Yesterday the Franschhoek Wine Tram operated for the first time, having been eagerly awaited, after its introduction was announced more than two years ago.  In the first month the Wine Tram will only travel between its starting platform, and Grande Provence and Rickety Bridge, but will expand from 15 December with an additional hop-on hop-off bus service.

We have written previously about the Wine Tram, and its owners David and Sean Blyth, a father and son team who are avid train fans.  They identified the potential to introduce a tram service, a modern built tram based on the Brill Tram design of the 1890’s, as a hop-on hop-off service for tourists and winetasters wanting to taste wines without having to drive themselves.

Having received a newsletter about the new tram service early yesterday, announcing its opening day, my colleague and I made use of a two hour gap before guests arrived to try out the tram.  We thought the station was alongside Franschhoek Cellars, where the tram has been securely parked since it was completed.  It was a little further along, past the old Pippin Farm Stall (soon to open as The Stall), one seeing the tram in an open field, that one reaches by turning left just after The Siding, where Graham Beck now has its marketing offices, and first left again, following a road alongside the track.  It was impressive that we could pay per credit card in the middle of nowhere, receiving an SMS notification of our payment, having been asked for our ‘South African’ cell number!  The tram, sporting French flags, was waiting to depart (every hour, on the hour), and goes to Rickety Bridge first, where one can be picked up every hour, allowing one to spend more than hour there to taste and buy the Rickety Bridge wines, buy from their gift shop, play boules, stay over, and enjoy lunch at their new Paulina’s restaurant.  On the way back, one can get off at Grand Provence, to enjoy their restaurant, art gallery, and tasting room.

The tram track uses that of the original railway that transported wine and fruit from Franschhoek, a line that has been dormant for ten years, an informative commentary spoken by recent new Franschhoek property owner Malcolm Gooding, well-known as a radio and TV voice going back to Springbok Radio days, informed, unfortunately at times inaudible due to some noisy children on board. The tram travels along the tree-lined track, and the vineyards of Grande Provence and Rickety Bridge.  The tram crosses side roads, and must stop at each of these, its staff getting off, and waving red flags, with a hooter going off too.  We were told that clients get on on a first come, first served basis.  No food and drink, nor smoking, is allowed on the tram. An environmentally friendly bio-diesel is used to fuel the tram.

At Rickety Bridge we got onto a 1950’s farm Dodge truck that has been transformed into a vehicle transporting one to the tasting room and restaurant.  One is given a list of eight Rickety Bridge and four Paulina’s Reserve wines, and one is allowed to taste five of these for free, as part of the ticket price of R60. Paulina de Villiers was the first female owner of a wine farm in South Africa in the 1800s, and the wines and restaurant have been named in her honour. We were lucky to find Sales Manager Jackie Rabe and her partner Guy Kedian at the wine estate, and were spoilt with a personalised wine tasting.  Rickety Bridge is the entry level wine range, and is unwooded, while the Paulina’s Reserve range is partially wooded.  Guy shared that Chenin Blanc once made up one third of South Africa’s vine production, and that it was largely used to make brandy, a large part of it consumed in the army. When the compulsory conscription came to an end, the consumption of Brandy & Coke fell dramatically, and many farmers removed their Chenin vines, this varietal only making up 20% of the country’s vine production currently, yet it is still the largest varietal.  Rickety Bridge still has 34 year old chenin vines, which are full of flavour.  Interesting is that Semillon vines dominated 250 years ago, and Franschhoek is particularly well suited to grow this big wine varietal.  Rickety Bridge is best known for its Shiraz.  The Rickety Bridge range consists of Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Chenin Blanc 2011, Semillon 2006, Rosé 2011, Merlot 2008, Pinotage 2011, The Foundation Stone 2010 (made from Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Tannat, and Cinsaut), and Shiraz 2010. The Paulina’s Reserve Range consists of Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Chenin Blanc 2010, Semillon 2008, and Cabernet Sauvignon 2009.

We did not have time to get off at Grande Provence, but the farm tractor with a trailer with seating fetches the guests from the La Provence platform, and transports one down to the wine cellar, the tasting room, the delectable restaurant for which Chef Darren Badenhorst and his team cooks, and an award-winning art gallery, winning Best Art & Culture recently in the Great Wine Capitals Global Network awards.

We are confident that the visitors to Franschhoek will enjoy their outing on the Franschhoek Wine Tram, and at the two inaugural wine estates Grande Provence and Rickety Bridge.  From mid-December the route will expand to include Dieu Donné, Platter Winery of the Year 2013 Cape Chamonix, Haute Cabriere (which will offer a welcome glass of Pierre Jourdan MCC), and the Huguenot Museum, utilising a special bus, also on a hop-on hop-off basis, in conjunction with the Wine Tram.  There is no doubt that current wine tour operators could see the Wine Tram as a competitor.

POSTSCRIPT 18/11: It was impressive that Sean Blyth called on Saturday evening, to obtain feedback about the Wine Tram trip, and has made changes already as a result, for example children may no longer travel unaccompanied by the parents.

POSTSCRIPT 21/12: Sean Blyth sent an update e-mail today: To give you an update, we have had a excellent response from passengers re the service with several positive reviews on Tripadvisor:  http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g469391-d3536165-Reviews-Franschhoek_Wine_Tram-Franschhoek_Western_Cape.html

We are averaging about 50-70 passengers a day at this point and this is with very little marketing. We have also opened our new ticket office in Franschhoek which has been a great way to attract passengers. Top Billing will be doing a segment on the tram with the shoot lined up for mid Jan – this should be great exposure.  We are now getting ready to launch the bus service early next week which will extend the stops from 2 to 6 – will you been in Franschhoek next week to join us as our guest to experience the full product?

POSTSCRIPT 26/12: Today the Franschhoek Wine Tram has announced that the Franschhoek Wine Bus has begun operating, stopping at Chamonix, Dieu Donné, Haute Cabriere, and the Huguenot Museum, in addition to the Tram stops at Rickety Bridge and Grande Provence.

Franschhoek Wine Tram,  Tel (021) 300-0338.  www.winetram.co.za Twitter:@WineTram. Monday – Sunday 10h00 – 17h00.  R60, includes one complimentary wine tasting.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage