I’ve been visiting wine estates since the mid-1970s, a time so distant that even to describe the experience may sound a little like a medieval explorer landing on an undiscovered continent. The first cellars I came across were in France, during the year I spent in Montpellier. Some were very smart by the standards of the day – a couple of First Growths in Bordeaux, some of the grandest in Burgundy, a few in the Rhone Valley and some close to Montpellier itself.
The great Bordeaux chateaux generally offered plush reception arrangements: they were accustomed to receiving trade visitors and important private clients. The higher their status, the harder it was to gain entry – a situation which hasn’t changed in 45 years. The late Martin Bamford who ran Gilbey’s wine business in France generously set up several visits for me. As a result I was welcomed, rather than turned away with the kind of aristocratic disdain reserved for British tourists driving through the Medoc. There was somewhere to sample the wines and someone (not the winemaker) ready to walk me through the cellars.
In Burgundy I didn’t have the same gilt-edged letters of introduction, but in those days the region was more rustic and much less fashionable. I managed to gain access pretty much wherever I knocked on doors, and was shown around (but not often plied with wine.) Around Montpellier however, what producers lacked in polish they made for in warmth: I was invited to sit at the kitchen table where I was expected to drink (rather than taste) the wines with the proprietor.
The situation in South Africa was much more like the Southern French model than the haughty Bordeaux arrangement. Wine tourism was in its infancy: Simonsig’s Frans Malan, together with Spatz Sperling at Delheim and Spier’s Niel Joubert, had launched the Stellenbosch Wine Route in the late 1960s, a survival strategy in the face of threats by the major wholesalers to boycott them if they sold wine directly to the public. By the mid-1970s there were probably fewer than 20 cellars open to the consumers.
At best there was a reception area – which looked very much like a pub – with a counter for wine service and a few bar stools upon which to perch while you sampled the range. Spittoons were as rare around Stellenbosch as they were in Languedoc. In those days I worked for a major retailer so most of my visits involved wholesale rather than retail purchases. When I called on the co-ops it was usually to assemble blends for bottling as house-brand wine. The only reception facilities were the winemaker’s office or a very rudimentary laboratory.
At much the same time I started writing a weekly wine column – initially for the Financial Mail and then, after John Platter settled in Franschhoek and began writing his eponymous guide, for the Rand Daily Mail. Within a few years of this there were many more cellars to visit: whether I was in the Cape as a writer or as a buyer I discovered a much changed environment. Competition between estates meant that visitor facilities had been substantially upgraded, while common courtesy and growing awareness of the value of an enthusiastic review created a more hospitable atmosphere.
By the mid-1980s wine tourism had become an essential marketing tool for the Cape’s producers, isolated as they were from the international markets. Some preferred the “no-frills” approach. Even today you can see this in action at Kanonkop where the facilities have been upgraded but a consciously unshowy approach to customer engagement still prevails.
Others were more theatrical, and today this side of the spectrum is epitomised by Creation Wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. There Jean-Claude and Carolyn Martin offer a remarkable and sophisticated experience which includes a choice of several degustation menus, ranging from R130 upwards. The cellar’s wines are presented in the appropriate Riedel glass, to the accompaniment of finely presented dishes designed to showcase the flavour matches.