South Africa makes it easy for Wine Tourists

July 28, 2010

By Wink Lorch

Stellenbosch wine tours

Stellenbosch Wine Festival picnic and tasting ©Stellenbosch Wine Routes

It’s nearly ten years since I’ve visited the Cape winelands of South Africa, but the images are still clear in my mind, for this part of the world is right up there on the list of most beautiful wine regions. What’s more, even ten years ago, it was clear that the South African wine industry was getting wine tourism right.

Back then, touring around in the surroundings of the dramatic mountains, combined with the distinctive Cape Dutch architecture, I could see old wineries re-building, architect-designed wineries emerging, winery restaurants appearing; Cape Town had well-stocked wine shops that offered shipping back home; and most importantly of all, the wine producers were generous with both their time and their ever-improving wines, wanting the world to learn about and experience the best they had to offer. Since then, wine tourism has gone from strength to strength.

As we saw from the recent football World Cup, South Africa is well geared up for tourism, and the country’s main vineyard areas are all in easy reach (20 minutes to two hours) of Cape Town, which is a keen member of Great Wine Capitals.

One of the most amazing ‘complaints’ I read about the World Cup was that some visitors were disappointed by cool and rainy weather, having not taken into account that this was winter and South Africa is not equatorial! The very fact that the Cape in particular has cooling winds coming in from the Indian and Atlantic oceans is a key to why they produce some excellent wines. Combine this with a wide range of suitable vine-growing soils, micro-climates influenced by the surrounding mountains and an expertise in matching grape variety with terroir that has developed greatly in the past 20 years, and the potential is huge.

Stellenbosch South Africa Wine Routes

South Africa has had designated wine routes for many years, and by far the largest in terms of winery membership is Stellenbosch, which is also the oldest, dating back to 1971. Stellenbosch is the name, not just of a well-known University town, one of the earliest towns to have been settled in South Africa, but also of the country’s best known wine region. Today for tourism purposes, Stellenbosch is divided up into five wine routes, sensibly not by appellation, but by routes that are logical for wine tourists to follow. (Something dear to my heart, as we’ve taken that brave step with the way we divide many of the French wine regions on Wine Travel Guides).

Pincushion Protea ©Erica Moodie/WOSA

Over 140 wineries are part of the Stellenbosch American Express® Wine Routes programme, gaining both in public relations terms and in cellar door sales. The programme also helps encourage visitors to indulge in other attractions wineries offer, such as restaurants, specialist non-wine products (e.g. cheese or olive oil) or complementary activities (e.g. bird watching, fly-fishing). Nearly all the wineries charge a small amount for tastings, reimbursed on purchase and they will organise shipping overseas. Gardens alongside the vineyards are gaining in popularity to support the wine industry’s laudable initiative to set aside more areas as non-planting land for vineyards, encouraging South Africa’s natural biodiversity. In this area known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, the emphasis is on planting only native species and encouraging the re-introduction of local fauna and flora.

The best time of year to visit the South African winelands is between November and May, with spring (November) and Autumn (April/May) being not only the cheapest time to travel but also the most interesting times to see the vineyards and wineries too. If, however, you do like the idea of wine touring during the Northern Hemisphere’s main summer holiday period of July/August, don’t worry, the wineries keep their doors wide open, and what’s more Stellenbosch holds a huge, annual 4-day festival normally towards the end of July. In 2010, it was brought forward to early July to coincide with the World Cup and to attract international tourists. Instead of being held in the town, it became a travelling festival, with shuttle buses taking visitors between 60 wineries. Next year this great wine event will once again be held in one venue in the town from 28 – 31 July 2011.

As with all travel, advance planning can make all the difference and there are excellent resources available to research your trip both on-line and in print. Do check out Wines of South Africa’s very informative website, and also the Stellenbosch Wine Routes own website, which is very comprehensive and easy to navigate. Thanks are due to these last organisation for the photos on this post.

When I travelled a decade ago in South Africa, I was always armed with the latest annual edition of John Platter South African Wine Guide, although the book has always been notoriously difficult to find until you’re out there. It remains an excellent guide to wines and wineries and has some decent wine touring information too.

More detailed information for wine tourists travelling all over the Cape wine regions can be found in The Essential Guide to South African Wines 2nd edition by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit, published in 2009. Attractively laid out, the heart of the book divides the wine regions into ‘Pockets’ according to their terroir, again another way of splitting up regions in a logical way for visitors, not necessarily by appellation. Wineries include most of the well known names, although the publication sought sponsorship from these to help with costs. A few pointers to local restaurants and accommodation are included. There are clear maps and in an innovative move, GPS information can be downloaded to your SatNav from the publisher’s website. The book includes useful and well-written introductory background chapters about the history, climate, geology, grapes and wine styles, plus some good basics on wine tasting and what to expect when wine touring in South Africa.

At least if you plan your wine tour in the beautiful wine country of South Africa next year, you are more likely to hear the sound of exotic bird song than of vuvuzelas.

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Wine Tasting Cellars – Should they charge?

December 23, 2009

For most people, the best part of any wine tour is visiting the cellars and tasting the wines, but the experience in Europe is often quite different from that of visiting New World wine regions. The main reason is that most European wineries are small family-owned estates many of whom lack proper facilities for receiving visitors. In the New World, where the average winery size is much larger, tasting rooms are the norm for most and the facilities offered are much greater. Also, if you travel in California wine regions, it’s almost standard practice to pay for tastings; in Europe, this remains the exception rather than the rule.

Last month at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Lisbon, sponsored by Wines of Portugal along with a host of others, I was part of a panel debating Wine Tourism and Social Media. Much of the debate was taken up with how wine travel in the New World and the Old World differ. Our panel was moderated by American Amy Lillard who owns the small southern France wine producer La Gramière, and she voiced that wine bloggers (and I would add travel bloggers) need to make sure their readers appreciate these differences.

Busy California tasting room ©Brett Jones

Wine tourism has been raised to a fine art or perhaps you could say an industry in New World wine regions, led by California and South Africa. Tasting rooms, shops, a range of options for vineyard and winery tours, picnic areas and children’s facilities may be just some of the offerings, usually at a price. In the Old World, if the wine producer has time to be there and you can communicate sufficiently in each others’ language, you might have the experience of a lifetime with a personal tasting and tour all at no charge. But arguably, there’s a hidden cost. Amy pointed out rightly that small family wineries are often too busy in the winery or the vineyards, or even delivering wines to customers, to be able to look after someone who is simply visiting for the experience of tasting wines in their place of production. You may not have to pay for tasting in the Old World but there might be no dedicated tasting room staff or tasting room, and the producers might simply not have time to receive you. It’s a dilemma that we at Wine Travel Guides try to address by recommending on our guides only producers who welcome independent wine travellers; in most cases we suggest that you make an advance appointment to visit.

Europe is beginning to change slowly as it starts to embrace wine tourism more fully, but many wine producers still believe that the reason for welcoming wine tourists is to sell wine. Anthony Swift of Wine Pleasures, who organises wine tourism events and group tours in Spain, asserts that producers should learn to separate completely the idea of welcoming tourists for a visit from the act of selling wine, and he tries to encourage wineries where he brings groups to accept payment. My brother is in aviation, has may planes, we’ve been fortunate to travel by small plane to these great vineyards. I totally agree and know that for the independent wine tourist, travelling home by plane, it’s obvious they cannot buy wine at the time, though it’s true if they are given an easy contact to follow up they may well source the same wine they tasted when they get back home.

Bordeaux tasting by appointment ©Brett Jones

It’s only recently that wine producers in Europe have started to look at the wider picture of wine tourism and to treat it as a good public relations activity for not only their own winery, but for their wine region too. Nevertheless, the facilities needed to welcome visitors properly cost money and even more, so does the time for someone to host visitors, and not all producers have this money available. Sunday openings are rare in Europe as family-owned producers use this day to catch up with paperwork and things at home including spending precious time with the next generation of wine producers. To pay for someone to look after the tasting room on a Sunday would also be considerable.

In many New World wine regions, especially California, and in a few in Europe, notably Champagne and more recently Bordeaux, it’s become normal to pay to taste the wines. In some of these wineries, there is a sensible policy that if you buy wine at the winery tasting room/shop (and in Europe this isn’t always possible at high-end wineries), they will refund the tasting fee. On the other hand, traditional wine producers in Europe are worried that they will put off visitors who might be potential buyers, as they have never before levied a charge, so they are still reluctant to do so. In my view, by paying for a tasting, a wine tourist helps contribute to the wine producer’s time, the cost of the facilities and the wines tasted. And, as long as there’s no dumbing down of the welcome and someone who really knows the wines and the winery is there to taste with you and show you around, then a small charge with longer opening hours can only be a good thing for both wine producers and wine tourists.

So, over to you, do you think European family-owned wineries should charge for tasting? And if so, how much on average? Please visit our Facebook page and participate in the poll (you need to become a fan first), and if you have any comments, I would welcome them here.

We have more than 500 recommended European wine producers on Wine Travel Guides who are ready to receive visitors, though many insist on advance appointments. Few currently charge. You can cruise around the site to find them when planning your next wine tour and we provide their visiting hours. To have full access to print the PDF guides you need to join as a Gold Member, and Membership makes an ideal Gift for a wine lover planning a trip to Europe in 2010.

Thanks for reading over the past year and I wish you a fine finish to 2009 and happy planning of your Wine Travels for 2010!

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Discovering Super-Tuscans on a Visit to Bolgheri

February 23, 2009

Tuscany is divided into several wine zones and Wine Travel Guides currently has two guides to wine tours in the heart of the region including some of Tuscany’s finest reds. Below, Donna Jackson, who lives in Italy and spent four years in Tuscany, tells us about Bolgheri in the south west of the province of Livorno near the coast – another important area for fine reds.

Grattamacco in Castagni Carducci © Mick Rock/Cephas

Grattamacco in Castagneto Carducci © Mick Rock/Cephas

Bolgheri, a town located in the comune of Castagneto Carducci, on the edge of the Maremma area south-west of Florence, is the birthplace of Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia fine wines in the Super-Tuscan trend. In the last twenty years wine from Bolgheri has received attention for the quality of its wines, and also from traditional Chianti winegrowers who did not approve of the new blends being employed with the venerable Sangiovese. Some pioneering winemakers here began blending the grapes of Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, producing a style of wine more in line with the Bordeaux tradition. This region was ruled out as an optimum region in the past because of its proximity to the sea – it was said to produce wines with a salty flavour.

In 1994 the classification of DOC Bolgheri Rosso and Rosso Superiore signified recognition of the use of these different grapes, and these appellations now incorporate ten estates. Rather ironically, pioneer, Satta’s Vigna a Cavaliere (100% Sangiovese) is not recognized by regulators, and only managed to achieve the IGT designation. One further category was created – that of DOC Sassicaia – the first and only single estate in Italy to achieve this. Quite a distinction which is reflected in the price, and because internationally and especially in the USA, people recognise them as fine Italian wines, but are often unaware of the origins in Bolgheri. The same is true of other Super-Tuscans: Ornellaia and Belvedere’s Guado al Tasso are more often associated with the famed Antinori family rather than with the land from where they are produced in Bolgheri.

I particularly like the wines from the Grattamacco estate of Colle Massari in Castagneto Carducci whose Bolgheri and Grattamacco wines are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese. I recently tasted the Bolgheri 2006 vintage which had a lovely intense ruby colour in the glass and on the nose; ripe fruits, plum and a hint of smokiness. On the palate: good mineral quality, plum with strong tannins and a long finish. The wine could be laid down for awhile to improve, but was a good match for the typical Tuscan fare we ate with it. I had pappardelle con porcini and my partner a huge saucepan of caciucco – a rich tomato seafood soup that Livorno is famous for. This wine would pair very well with game too.

The present-day name of Castagneto Carducci was given to the ancient fief in 1907, in honour of the poet Giosue’ Carducci who stayed there as an adolescent and who always remained tied to it – originally it was called Castagneto Marittimo. Dominated by the castle of the della Gherardesca counts, Castagneto Carducci has all the charm of a typical Tuscan village with steep streets. Today, only a section of the walls remain, facing the sea. The local Spar sells the makings of a good picnic to enjoy with the view.

In Via Carducci, there is the house where the poet lived in 1848 with the ‘Centro Carducciano’. A visit to Castagneto cannot end without a walk to Piazzale Belvedere, located in a panoramic position, from where there’s a great vista right to the coast. Giovanni Chiappini’s estate in the centre of Bolgheri is lovely for a walk among the cypress trees, accommodation is available there. We couldn’t resist the cypress road walk at Bolgheri and then reluctantly got back into our car to drive back to Livorno, to my parents-in-law who live just down the road. We’ll be back.

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The Weekly Twitter Quiz #5 – San Gimignano

February 4, 2009
View from a tower to another tower

View from a tower to another tower

A UNESCO World Heritage site, San Gimignano is known for its many towers, which were built as status symbols in the Middle Ages. When I visited a couple of years ago, I found the town a delight to wander around, and when you climb up one of the towers, you get spectacular views of the landscape. Tuscan wine specialist Michèle Shah writes that it is also well worth visiting the Collegiata, located in Piazza Duomo, which houses a famous cycle of Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the only dry white wine of any real note in Tuscany made from the Vernaccia grape. On Michèle’s guide ‘Between San Gimignano and Siena’ she recommends a visit to the Sono Montenidoli winery “firstly because Elisabetta and Sergio who run and own the estate are both great characters – and secondly because Montenidoli produces San Gimignano’s quintessential Vernaccia.” They also have agriturismo accommodation.

Congratulations to Philadelphia-based photographer Christian Carollo who correctly identified San Gimignano in Tuscany as the answer to this week’s quiz. He wins a PDF guide of his choice so he can plan his own wine tours – @wisequeen and @WritingTravel were also very quick off the mark with the correct answer.

If you aren’t already following me on Twitter, come along for the ride – among other things I tweet new recommendations from new or updated Wine Travel Guides, links to wine or travel articles and sometimes a peep (tweet-peep?) at what wines I’m drinking.

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Manchester: Wine City??

February 3, 2009

By Jane Anson

Bordeaux winemakers visit the Reserve wine shop

Bordeaux winemakers visit the Reserve wine shop

Having just spent a week in Manchester and Leeds with ten winemakers from Bordeaux, it occurred to me that we rarely talk about England as a wine destination for tourists. But maybe we should: it is after all the most dynamic wine market in the world, where wines from every conceivable country compete for shelf space. There can be few better countries to visit for horizontal or vertical tastings of just about any grape, from just about any producer.

And there are increasingly interesting things on offer for wine tourists. On a previous trip with winemakers, we visited Denbies, a winery in Surrey around an hour outside of London, that had a very impressive tourism installation, including an IMAX-style cinema experience comparing the terroir to Champagne, all set to the rousing strains of classical music (what was it exactly? In my head, it was Land of Hope and Glory, but you get the picture).

This time, in the north of England, it was a little harder to visit actual wineries. Of course James May and Oz Clarke, in their programme Oz and James Drink to Britain, recently visited one in Yorkshire called Leventhorpe, and I heard that there was a winery opening in Urmston, just outside of Manchester city centre. We had planned to visit this one, but apparently the man who runs it has gone AWOL and we were unable to contact him. If anyone knows anything about this, I would be thrilled to hear more.

But Manchester was full of great surprises for wine lovers. Besides excellent wine lists in hotels such as the Lowry, we visited two of the best independent wine shops that I know Hanging Ditch in the centre of town, right opposite Harvey Nicols and Reserve Wines in Didsbury that has just recently won the UK’s independent wine merchant of the year at the International Wine & Spirits Challenge. If you think England is all about binge drinking, or a love of either wine brands or Pinot Grigio of dubious origin, I suggest you go visit these two places. Both have passionate, knowledgeable owners who are keen to share their love of unusual bottling with their clients.

Whilst waiting until Wine Travel Guides covers England, visit the English Wine Producers website for full details of wineries to visit in both England and Wales.

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