Building a showcase for South Africa at Johannesburg Airport

With my family I departed South Africa earlier this week with a heavy heart, having packed in a two-week trip filled with wonderful experiences on our first visit to this country of contrasts.

From the Western Cape to Eastern Cape and back again, we left with some great memories of the natural magnificence of the territory, from the western and southern coastlines to the greenery and hills of the Garden Route, to the dusty, dry, stony Karoo.

Great South African wines on show at Big Five Duty Free, Johannesburg Airport, across regions, price points and grape varieties

And of course there was the sloping elegance of the winelands around Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, with its abundance of varieties – close to 200 wineries covering a relatively small territory – and more importantly the signature excellence of the wines we tasted along the way.

It was this variety and expression of quality I was expecting to encounter on departure, as we flew out from Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport. Big Five Duty Free does deliver a fine showcase for South African wine, but perhaps it could reinforce the message of excellence and quality to its international audience even more.

Further displays of the quality and variety on offer in South African wines at Big Five Duty Free

The main departures store at the airport does a nice job of representing the multiple varieties, brands, price points and key wine regions of South Africa. There is generous space give to the category that acts as a reminder of the experience that many will have had of wine tasting and estate visits.

If you have a strong and fond memory of a visit to Constantia, Nederburg, Durbanville Hills or many more wineries you will find an expression of these places here, including some that are not easy to find outside the vineyard. Having searched in vain through several supermarkets and liquor shops for a lovely, zesty Kaapzicht Chenin Blanc that we had enjoyed over dinner earlier in the trip, we found it in the Big Five shop on departure. If I could have bought and carried another 30 or 40 bottles that resonated from our trip, I would have done.

Yet while wine sits in a welcome and impressive space at the heart of the store, the experience could arguably go even further.

Some digital tools for further guidance, education and engagement would help the casual visitor. Many will be leaving South Africa having sampled only a tiny element of what the winelands have to offer, but (admittedly like me) won’t have a deep or wide-ranging knowledge of the category. Others will be familiar with some of what South Africa has to offer from their journeys, but won’t have encountered even a fraction of the estates. The number of wineries is simply too vast, even if you made the trip for the wine alone.

More views of Big Five Duty Free from this week, including well ranged spirits and beauty offers

Going big at Big Five with cream liqueur Amarula, owned by South African drinks group Distell

Why not offer a further taste of what the visitor has experienced so far, and whet the appetite for the next visit? These could even focus on the top visitor nationalities, from the UK, Germany and other parts of Europe, with language options to suit.

Travel retail, already a fine showcase here at OR Tambo, can be that gateway to deeper knowledge and wider engagement with the best that the country has to offer. Here at the airport, an already high-class offer could even become the reference point for South African wines – one that resonates around the world.

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