The Franschhoek Wine Valley
Visiting this sometimes misunderstood South African wine region


This was my first proper visit to Franschhoek, a South African wine region that I have only really passed through before, with brief stops. I was looking forward to spending some quality time here, to give me a chance to get under the skin of the place. But this was a slightly different wine trip. I’d been invited out by Kevin Swart, of Black Elephant Vintners. I’d never met Kevin before, but I know his brother Gary, an all-round good guy who’s a colleague of my wife. Gary has been round to dinner at ours quite a bit, and he put Kevin and I in touch. Kevin was keen for me to visit, because as a recent arrival in Franschhoek after a career in finance in Johannesburg, he couldn’t understand why Franschhoek wasn’t being taken more seriously by the wine press.  So Kevin had got a group of producers together to chip in to pay my airfare.


Franschhoek is a paradoxical sort of wine region that is currently enjoying great success, while at the same time struggling with its reputation. This is because it has become the tourist hotspot of the Cape winelands. Come here in summer, and you'll struggle to find a place to park, and you'll have to make restaurant reservations in advance. It's heaving, and for good reason: visitors are drawn by the combination of natural beauty, a pretty town with nice places to stay, and some of the best restaurants in the country. But wine professionals don't take the Franschhoek Valley seriously. The narrative is that Franschhoek is great for restaurants but bad for wine, lacking in top quality terroirs. ‘The advantage of this valley is that it is beautiful and it has lots of visitors,’ says Kevin. ‘The disadvantage of this valley is that it is beautiful and it has lots of visitors,’ he adds. If you can make wine here you can sell it.


This image is reinforced by the fact that some of the biggest wineries in the valley, such as La Motte and Boekenhoutskloof, are most famous for their out-of-valley wines made from grapes brought in from other regions. This practice is known locally as terroir by truck. But is this really true? That's what I wanted to find out.


‘There’s lots of investment here, but very few people who come in are serious about wine,’ says Ludwig Maske, owner of local wine shop La Cotte. ‘Very few people are trying hard, and some young winemakers are being pushed back.’ Maske thinks that Franschhoek wines haven’t been taken seriously by the press. ‘The press seem to have it in for us. People are jealous of Franschhoek, and a lot of people have their knives in for Franschhoek. If Franschhoek turns out a great wine, people ask where the grapes come from, and if they aren’t from the valley that reinforces their opinion. But a lot of our better wines are made from valley fruit.’


Surrounded on three sides by mountains, there is no denying that the valley is beautiful. Wherever you are here, you will have a nice view, and these dramatic mountains with their rugged beauty are a unique feature of many of South Africa's wine regions. There is also a range of soil types, with some vineyards so sandy you'd think you were on a beach, others with rich deep loams, and others quite stony and rocky. This is a small region, with just 1200 hectares of grapes, which represents less than 2% of South Africa's total wine region. Until the mid-1990s, pretty much all the valley's wines were made by the local cooperative, but gradually wine farms began bottling their own wine. Now there are dozens of small producers and several big ones, making a large variety of wines.


I found lots to like here in my short stay, and it's a mistake to dismiss Franschhoek as being non-serious. I was focusing on smaller producers whose emphasis is on working with Franschhoek grapes. First of all, there's some amazing old vine Semillon here. Basil Landau, a prominent businessman who settled here in the mid-1980s and began a family at the age of 56, is the custodian of one of South Africa's oldest producing vineyards. It's a scraggly 5 hectare block of dry grown vines planted in 1905, and the wine it produces, the Landau du Val Semillon, which is made by the talented Wynand Grobler at Rickety Bridge (another of the valley's leading wineries), is sensational. Basil now sells some of his grapes to Black Elephant, and with these winemaker Jacques Wentzel is also making a brilliant (albeit as yet unreleased) interpretation of Franschoek Semillon. Marc Kent, possibly the most famous Franschhoek winemaker, makes a superb Semillon, which is one of few wines he makes from valley grapes. Others to look out for include Rob Armstrong's at Haut Espoir and also the inexpensive but tasty example from Franschhoek Vineyards.


Chardonnay is another strongpoint of the valley. Styles vary, but the two Chardonnay specialists excelling with this variety are Môreson and Glenwood, with the former more linear and the latter richer and more generous. Perhaps the most famous example of Franschhoek Chardonnay, however, is the Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay, which is superb. La Bri is another name to look out for, making small quantities of elegant Chardonnay in a linear style.


As for reds, the leading variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, with honourable mentions for Cabernet Franc and Syrah, although the latter two only really excel on certain sites. I was really impressed by Dieter Sellmeyer's Lynx wines, with Xanache, a Bordeaux-style blend, and Cabernet Franc the stand outs. At La Bri, Irene Waller is making some very serious Cabernet Sauvignon, although I suspect her heart is really with Syrah, which she is doing great things with. I tried several vintages of Rickety Bridge Paulina's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is taut, structured and ageworthy. And one of the best wines of the trip was the Ghost Gum, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Stony Brook Vineyards that spends a full 32 months in barrel, but absorbs the oak effortlessly. 


What is the future for the valley? At the moment there is some tension between those who'd like to keep the focus local, and those who think that having a winery in Franschhoek is a commercial opportunity to sell a lot of wine, given the large numbers of well-heeled tourists who flock here. The valley is definitely a tourist success story, and land prices here have risen considerably over the last decade. Recently, Richard Branson bought Mont Rochelle, and wealthy Indian businessman Analjit Singh bought three neighbouring estates, totalling 200 hectares of vines, as well as Le Quartier Français (together, these are being rebranded as the Leeu Collection).

There's a momentum to Franschhoek that creates a commercial incentive to appropriating the name for non-valley wines. The latest move is to expand the Franschhoek WO to include neighbouring Paarl Simonsberg, which would bring some high-profile Paarl wineries into the Franschoek appellation. This is a highly controversial proposal. The tourism side of the valley would welcome it, because from a tourism perspective the more the merrier – and some of the proposed newcomers are quite wealthy. But from a wine side, it raises the question as to whether or not this compromises the integrity of the identity of Franschhoek as a wine region.


So, a pivotal question is whether or not Franschhoek has an identity that is worth preserving, from a wine perspective. After five days, my conclusion would have to be that there is something special about the valley, and that this is something worth fighting for. It would be a mistake to expand Franschhoek further (some would say that the expansion that has already occurred in recent years is highly questionable), and the winegrowers here would be ill advised to accept the promise of sub-appellations in exchange for a broadened WO.


There’s a film that I made about the valley, based on this visit, including interviews with many of the leading players:


So here are my producer profiles, based on the visits I made

Black Elephant Vintners
Landau du Val
La Bri
La Petite Ferme
Appellation Grand Prestige
Haut Espoir

See also:

The Hemel-en-Arde wine route (series)
Stellenbosch revisited (series)

Wines tasted 04/15  
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