12 Feb What South Africa’s Wine Tourism Revolution Can Teach Us
WORDS by FELICITY CARTER WITH ROBIN SHAW
As seen in WBM
In 2004, Robin Shaw embarked on a mission to understand wine tourism. Travelling on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, her itinerary included South Africa, Champagne, Burgundy, Canada, Napa, Sonoma and New Zealand. She didn’t have high expectations of South Africa, as its wines were mostly known – if they were known at all – for their poor quality, thanks to the leaf roll virus widespread in vineyards.
“I didn’t know a lot about South African wine tourism but, boy, did I find out in those first eight days,” she says. “The hospitality was absolutely extraordinary.” South Africa had been cut off from the world because of apartheid boycotts, which drove them to develop domestic tourism, including to bulk wine regions like Robertson. “An initiative that resonated at the time was the introduction of the annual Wacky Wine Weekend which filled the broader region’s 3,000 beds and put the wine region on the tourist map.”
In the more established regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, closer to Cape Town, immersive experiences featured prominently, and food was a core component of the experience. “Franschhoek differentiated itself by focusing on high end culinary experiences,” says Shaw. “This focus on enticing world-renowned chefs to the village positioned it as the gourmet capital of South Africa, attracting a new global audience.”
Today such approaches are commonplace, but they were groundbreaking at the time; this was a period when most Australian cellar doors were simply outlets to sell wine, not ‘destinations in their own right’. Learning from South Africa helped Shaw, founder of Wine Tourism Australia, become a leading wine tourism authority. South Africa has changed, too. It still faces challenges, from a government that has, at times, been actively hostile to the wine sector, to an overloaded power grid that causes daily rolling blackouts, but its wines are recognised as some of the best in the world – and the wine farms keep innovating.
Shaw now leads wine tourism study tours and in May 2023 she hosted her third group that included representatives from some of Australia’s most storied wineries, plus a winery architect.
Experiences that impressed
The chance to explore South Africa’s dramatic landscape got a big thumbs up from everyone. One example was the tour of the fynbos, the natural shrubland endemic to the Cape region, at Bosman Hermanus. “They’ve created this very simple tour through the vegetation,” says Shaw. “It includes a series of interpretative story boards dotted throughout the ‘maze’ which offer visitors information about the local flora and fauna.”
Georgia Velt, venue business manager of Fowles Wine in the Strathbogie Ranges, particularly liked the way visitors could take their wine and snacks down to a private ‘hut’ overlooking the mountains, and then do a self-guided tour of the gardens. “Given the high cost and shortage of hospitality labour in Australia, private, self-contained experiences as seen at Bosman are a great way to offer something special to guests, without needing a lot of staff,” she says.
For Ellie Murtagh, brand director at Redbank Wines in the King Valley, the way the South Africans wove their flora, fauna and history together was an inspiration. “Australian wineries could benefit from incorporating more into their gardens and indigenous culture into winery visits, fostering a deeper connection to the land and its heritage.”
Georgia Beavis, head of tourism and hospitality at Brown Brothers, was impressed by the commitment to sustainability, and the way history was preserved and celebrated without ossifying into museum culture. “Last but not least is the Franschhoek Wine Tram – what a way to engage consumers and make it easy for them to get around. The coordination between the tram route and the wineries is impressive.” Several different routes operate daily to connect visitors with wineries throughout the valley and it is one of the most popular attractions.
The surprises kept coming, like the visit to Babylonstoren, located between Franschhoek and Paarl, which has recently introduced its interactive Story of Wine Museum alongside its established hotel, restaurants and spa. Arguably its most impressive feature is the 5ha garden created in 2007 by French architect Patrice Taravella, comprising 15 separate areas. All the plants are either edible, or have a medicinal value, and are harvested for use in the two farm-to-fork restaurants.
Tours led by the effusive Constance are both entertaining and informative. When Constance heard that a member of the group had an acute ear infection, she immediately changed direction and led the group to the healing garden. “This section featured plants with healing qualities for different parts of the body,” recalls Shaw. “Constance picked a few leaves of a succulent and gave Cassidy instructions about how to gently warm the leaf and squeeze a couple of drops into the ear every few hours. It took several days, but the infection cleared, and she avoided antibiotics.”
And then there’s Creation Wines in Walker Bay, co-founded in 2002 by Jean-Claude and Carolyn Martin. It’s so famous for its food pairings that it does a roaring year-round trade, despite being in an out-of-the-way location. “Carolyn’s very invested in the story of how people interpret flavour and has introduced sensory components that incorporate tactile elements, like holding a seashell to your ear and listening to the ‘sea’ while you savour a glass of wine,” says Shaw. “It’s part of the theatre and encourages guests to think about what they are consuming.”
As at many of the wineries, Martin has gone out of her way to welcome families with children to Creation. Now, the grown-up children return to the winery, and bring their friends. Murtagh says this is where Australia could improve. “Offering more for kids will open our wineries to a diverse range of visitors and create an experience that they will keep coming back for. Whether it’s a playground in view of the cellar door, or an outdoor seating area, colouring-in books, or a sensory tasting with cordials, there is always an option to get the whole family involved.”
The role of staff training
Overall, those on the tour were blown away by the friendly yet professional manner of the winery staff. Unlike Australia, South Africa has a huge surplus of labour, with unemployment running at over 30 percent. Even so, wineries can struggle to attract qualified people to rural areas. Their solution is to offer a pathway to a real career, that can start at the cellar door and go all the way to management. “South Africa is investing very heavily in staff training and they’re focusing on upskilling the young people, many of whom have had limited education,” says Shaw. “Vinpro has worked with industry to develop programs using accessible technology and resources to help them succeed.” If someone starts in front of house, for example, they will learn hospitality from the ground up and can select areas of interest to pursue further. “There will be different courses staff can undertake to gain relevant skills. It’s been hugely empowering.” The results are impressive. Shaw says the group arrived for a private tasting at Vergenoegd Low, but the person who was supposed to be running it couldn’t attend. Instead, a young woman from the cellar door stepped in, “and it was one of the best experiences we had. She kept asking questions and offering little snippets of relevant information, which is something I’ve been trying to teach people in Australia to do.” Instead of telling the group what to expect from the wine, she sought opinions and shared her personal story of growing up in a township where a career in wine was not the norm. “She told us how she had participated in several courses and now happily shares her growing knowledge with family and friends and is constantly inspired to learn. The more she discovers, the more the people around her learn too.” Velt says the level of hospitality was eye opening. She adds: “A key takeaway was seeing the high level of wine knowledge of the staff. It definitely gave us some ideas as to how to improve staff training.”
A great example is Oldenburg Vineyards, where the experience is led by a team of sommeliers. For Murtagh, the warmth of the welcomes was a highlight. “Regardless of one’s price point, visitors felt valued and welcomed at every wine farm,” she says. What also struck her was the way South African brands cooperated with one another. “Wineries worked in tandem with accommodation providers, spas, food establishments and producers, to create enriching and comprehensive experiences for visitors,” she says. Beavis agrees. “What was also impressive from both a tourism perspective as well as an experience perspective was the investment in telling not just their own stories in wine, but South Africa more broadly.”
A complete experience
This cohesiveness happens at the individual winery level as well, where all the different businesses, from the restaurant to the craft store, function as a single brand, with every element supporting the others. Amy Smedley was particularly impressed by the way that brand identity is embedded in the architecture.
Smedley, the co-founder of Adelaide’s Studio S2 architects, says that buildings and interiors tell a story, and that “the shape of the space makes you feel something”. More pragmatically, the function of architecture is also to ensure a cellar door stands out in a region that might have 20 or 30 to choose from. “You have to shape a place that makes you feel like you are part of the journey,” she says. When asked to define Australia’s style, Smedley says, “We’re very good at sheds. We do a lot of stone sheds that become cellar doors. We purposely build things that look like stone sheds and timber sheds.” What Australians aren’t so good at, she says, is understanding that wine tourism is as much about the experience of the place as it is about the wine. “We don’t focus on how to get people to go, ‘My God, why would I ever buy any other wine? This is the best experience I’ve ever had!’”
Creation, for example, “has all the elements I’m looking for, which is a real connection to the earth. Right from the minute that you entered, there were all these sculptures in the garden, so it had artistry. The space had a lightness and an ability to see what you were eating, and not too much noise. All the pieces came together.” WINE TOURISM Smedley also mentions Bosjes in the Breedekloof wine region. “It’s hidden in the landscape and almost digs itself in, so you’ve got a place that’s being buried back into the ground. It’s part of nature, and it heats and cools itself. It’s giving you the architectural statement that if we don’t have art, then who are we?”
The Bosjes chapel is one of the most stunning pieces of winery-related architecture in the world. Designed by Steyn Studio of London, the roof swoops and curves, echoing the surrounding mountains and valleys, and embodying serenity. Smedley says that South Africa didn’t change her mind about winery architecture, but reinforced her view that places have a personality “that we can fall in love with”. She wants Australia to focus more on how buildings and tasting experiences work together, “so people get invested in where they are and what they’re doing. The more time we spend in places and the more we refer our friends to them, the more likely we are to buy more wine.”
Smedley says she doesn’t avoid talking about the fact that wineries are commercial entities. “We’re looking to sell wine, so we want to get people engaged. We want people to be brand advocates. And that’s how we do it – create intense experiences that touch people.” The human connection. In the end, wine is a human creation. While inventive architecture and thoughtful food pairings are engaging, nothing beats the magic that happens when one human opens up to another. Shaw says she’s always scouting for case studies she can bring back to Australia, and she found a new one on the tour: Black Elephant Vintners & Co. in Franschhoek. Created by Kevin Swart, Jacques Wentzel and Raymond Ndlovu, it offers an unusual wine and music pairing. “The winemaker sits at the head of the table and quietly tells his story, and then puts on the music. The tracks have been selected with each wine in mind but it’s not about a direct match, it’s about taking people places. You’re sitting in this room with beautiful, quirky, blackboardstyle artwork with sayings and song quotes, and you’re really immersed in this room with the wine, this guy, this music.” Shaw knew the “silent disco approach” would particularly appeal to her youthful group. “I noticed how much these kinds of experiences resonated personally and made me want to learn more about the winery,” says Murtagh.
For many, the highlight of the entire tour was the visit to Weltevrede Wine Estate in Bonnievale. The Captivated by Chardonnay’ tour starts in the garden then heads underground, where old concrete tanks have been converted to showcase the global evolution of the variety, the wine region and the viticultural history of South Africa. Owner Philip Jonker, whose family has been on the property since 1912, has a way with words, sharing deeply honest and personal stories about his family and his passion for wine. Surrounded by flickering candles as Philip recited a poem he’d written, “We were in tears,” says Shaw.
And all it took was storytelling – and telling the truth, rather than a sanitised corporate history. Everything has changed Australia has changed a lot since Shaw sallied forth in 2004. Today, it is in a league of its own, supported by government initiatives and budgets that the South Africans can only dream about. Velt says she believes that Australian direct-to-consumer sales strategies are more sophisticated, with better technology and a stronger focus on the wine club. “We’ve come a long, long way,” says Shaw. “We’ve seen massive investment all over the country, but very substantially here in South Australia. Beautiful new buildings and experiential infrastructure that cater properly for visitors, with more interest in tours, more interactive seated tastings, and more genuine story telling.” Still, she plans to go back to South Africa again. “Sometimes you need to travel beyond your own doorstep to seek inspiration and learn – you have to go somewhere else.” And that somewhere else, surprisingly, isn’t Napa or Burgundy or Tuscany. It’s South Africa.
The 2023 Cape Winelands Wine Tourism Study Tour Group:
Robin Shaw – Wine Tourism Australia, Karen Ridge – Food & Wine Travel, Cassidy Shaw – University of Adelaide, Amy Smedley – Studio S2 Architects, Ellie Murtagh – Redbank Wines, Olivia Reynolds – Rockford Wines, Georgia Velt – Fowles Wines, Georgia Beavis – Brown Brothers Milawa.