Not so long ago, when wine was consumed either by the communities who produced it or by an elite living in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and New York, the idea of wine drinkers visiting vineyards and tasting wines in producers’ cellars was alien to most people. No one wandered around wineries, except a handful of fanatics and the merchants who traded in what was produced in them. Those for whom wine was an everyday beverage thought of it as just another agricultural product. Those who served it in their town and country houses took advice from their preferred suppliers, and bought it in much the same way as they acquired their furniture or their paintings: from showrooms, galleries and retailers, rather than from factories, workshops and studios.
This only began to change in the second half of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, South Africa’s oldest wine route – that of Stellenbosch – was only established in 1971. Its founders – Delheim’s Spatz Sperling together with the late Frans Malan from Simonsig and the late Niel Joubert from Spier – needed to find a way to promote their wines. At the time, almost all of the Cape’s cellars supplied the wholesalers in bulk. In fact, any attempt to solicit business for bottled wine sales (whether to retailers or directly to consumers) was strenuously discouraged. When Malan indicated that he wanted to develop a retail side to his estate wine business, his major trade customers made it clear that they would cease purchasing from him.
Recognising that unless he created his own brand he would spend his entire commercial life at the mercy of the producer-wholesalers, he elected to abandon sales in bulk and to develop a new market for his entire crop. Though there were producers – such as Rustenberg for example – with private customers at the time, Malan and his colleagues were the real pioneers of the estate wine business in South Africa. Today, just over forty years later, there are over 600 wine cellars in South Africa, and almost every one of them welcomes visitors. There is a clear connection between the growth of the wine tourism industry and the growth in the diversity of the country’s wine offering.
This is also a reflection of the extraordinary shift in the way that wine is marketed and consumed. An increasing number of wine lovers do not depend on the recommendations of long established merchants. If they seek advice, they look online, or consult guides, or they follow the writers and ratings specialists who have made a career out of the independence of their palates. These changes reveal a great deal about the self-confidence of the market and the enhanced knowledge of the average wine buyer. The concept of cellar door sales may have spawned the wine tourism industry, but unless the punters had been willing to visit, and ready to believe that the subject matter of winery tours was not too arcane a communication for leisure travel, none of this would have come about.
A significant percentage of South Africa’s new generation wineries – in other words, of the 300 or so which have sprung up in the past 15 years – have no real trade distribution. They live off a combination of an established mail order database and a wine show circuit from which they garner new names to refresh their mailing lists. Stellenbosch Wine Routes, the umbrella body of the Stellenbosch regional wine routes, has just been judged the Best Promotional Body at the 2014 Wine Tourism Awards in London – an indication of how seriously this is taken.
Alongside wildlife safaris, wine-land travel is believed to be one of the top drivers of leisure tourism to South Africa. If government is keen to create jobs and boost foreign revenue flows, it need look no further than the hospitality component of the Cape wine industry