newlands. All other South Africans and customers around the globe can liaise with Joseph directly.