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April 18, 2021

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Pandemic crushes S. African vineyards

THE good life has been forced by the pandemic to take a break in South Africa, which in normal times attracts gourmets and wine connoisseurs from all over the world. Winemakers have had a lonely harvest season, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, say some.

The R45 highway from Cape Town to Franschhoek is lined with wine estates. On a crisp morning, winegrowers in South Africa take advantage of cooler temperatures to bring in the harvest.

Sauvignon Blanc was taken off the vines at the start of the month, followed by Chardonnay, Merlot and Grenache.

Visitors used to come from the world over to watch the grape harvest in Franschhoek. Here, 100 kilometers inland from the Cape of Good Hope, everything revolves around wine tourism.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that.

There are few visitors these days, and precious little good hope.

“On a day like today, the place should be buzzing with 250 guests,” says Eric Bulpitt, chef at the Pierneef restaurant at La Motte winery. He has worked in kitchens around the world.

Now, he’s sitting in the terrace, surrounded by empty tables.

On weekdays, Bulpitt serves meat platters rather than the gourmet menus of the past — it’s all the numbers allow. “The general feeling is one of uncertainty,” he says. “The situation dampens your mood, your creativity comes to a halt, you can’t waste money on experiments, you can’t spend money on food because no one is coming to serve it to.”

He’s trying not to let it get him down, seeking instead to take a positive view of the future. His services are now more tailored to local guests’ needs. “I actually always have some kind of project,” Bulpitt says. “It’s a sad time for the industry right now, but we just have to keep busy.”

The positive news is that Franschhoek’s restaurants have been allowed to reopen and have been serving alcoholic drinks since early February. But there are few people to be seen along the usually-busy main street that leads through the town and out to the mountains.

On the weekends, meanwhile, there’s a glimmer of hope in the day-trippers who come out from Cape Town.

Those weekends are keeping many afloat, including Archie Maclean, chef and owner of the new Entree restaurant on the main road.

He lost his first restaurant on a nearby wine farm due to the first lockdown, and now he is trying out a new venture. He whips up lunch — pea truffle risotto and beef ribs — before sitting down to talk. Without any guests, he has the time to chat.

Luckily, he says, his landlord is understanding, knowing that “once this is gone and we’re gone, no one else will follow,” Maclean says.

The region has been hit hard by the crisis, especially due to temporary bans on alcohol sales.

“Tourists coming in, taking part in a wine tasting and then buying wine — that’s largely gone,” says Jan van Huyssteen, managing director at Rickety Bridge. Everywhere, winemakers are trying to stimulate business with discounts, some of them substantial.

The air is heavy with the scent of freshly harvested grapes — and a touch of optimism. “In quite a few of our most important travel market countries, vaccinations have started and people are very keen to travel again,” says van Huyssteen, describing it as “light at the end of the tunnel.”

The future won’t be the same though, if you ask Hein Koegelenberg, managing director of La Motte Winery. “Franschhoek has always been known for good wine and good food, and we’ve always marketed that, with festivals and overnight stays,” he says.

But he fears the days of “cozy close gatherings in restaurants” are a thing of the past — as are many aspects of what used to be normality.

He believes the town, sustained by tourism, will find a way forward with outdoor activities. There are already plans for a zipline and water sports facilities on the nearby Berg River reservoir.

A 5-kilometer hiking trail winds its way from La Motte through the vineyards up into the fynbos landscape with its unique flora.

People can explore the plants here alone or on guided tours.

Elephants used to raise their young in the valley basin, says hiking guide Jacques Johannisen. The pachyderms have long since disappeared, but there are still leopards in the mountain wilderness. The big cats have adapted perfectly to the habitat as they are much smaller in the Cape than in the rest of South Africa, and are rarely seen. Instead, walkers can spot rock hyraxes — rabbit-sized animals covered in fur — scurrying over the rocks.

From a cliff, a large baboon overlooks the scenery.

Here on the mountain pass linking Franschhoek with the hinterland, the baboons are less shy. The youngsters in particular seem willing to pose in front of deep mountain gorges.

Maybe they too are missing tourists.


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