It appears that the festive season has been a good one for South African wine farms with foot traffic through the wine tasting room doors up on 2010.
I drove around Stellenbosch with holidaying friends from Johannesburg in early January. It was really enjoyable getting to see the winelands from their perspective and visiting some wineries that I haven’t been to in some time.
It gave me the opportunity of assessing the wine tourism offering as a fly on the wall. They were visiting the various cellars for the first time so there were no preconceptions: everything was fresh and new. My point of view was obviously informed by a bit of background knowledge.
The first thing that struck me was how late many venues open their doors to the wine tasting public. It appears that 10 am is the popular favourite with fewer opting for a 9am start. I guess the general wisdom is that visitors to the winelands don’t exactly leap out of bed early to face up to a glass of wine at 8am or so! And the few we visited that opted for the earlier start were still tidying up and getting ready for visitors.
While bottles weren’t always fresh, having been opened the day before, as soon as they realised the tasters knew what they were doing and were fairly serious about what they were tasting, this changed.
South Africans are known for their generosity and the wine farms were no exception. While the little notice on the counter might say five wines for R30 or three wine for R45, as soon as a bit of interest and knowledge was displayed, it became a case of “Why don’t you try this? No charge… We’re quite proud of it.”
It must be said that one of the wineries had very accommodating and enthusiastic tasting room staff but the interaction was a touch robotic. Of the “this wine is XYZ, the grapes come from ABC, it spent X months in (French/American) barrels and you should find flavours of blah blah blah”. By contrast, one other winery engaged with the tasters. “Where are you from? Have you enjoyed your holiday?
What other wine farms have you visited? Which wines have you like so far?” A clever and subtle way of drawing out the tasters and assessing their willingness to interact and their level of wine knowledge.
Being with wine inclined friends meant that we appreciated the latter approach. That’s not to say there isn’t merit in the former: it would be more than acceptable to the average ‘we’re in the Cape on holiday and one day will be spent doing the wine route’ visitor or the novice drinker.
But it made me think: what could be achieved if all the experiences were of the engaging kind? The sort where there’s an intelligent walk through a range of wines that could potentially break down the barriers to entry for wine novices and really get them enthused and turn them into eager experimenters, unafraid of venturing untutored opinions.
Overall it was a fabulous day out in the winelands – a little frustrating perhaps in that we only managed to do four wineries and a brandy distillery tour (which was excellent and quite possibly the highlight of the day) but it left us all keen to explore more.