Groot Constantia Wine Estate is shrouded in mist as I drive towards its tasting room, the lush grounds glistening in the drizzle. A man in a red rain jacket strides toward the whitewashed building. “He jiu! He jiu!” – Let’s drink! – he calls behind him, enunciating the Mandarin tones. He is followed closely by fifteen bright-eyed Chinese tourists in an assortment of rainbow-coloured jackets. Heads swivelling left and right, taking in their surroundings, they head through a green Cape Dutch door.
Groot Constantia has long been a requisite stop on Cape Town’s tourist trail, but ten years ago, it would have been mostly European accents echoing through its cellars and tasting rooms. Today, with disposable incomes rising steadily – and China in its third year as biggest-spending tourism market – almost half of its visitors are Chinese. Like this rainbow-jacketed group, the majority of Chinese travel in groups, accompanied by local guides from back home. Joining a tour is the easiest way to satisfy visa requirements; it also makes communication far easier for the vast majority of Chinese, who – despite the country’s increasing emphasis on the importance of English – lack the language skills to get by on holiday.
The group files into the tasting room behind their guide, who leads them to a long wooden table laid with glasses, buckets, and jugs of water. A staff member hands him the first of the six wines that they’ll be sampling, and scuttles away. Whatever these tourists learn about Groot Constantia’s wine today is in their tour guide’s hands.
Wine poured, he holds up the greenish bottle, pointing to the date. “The year on the bottle is not the best indicator of the wine’s quality,” he says in Mandarin, pausing, as if for shock value. They taste a Sauvignon Blanc. “Today our schedule is more relaxed – it’s raining, eh. Take your time with your drinks.” A smiling woman in a red jacket holds up her glass: “Cheers!” she says, in English. The closest Chinese translation literally means “drain your glass” so, with the group only on wine number one of six, no one wants to see what will happen if they do that.
A minute later, the tour guide’s back. “Do you want more? I can get us another bottle.” One of the women asks whether he wouldn’t like to taste it. “No, I won’t have any,” he replies, thanking her. “I like drinking whiskey.”
The tour guide’s wine lecture continues. “Where is the most expensive wine in the world from? I’m sure you can’t imagine. Germany!” He gestures to a rack of hundreds of bottles behind him. “Lots of these wines are exported – they cost more at home. Plus the prices at the winery are good.” I debate whether, even outside China’s borders, the law of Chinese tours applies: suspiciously low rates in exchange for commission earned from near-mandatory shopping at every stop-off point. No wonder the itineraries are so jam-packed.
They taste their second white wine. Sharing the last of the bottle with a new tour-bus pal, red-jacket-lady is all smiles. Onto the third, the guide says: a Pinotage.
“This kind of wine is only made in South Africa,” he explains. “It’s a South African speciality.” The group clink glasses one by one – “Cheers!” – and take a sip. “Fragrant, fragrant!” they chorus in Chinese, the description echoing down the table.
Since China overtook France as the world’s biggest market for red wine in 2013, plenty of news sources have pointed out that red wine is particularly popular because, for Chinese, red symbolises good fortune, happiness and good luck.
Choosing a drink based on its colour may seem somewhat quaint, but after disputing the reasoning behind China’s preference for red wine, I realised that it may hold more weight than I was initially willing to admit. If you’ve ever been shopping in China just before Chinese New Year, the staggering amount of red clothes on sale is enough to prove the superstition’s importance. As for the diligently-followed code that people born under the Chinese horoscope that is currently being celebrated – as it is every twelve years – are obliged to wear red underwear for the entire year, well, that goes a step further to demonstrate how committed the average Chinese is to making sure good fortune comes their way.
The tour guide returns to a significantly redder-faced group, and offers them a few slivers of cheese from a platter. They eagerly reach for the crackers. “At bars, foreigners eat cheese when they drink,” he informs the table. “Can you get used to it?” he asks, using Mandarin’s ubiquitous expression for implying that new things require major adjustment skills. “No problem!” a middle-aged man boasts. “I had this in the U.S!”
“South Africa’s cheese is really tasty, and tomorrow we’ll have more,” says the guide. And then, flatly: “It’s easy to get fat here. In China, it’s not.”
The middle-aged man comes back with his own cheese plate. “The flavour of this cheese is inferior to Swiss cheese!” he announces to the table. Red-jacket-lady is looking pleasantly rosy. “Shang huo!” she declares: she’s giving off too much heat from within – because of the foreign food. The man next to her has turned a deep shade of red.
“How many wines are we trying?” someone asks, sounding concerned. “Six”, replies the guide, as a couple of the tourists pour the remains of their glasses into a bucket on the table.
“What’s the name of this place? Con…con…”, the middle-aged man asks. “Constantia!” replies the guide. “Constaaantia, Constanseeeeya, Coooonstantia – you can pronounce it however you like!”
They get through the next three wines, and a few people stand up to walk around. Some go over to the cashier and buy a couple of bottles of wine. A curly-haired woman takes out an iPad and starts filming her surrounds – rows of bottles on racks, wine glasses lined up at tasting stations around the room – until she reaches me, and slows to a halt, still filming. I pretend to be focused on my screen, and type a few lines. Smiling in my direction, she couldn’t possibly know that we are both voyeurs, each mirroring the other. I act like I haven’t seen her, and keep writing.