South Africa: A Real Wine Safari

South Africa is considered by many to be the ‘Gateway to Africa, ’ a soft landing for travellers new to the continent. The well-developed infrastructure, beautiful landscapes and warm, welcoming people offer an experience unlike any other in the world.

One of the mainstays of this traveller’s paradise is its booming wine industry that has steadily gained global acclaim since emerging from the shadow of Apartheid. During the troubled period, the world boycotted South African products and domestic demand was not enough to maintain the high standards that are gradually becoming the norm in the industry, as it exists today. However, over the last 15 to 20 years the industry has seen rejuvenation, fighting its way up to making South Africa the 8th largest wine producing country in the world. The gradual trend being seen in the domestic market is that people are drinking less, but better, and a growing black middle class is strengthening the demand for wine in the domestic market. This is readjusting the equilibrium between the quantity-driven majority and the quality-focused minority.

South Africa is part of what is known as the New World of wine. The New World is essentially any wine-producing region outside of continental Europe. One of the key differences in these areas is the fact that policies and rules for wine production are not as unequivocally set in stone. This allows wine makers to experiment with growing different grapes and having the freedom to create the wines they envision.

For instance, a wine producer in Stellenbosch (a prominent wine producing region in South Africa) can grow essentially any grape varietal to put into his red wine and have it labeled as being from Stellenbosch. A producer in Bordeaux, on the other hand, can only use the 5 permitted grape varietals allowed in the region in order to have his wine labeled as a Bordeaux wine. The theory is the more specific the region in the Old World, the more strict the rules are. The logic being that a consumer should have a good estimate of the quality of wine, based off the region labeled on the bottle.

South African wine regions are still working on developing their respective brands but discerning wine consumers around the world are starting to get more familiar with some of the countries best estates. Names like Rust en Vreede, Beyerskloof, Waterford and Fairview are starting to command high prices and are known as dependable wine producers of impeccable quality. Another benefit being reaped by producers like these is the unique expression of various grapes grown in South Africa. In much the same way that a Pinot Noir from California tastes very different from red Burgundy, grapes grown in South Africa have a very different taste and character than what they may have coming from any other country. The country is well known for its Chenin Blanc and Pinotage (a custom, hybrid varietal developed to grow specifically in South Africa) but others such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are starting to be recognized as well. The allure of these wines has put South Africa firmly on the map for most wine lovers.

Wine tourism, thus, is a rapidly growing industry in the country. Recently, many of the country’s producers have begun acknowledging the importance of engaging tourists in building their own brands. The level of investment in the offerings of a particular winery when it comes to engaging visitors varies on a case-by-case basis. Some offer a rustic experience with nothing but an eclectically decorated tasting room, choosing to let the wine do the talking for their brand. Others have developed restaurants and hotels on their properties with some garnering acclaim in the form of Michelin Stars. There is a great deal of variation across the spectrum, but as the niche industry develops, innovation and creativity are fuelling some incredible concepts.

Charles Back, the owner of the Fairview and Spice Route wineries, is a trailblazer in this respect. Spice Route, one of his wines, is produced in a region called Swartland, far off the beaten track for most visitors. His other estate, Fairview, is ideally located near the Stellenbosch region. When the estate neighboring Fairview went up for sale, he bought the property and transformed it into a wine tourism destination centered on his Spice Route brand. He took the old winery and house and transformed them into 3 restaurants, a craft brewery, a beer garden, a salumeria, a wine tasting room, an artisan chocolate workshop and a grappa distillery. His efforts have won him numerous awards and have certainly boosted the brand impression of both his wines. He has certainly set the bar extremely high but the debate rages on as to whether such offerings take away from the wine itself. In a nascent industry that is still developing, what follows in his wake is sure to be incredibly interesting.

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