Wednesday 2nd November 2016.
As I write, the world’s first Wine and Food Tourism Conference has just come to a close in Stellenbosch, South Africa. What better place could there be to hold what is rapidly becoming an important and lucrative aspect of the wine trade than in the heart of the Cape winelands?
South Africa has, after all, been identified along with Napa Valley in California as the wine region with the most potential for the wine and food tourism. In Napa, two hours’ drive north of San Francisco, 3,3 million visitors spent $1,63 billion in the local economy in 2014. Currently the South African wine industry, according to figures published by the wine and food tourism conference, is the source of 289,000 jobs and contributes R6 billion annually to the economy. The ambitious intention is to reach R15 billion by 2025 but for this challenging goal to be realised support at all levels, from the government to local enterprise, will be crucial. Tourism Australia have shown what can be achieved: encouragingly, they have seen a growth of 25% in food and wine spend since the initiative was launched at the end of 2013.
To judge from the successful experiences already on offer at wineries such as Vergelegen, Tokara, Babylonstoren and Creation, amongst others, the concept in South African is well underway. Indeed at a recent visit to Creation in the upper Hemel-en-Aarde valley, north of Hermanus, I happily gave an entire afternoon over to the utterly fascinating and sensually indulgent pastime of matching wine with food.
Carolyn Martin and her team in the Creation restaurant are quixotic in their pursuit of perfection and fearless in their experiments. Admittedly, some times, this can result in rather overworked ideas such as tomato spaghetti or coriander ‘pearls’, but at others it can create harmonies that delight and linger in the memory. Take for example, the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc (created with five different clones of Sauvignon) matched with calamari, lemon zest and salty capers – not forgetting the sorrel flower that brings out an unexpected sweetness of fruit as well as a lively freshness on the finish. And then there’s the lamb with pomegranate and elderflower pearls (and the tiniest bit of fresh rosemary that makes all the difference) with the 2015 Art Selection Pinot Noir creating a deep and sensual combination of mouth-watering, savoury-sweet flavours. The finale was the 2015 barrel selection Syrah and the milk chocolate flavoured with fennel, salt and liquorice powder. Now I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to chocolate: I prefer it dark and unadorned. But this combination was definitely more than the sum of its parts. The chocolate intensified the dark curranty fruit of the wine whilst raising subtle clovey spices. The liquorice powder was inspired, bringing out the previously hidden hint of anise in the wine; and the salt served to quicken the pace, leaving the mouth fresh and clean. I can conjure the flavours in my taste memory even now.
But while a really good wine and food experience will draw tourists from near and far, there is a definite commercial advantage to providing them with an emotional reason to maintain the relationship. And it is here that Creation excells once again. As a business enterprise, they are by no means alone in their social and environmental programs, but their involvement makes customers feel good about repeating their wine orders. Not that Creation is a cynical investor in these projects. It was a founder member of the Pebbles Hemel-en-Aarde Education Project, a large part of whose efforts are towards the establishment of early childhood development education for children living in the Hemel-en-Aarde. They also support the annual Cape Wine Auction, which was launchedby Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick Wine Estate in 2013 to raise money for education in the South African Winelands. And they are one of only nine wineries in South Africa to have received EnviroWines accreditation, in addition to being members of Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) and part of the Landmark Foundation. They are therefore officially ‘predator friendly’, meaning they support a natural hierarchy in the food chain.Even so, they like to support the ‘under dog’ which in past years has been hump back whales and white sharks but this year is the African or Jackass Penguin. Their delicious African Penguin Reserve Rosé is made, unusually, from Pinot Noir grapes, in this case young, first commercial season grapes – a very good use of young vines. Its pretty delicate pink is the result of just 3 hours on the skins, no pressing. There is strawberry and redcurrant fruit on the nose followed by attractive ripe redcurrant and cranberry fruit on the palate. It is a ‘serious’ – ie: dry- rosé but the purity of fruit brings out a pleasing sense of sweetness. It is one of the most appealing rosés I’ve tasted in a long time.
R15 billion is one very large amount of money and 2025 in less than a decade away but there is an awful lot that Creation and others of its sort are doing ‘right’. If more South African wineries were to follow their example, not only does this ambitious target seem possible, but it will force Europe to sit and take serious note.