It has only been three decades since attending my last university class, but I can’t remember any of my teachers being quite this engaging and enthusiastic about their subject. But then again, Professor Sanette Ferreira from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, is at the coal-face of arguably the South African wine industry’s hottest topic, namely wine tourism.
Why a hot topic? Well, those involved in the local
wine arena would know that over the past decade, South Africa has literally appeared from nowhere to become one of the leading destinations in the world for visitors wishing to experience the flavours, products, lifestyle, scenery, recreational offerings and gastronomic delights a wine-making country has to offer. Of the R38bn the country’s wine industry contributes to the national GDP, over R6bn can be directly related to wine tourism.
Twenty years ago one would be lucky to find a cream cracker and piece of Gouda cheese on a farm offering a limited tasting of wines. Today, many of South Africa’s leading and most creative restaurants are located slap-bang in the middle of wine farms also catering for tourists wishing to immerse themselves in a Pinotage spa, experience the riveting combination of Méthode Cap Classique and organic nougat or rest their heads on Egyptian cotton-covered pillows in a state-the-art guest-house.
In the current climate, wine alone is not able to unleash the desired economic benefits for many producers who are increasingly complementing their vinous offerings through tourism. The result has been spectacular, not only in the cash-injections to wine farms but also to the upliftment of the wineland communities in general.
And the hub for wine tourism has been – and still is – Stellenbosch.
“Why Stellenbosch? Because it has it all,” says Sanette. “There is the heritage of the town, the natural beauty, the fact that South African wine tourism was pioneered right here in 1971 by legends Frans Malan, Spatz Sperling and Neil Joubert as well as the diverse and creative tourist offerings the 152 Stellenbosch wine farms on the Wine Route have developed.”
Proudly Stellenbosch herself as resident of Brandwag and as a leading academic, her enthusiasm for town and community is backed by statistics. “Some 800 000 local and international tourists visit the Stellenbosch region alone per year, and one can safely say that 50% of all South Africa’s wine tourism developments and initiatives occur in the Stellenbosch region.
“From our research it has become evident that a lot of all this has to do with the name Stellenbosch, which has become the overarching brand. Whether it is the wine drunk, the university town atmosphere, the farm you visit or the mountain cycled up, the brand Stellenbosch leads the experience.”
But sipping a cappuccino in the convivial environs of the Warenmarkt in the heart of the town, Sanette is quick to remind one what lies at the heart of Stellenbosch’s success in the global wine tourism arena.
“The quality of our wines is what has lead and still makes us lead the way,” she says. “Wine tourism began here before any of the country’s regions because of the exceptional wines the farms and estates wanted to introduce to visitors. Today, Stellenbosch remains at the forefront due to the fantastic wines made here.” Personal preference: Sauvignon Blanc and a red Bordeaux-style blend.
Sanette is familiar with Bordeaux and other wine regions, not only through her travels as a top academic but also due to the fact that both her sons Schalk and Stefan played club rugby in France. I ask her what Stellenbosch can learn from other perhaps more renowned wine regions in terms of tourism.
“Forget about it, they now come to learn from us!” she enthuses. “From the outside looking in – and this is what my peers from other countries tell me – Stellenbosch is a world-leader in terms of the scale, scope and diversity of what we have to offer and how we are offering it. I remember visiting Bordeaux and Burgundy and how surprised I was that these legendary, iconic wine regions were lean and limited in terms of what they offered someone wishing to arrive at a winery and taste wines. This is very different to Stellenbosch where staff at every winery fall over their feet to welcome you.”
Prodded into naming exceptional wine tourism destinations in Stellenbosch, Sanette is initially as closed as one of the doors at a snooty Bordeaux Château. The Stellenbosch academic as diplomat.
“The magic of this region is the choice each and every one of those 800 000 people visiting Stellenbosch annually have available to them,” she says. “From a palatial and luxurious experience at Delaire Graff, to sipping port among the cobwebs at Muratie….there is just so much to choose from.
“But if I had to name a few places, Rustenberg is one that comes to mind. The combination of heritage, the natural surroundings and gardens together with superb wines and professional service make it truly exceptional. Waterford, again, is totally different in terms of the non-typical yet beautiful architecture and the ambience created by the service staff. And a meal at Delaire Graff looking out on the Franschhoek side of Banghoek, well, need I say more.”
More, Sanette admits, can be done to educate and improve service levels and basic knowledge. As anyone in the wine industry game knows, it is all about relationships and few are more important than those between customer and host. She sighs with bemusement when remembering a recent visit to a winery where the staff did not know of the Platter’s Wine Guide.
“Ambience is of major importance in making that tourism experience a successful one, and for this there must be confident service staff who are amenable and are knowledgeable about the product they are offering at their respective venue, as well as their region,” she says.
“Look at Rust en Vrede, for example. Whether you are tasting a few wines or having a steak lunch, the staff are well presented in chinos and golf shirts, professional and friendly while not hesitating to answer any of your questions. This makes a truly great experience. We need to see more service of this quality and for this, owners have to invest in training and education of staff.”
Great service can be taught and learned, but the issue of urban sprawl and over-development is one at which many people are concerned, and I am glad to discover the Professor is one.
“As high-up on the pedestal as Stellenbosch is in terms of being a desirable location, just as much we have to lose,” she says. “And I am not talking about the traffic problems in the town itself. A lot of the total region’s green space is being lost to development, and we are in serious danger of seeing the unique rural character of the Stellenbosch winelands eradicated. This could have far-reaching implications, undermining everything that has been achieved over the past few decades. I mean, what is wine tourism without vineyards, trees and natural beauty?” And as a geographer, the Professor believes in the importance of place. Stellenbosch wines should originate from Stellenbosch grapes.
Sticking to the conservation theme, Sanette wonders why some streets in Stellenbosch town itself cannot be declared pedestrian-only. Especially now that many of the wine farms are opening wine bars and shops, bringing the wine experience downtown and creating an al fresco, pretty continental wine culture experience in the heart of the wine route.
“Church and Andringa are ideal candidates for becoming pedestrian-only streets and would provide a whole new experience in a traffic-free zone,” says Sanette. “Shops and restaurants complaining that this would hamper their deliveries can just arrange for goods to be dropped-off outside of business hours. Thousands of European towns make these arrangements, why can’t we?”
She is quick to point out the value of Stellenbosch itself as the hub around which wine tourism revolves. “The town itself is very important as a base from which tourists can explore the region. The heritage buildings and street art create a unique aesthetic, and the restaurants, wine-bars and guest-houses allow the visitor to engage in a different experience to that undergone during the day’s wine farm visit. And being a student town, is an added bonus. The young people create an energetic vibe and ambience.”
And indeed, university Professors too.