Quo vadis for SA Wine Tourism?
It’s Saturday, midday. In nearby Cape Town, the historic noon day cannon has just fired on Signal Hill. The Stellenbosch winelands are just out of earshot, but there’s plenty of other distraction. Street cafés are full; there’s hustle and bustle on the high street; and, hotel porters are in and out, assisting arrivals and departures. On the roads that fan out from this epicentre, a steady pulse of traffic brings the region’s world-famous wineries to life.
Granted, this pre-pandemic image is only just returning, but it’s almost inconceivable to believe this setting wasn’t always so. Back in the day, wine farming was merely another segment of the agri-processing sector; until a small group of Stellenbosch farmers showed what was possible. Up until the founding of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, the first and largest of its kind in South Africa, people just didn’t visit wineries.
Its establishment – exactly 50 years ago – was not only a significant turning point for wine producers, but the entire, regional tourism industry too. It galvanised the leadership and innovation still at the heart of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes today.
From this perspective then, a vision for the future is being shaped within critical themes identified by industry. These include the impact of fourth industrial revolution technologies; state capacity and regulatory support; the changing biosphere; knowledge transfer and learning; and, shifts in demand and access to markets.
So, what does the future look like?
“Experiences are everything,” says Stellenbosch Wine Routes chairman Mike Ratcliffe, co-founder of Vilafonté and wine consultant.
“Intelligently composed experiences incorporating food, wine, exercise, culture and art will be the order of the day. High-end will continue to grow and Stellenbosch needs to improve and expand its high-end accommodation offering. Sourcing long-haul tourists with direct flights is the answer to almost every question. Long-haul tourists will stay longer, spend more and experience more.
Themed festivals merging business, experience, exercise and tourism will be the raison d’etrê for repeat tourism – every year. Repeat tourism in the holy grail.”
“We believe the future of wineries – especially boutique ones – should not rely exclusively on wine production and sales, but rather that the wine should be part of the overall experience,” says Shlomi Azar of Hazendal.
“Wineries should be pro-active and in-tune with customer needs. They should consider their location, target market and be willing to try new partnerships, digital campaigns and even collaborations. Most importantly – they need to think out the box!”
According to Azar, wineries that have become household names and that will continue to craft a legacy also need to remain committed to transparent, ethical practises and environmental sustainability. “The future of wine tourism will be secured by wineries that combine their passion for wine and the experiences around it, with a variety of other experiences that will attract people of different backgrounds, interests and ages.
“In addition, co-operation between wineries can assist in promoting an area and attracting more visitors.”
Lanzerac Wines, Hotel and Spa general manager Emile Langenhoven believes that it’s also essential to maintain focus on unique, bespoke and curated experiences. “This being said, the old favourites will always be part of our experiential travel – in our business we have seen that ‘new products or offerings’ might intrigue people to come to your property, but in the end, it is the tried-and-tested experiences that remain favourites,” he says.
“In the end it comes down to amazing, professional yet personal service where every guest feels seen and appreciated.”
Preserving the essence
“In my view, the essence of SA wine tourism is the combination of our accessibility, affordability, and openness to visitors,” says Ross Sleet, co-founder of Rascallion Wines and experienced wine marketer.
“We are the only wine tourism region in the world where almost 90% of the infrastructure can be reached in one day’s drive from a global tourism capital, Cape Town. Our genuinely world class wine and wine tourism offers are the most affordable of any wine region on the planet. And the warmth and generosity of our people towards visitors is justifiably recognised around the world as being second to none.”
The same question gets a different take from legendary winemaker Jan Boland Coetzee. “When we speak about South African Wine, it is important to remember its historic agricultural sense since 1652. Secondly, to focus on the grapes detached from the context of place is to lose the forest from the trees,” he says.
“It is better to listen to the voice of the land – it will tell the story of people in this landscape – like Stellenbosch has revealed over the past 360 years. In the plant world, the vine reveals to us the true value of the land, also telling the history of place and the secrets of the soil. The beauty of wine is that where the grape feels at home, its voice is clear and tells the story the land has written.”
The high road
“We all know wine tourism is an essential part of the wine landscape, providing much-needed income for especially smaller wineries,” says Carina Gous, heads of marketing and sales at Kleine Zalze. “Nothing beats drinking a bottle of wine at the very cellar where it was made and experiencing food in the very region it was produced.”
Carina says that taking the high road will SA wine tourism will have the ability to:
- Showcase diversity in wine as well as tourism offering in a world-class way. This will mean that all can capitalise on the benefits of wine tourism – from a multi-national corporate to a boutique business;
- Promote and uplift the lifestyle around wine, including cultural events, concerts, exhibitions and festivals on wine farms and among vineyards;
- Showcase the rest of our local agricultural offers and integrate the whole experience with top culinary events; and,
- Attract “casual” wine tourists as well as wine and food fundi’s and afficionados.
“Ultimately, we should provide work and career opportunities for all our communities regardless of background, and finally uplift the image of South Africa through their experience at the cellars.”
“Winemakers need to be equipped to promote the wine they make and two decades ago, we didn’t have the social media platforms we have today,” says winemaker and MD of Ernie Els Wines Louis Strydom. Louis has long been involved in training and holds amongst other positions, that of chairman of the Cape Winemaker’s Guild Development Trust.
“We’re now able to promote our wine globally and give potential consumers a virtual taste and experience of the wines and scenery, within the comfort of their own home,” he says.
“As with the continuing improvement in cellar technology, these changes emphasise that winemaking is a constant learning process – everything, except the grapes, changes constantly.”
Advice for the children
“The children of wine pioneers should try to maintain a sustainable family business first,” says Nora Sperling Thiel, co-director of Delheim and daughter of Stellenbosch Wine Routes co-founder Michael “Spatz” Sperling. “If this is possible, they can then decide in which direction they as family can take the tourism part of the business, preferably not to have to sell out.”
Spier brand is one of the many wineries who have been quick to innovate. Among its latest products are wines in a can and the lower alcohol wine, Spier 5.5%. Both appeal to emerging markets.
Where the cans are concerned, Spier says it researched the format for two years prior to launch. Its reasons for proceeding: “Cans are infinitely recyclable; the single serve format encourages responsible consumption; they’re convenient; and, fit well will leisure lifestyle.”
As for Spier 5.5%, the company says this was driven by increased consumer focus on healthy lifestyle. “The 5.5% alcohol is the sweet spot we feel doesn’t compromise the integrity of the wine.”
Photo credit: Groot Constantia