Building the Cape’s wine culture

Swartland-Revolution-2013-posterRegional wine events for the wine-loving public are important in every way – including the self-serving. There’s no doubt that the Swartland Revolution weekend has sold a lot of wine, and has had even international repercussions, for example. My contacts tell me that clever people even in Australia (not predisposed to be interested in South African wine) know about Swartland wine and are interested in it, largely as a result. Of course, such awareness goes along with a whole lot of other publicity generated about the area, and is based on actual achievements in great wine-growing.

Locally, too, the impact of an event like the Revolution goes far beyond the number of people actually attending it, and beyond the Swartland wine area itself. It is part of building a vibrant wine culture in the Cape, with reverberations reaching far. To me that is the important, exciting thing – marketing usefulness is a less thrilling component, I confess, although inevitable.

The Hemel-en-Aarde area has this year valuably added its own event and contribution to this Cape wine culture – at the same rather superior, geekish level.

robertsonOther regions are pitching events rather more populistically, if that’s a word, let alone the right word, and have been doing so for a while. The Robertson Wacky Wine Weekend is now well established and seems to be successful, offering itself as a friendly, family-oriented and easy-going afffair, compared to the Swartland and H-en-A events, which are for wine afficionados rather than families. (I confess I have never been to the Wacky do, which says something about me, no doubt, though also something about the distance from Cape Town…).

wellington-harvest-festivalThe Wellington Wine Harvest Festival is also well established (and unvisited by me as yet). I recently received a notice about the next one, on Saturday 15 March. It announces that “Wellington will entertain its guests with award winning wines, food-highlights, platteland hospitality at three entertainment venues:  New Fashioned Boere Bazaar, Top Chilling and Wilder as die Wildtuin.” Which sounds like an attempt to mix the traditional with the cool; I trust it’ll work.

You’ll immediately see that the Wellington focus differs from the internationalising grandeur, and substantial expensiveness, of the Swartland and Hemel-en-Aarde events. Both styles of event offer immensely valuable contributions to a culture to which wine and vineyards are important. It’s all brilliant! Wine must be part of a wider culture or it’s merely a game. Or a business.

oesfeesThere’s another, totally different, style of event which should maybe give us pause. A notice I’ve just received is for the fantastic Afrikaaans-musico-cultural event held annually at Solms-Delta in Franschhoek (this year on 22 March). Interestingly, it used to be called the Franschoek Oesfees [harvest festival], reflecting the way it was intended to be a celebration for Franschhoek’s farmworkers of the harvest they had just brought in. Which made it marvellously unique, as all the other parties are for the consumers rather than the producers of wine.

Sadly, this event has lost the regional reference, and is now the “ATKV-Oesfees”. (As far as I can see, the ATKV acronym is not explained in the press release – perhaps the whole world is expected to know that it stands for the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging, or I think it does, as not even the ATKV website gives it in full, which is pretty bizarre, nie waar nie?) As Franschhoek itself has weakened its regional identity by blurring the boundaries with Paarl, perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much there.

Constantia-FreshA million miles from the formerly Franschhoek Oesfees, moving to an event where black and brown people were mostly deferential entertainers and servers and cleaners-up (they are the focus and the raison d’être of the Solms-Delta event), is Constantia Fresh, which happened this last weekend and to which I got a freebie (instead of R400) ticket to the Saturday afternoon walk-round tasting on the lawn at lovely Buitenverwachting.

It’s this event that prompted my current bout of ramblings. It was great. I didn’t attend the (very expensive) fancy tasting of international wines, or the (very expensive) dinner, and didn’t feel much hankering to do either, let alone stumping up the large amount of money. Constantia Fresh was great, in its own way. I caught up on some good stuff (ranging from one of my favourite chardonnays, from Restless River in the Hemel-en-Aarde, to the lovely chenin and grenache from Tierhoek in the Piekenierskloof).

What they had to do with “Constantia Fresh” is beyond me, but it was all a great privilege and pleasure. A well-organised event, with great wine (and good food if you really want serious food in the middle of the afternoon). But somewhat soulless compared to the Swartland Revolution and the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration, not to mention the above-mentioned fun events in Wellington and Robertson. Soulless, and nothing much to do with Constantia (though at least some, if by no means all, of the Constantia estates were there).

The first Constantia Fresh did focus on Constantia, but it’s evolved into being being merely a money-making event with big-name international wines at the formal tasting, and mostly big-name wines from across the Cape at the Saturday afternoon event. And there’s not a lot of soul, or wine culture of the nicest kind, when immediate profit is the aim. It would, in my opinion, be preferable if there were a proper Constantia wine event, in Cape Town’s own wine region, organised by the Constantia Wine Route.

Let’s look forward to more genuine regional wine celebrations, whether or not they are elitist like Swartland and Hemel-en-Aarde, or tending to the populist like Wellington and Robertson. I’m forgetting Durbanville, which has a Sauvignon Blanc event of a kind; and the well-established Calitzdorp Port Festival has a real identity. Should I be remembering the Stellenbosch Wine Festival too? I suppose so. But Stellenbosch comes across as so big…. Come on Elgin, you’re the area that really should be pulling itself together. You have an identity – or should have. Forget the gardens, give us a wine party!

2 thoughts on “Building the Cape’s wine culture

  1. You never really minded the first ‘Constantia Fresh’ Tim? You know the one where you were invited to taste all those ‘expensive’ wines free of charge.
    What’s with the pathetic state of wine journalism in SA?

    • I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Justin. Please explain. I have never attended one of the formal tastings at Constantia Fresh, not even the first one which I vaguely remember was connected to Bordeaux-style white blends, related to what some ambitious Constantia producers were offering. (That first year, as I recall, I was invited by Eagles Nest to attend the fancy dinner “free of charge”; maybe I was invited to the tasting, I can’t remember now, but anyway I didn’t go.) But so what? My point about Constantia Fresh is that it’s got not a lot to do with Constantia, though it’s a nice event. Please be clearer about what YOUR point is. It seems to be attacking local wine journalism, which might well be valid (me included); but please be a bit more specific. Personally, I try to be honest, but you must make a clear accusation if you think I’m not.

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