They come for the wine and stay for so much more. So says Sanette Ferreira in conversation with EMILE JOUBERT, pointing out that Stellenbosch, as home to the first wine route, has a proud tradition of welcoming tourists and much to be proud of.
It has been only three decades since I attended my last university class, but I can’t remember any of my teachers being quite as 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 coalface of arguably the hottest topic in the South African wine industry: wine tourism.
Why a hot topic? Well, those involved in the local wine arena would know that over the past decade South Africa has 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 of a wine-making country. Of the R38 billion the country’s wine industry contributes to the national GDP, more than R6 billion can be directly linked to wine tourism.
Twenty years ago you’d have been lucky to find a cream cracker and a piece of sweet-milk cheese on a wine 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 that may also cater for tourists wanting to immerse themselves in a Pinotage spa, experience the combination of Méthode Cap Classique and organic nougat, or spend the night in a state-of-the-art guesthouse.
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 with tourism-related add-ons. The result has been spectacular, not only in the cash injections to wine farms, but also in the upliftment of the Winelands 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’s the heritage of the town, the natural beauty around it and the fact that South African wine tourism was pioneered right here in 1971 by legends Frans Malan, Spatz Sperling and Neil Joubert. And you can add to all that the diverse and creative offerings developed for tourists by the 152 Stellenbosch farms on the local wine route.”
Proudly Stellenbosch herself as a resident of Brandwag, Sanette backs her enthusiasm for her town and community with statistics. “Some 800 000 local and international tourists visit the Stellenbosch region per year, and one can safely say that 50% of all South Africa’s wine tourism developments and initiatives occur in the Stellenbosch region.
“In 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 university town atmosphere, the wine being drunk, the farm visited or the mountain cycled, brand Stellenbosch leads the experience.”
Sipping a cappuccino in the convivial environs of De Warenmarkt in the centre of town, Sanette is quick to point out what lies at the heart of Stellenbosch’s success in the global wine tourism arena. “The quality of our wines is what has led – and still leads – the way,” she says. “Wine tourism began here before any of the country’s other regions because of the exceptional wines the farms and estates wanted to introduce visitors to. Stellenbosch remains at the forefront today due to the fantastic wines made here.” Her 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 because 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 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 regions were lean and limited in terms of what they offered someone arriving at a winery and wanting to taste its wines. It’s very different in 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 choices that are available to each and every one of those 800 000 people visiting Stellenbosch annually,” she says. “From a palatial and luxurious experience at Delaire Graff to sipping port among the cobwebs at Muratie … there’s 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, the superb wines and the 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 over the Franschhoek side of Banhoek – well, need I say more?”
But, Sanette admits, more can be done to educate and improve service levels and basic knowledge. As anyone in the wine industry 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 Platter’s Wine Guide.
“Ambience is of major importance in making the 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, their venue and 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, and they’re 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 to achieve it owners have to invest in the training and education of staff.”
Great service can be taught and learnt, but the issue of urban sprawl and over-development is one that many people are concerned about. I am glad to discover that the professor is among them.
“As high up on the pedestal as Stellenbosch is in terms of being a desirable location, it has just as much to lose,” she says. “I’m 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?” As a geographer, she believes in the importance of place. Stellenbosch wines should originate from Stellenbosch grapes.
Still on the conservation theme, Sanette wonders why some streets in the town itself cannot be declared for pedestrians only. After all, many of the wine farms are now opening wine bars and shops in Stellenbosch, and by bringing the wine experience downtown, they are creating a wine culture 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, so 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 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 guesthouses allow the visitor to engage in an experience quite different from the day’s visit to a wine farm. And Stellenbosch being a student town is a bonus. The young people create an energetic vibe and ambience.”
As do university professors, too. V
Additional reporting by Joan Kruger.