How serene is my valley

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GETTING READY: Setting off on a tailor-made, fully supported cycle ride in Franschhoek.

Cape Town - No pain, no gain – this echoed through my head as I puffed uphill, sweat trickling down my spine. A group of us, or so I thought, were cycling up Robertsvlei Road near Franschhoek.

True to its origins as one of the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest winemaking regions (since 1688), vineyards stretch to cloud-soaked mountains, with raptors performing aerial displays.

That was a few hours ago, after leaving foggy Cape Town to arrive on the fringe of Franschhoek. Fresh from a transatlantic flight and ready to go, Stuart and Nicole Berg and daughters Rebecca, Shira and Natalie were here on a two-week holiday from New York.

Sharing a tree-lined track with pedestrians and dogs, we turned off on to Cabriere Road. With the Cape Dutch houses and vineyards was the promise of wine-tasting.

“But you have to work for it,” said Bevan, Bike & Saddle’s accredited guide. This eco-active travel company runs tailor-made, fully supported and one-of-a-kind cycle, hiking and kayaking trips.

We had been warned and put foot to pedal as we climbed towards a cross on the hillside. The mountain-surround scenery was good distraction – baby grapes on vineyards interspersed with roses, dogs and horses, and some of the country’s best-known wine estates.

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FREEWHEELING: Visits to wine estates are included in a bicycle ride in Franschhoek, with its vistas of vineyards as far as the eye can see and majestic mountain.

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Taking a left turn, Bevan explained about drip irrigation and how the 29 wine farms of Franschhoek exported between 70 and 80 percent of their production.

Cooling off on an exhilarating downhill stretch, we zoomed through La Bourgogne to brake at the Huguenot Monument, the symbol of Franschhoek. The nearby museum chronicles the history of the first settlers – 176 French Huguenot refugees, many of them given land by the Dutch government. But more of this later.

After the Americans posed for pictures we retraced our track to enter a wine estate – at last. By now the mercury boiled and, in need of liquids – well, that’s my excuse – we slaked our thirst on jugs of ice water while John Bongani Twala served one wine after another.

Holden Manz was established in 2010 and is named after owners Gerard Holden and Migo Manz. Situated “where two rivers meet”, between the Franschhoek and Stony Brook Rivers, the wine produced on this 22-hectare initially reds-only farm benefits from being kept at least 12 months in tanks and French oak barrels.

The flagship wine, Big G 2010, named after Gerard Holden, is an equal blend of cabernet and cabernet franc and gets an additional six months in barrels. This voluptuous dark ruby-coloured wine has a spicy, blackberry full nose with a dark chocolatey herbal flourish.

Fruit for the first white, a barrel-fermented chardonnay, was sourced from Elgin and is whole-bunch pressed, fermented and matured in a combination of new and used French oak barrels, creating a wine with fresh, crispy minerality and ripe lemon, marmalade, caramel and toffee flavours.

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YUM: Leon Groenewald demonstrates a chocolate shower.

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Light salmon and peach in colour, the Holden Manz Rosé is well-balanced with creamy ripe fruit and a full heady finish and would go well with fish or chicken.

But it was the 2010 merlot that received our nods of approval. Deep ruby red in colour, this smooth, creamy wine has a rich full nose of blackberries and strawberries, with gentle spicy notes.

Commenting on the labels’ elephant head and tusk, Twala said the idea was to reflect the history of the town, originally called Olifantshoek (Elephants’ Corner) because of the vast herds of elephants said to have roamed here.

Having hiked the elephant trail a few weeks before and had lunch at the Elephant and Barrel Village Pub, it was Bevan who told us that the origin of the pachyderms reputed presence was a painting in a nearby cave.

The town’s name was soon changed to le Coin Français (the French Corner) until 1881, when it became Franschhoek (Dutch for French Corner). Many settlers named their farms after the areas in France from which they had come: La Motte, Champagne Estates, La Cotte, Cabriere, Provence, Chamonix, Dieu Donné and La Dauphine.

These were among some of the first farms – most of which retain their original homesteads today – to become renowned wineries. Many surnames in the area are of French origin: Du Toit, Marais, Du Plessis, Malan, Malherbe, and Joubert.

By now we were hungry and keen to work for our lunch. Back in the saddle we cycled to Excelsior Road, then left into Robertsvlei where, rapidly changing gears, we climbed and climbed some more. Steaming hot, we were thankful for a cooling breeze.

Whooping for the sheer joy of it, as we flew downhill, wind whistling through our helmets, with the Berg River Dam whizzing past in a shimmering turquoise blur.

Welcomed by restaurant manager André Lourens, we were soon settled under willow trees at Le Bon Vivant. He said what made GlenWood a boutique winery was that it produced fewer than 120 000 bottles using only grapes grown on the estate.

Owner Alistair Wood left a career in business consulting to set up his picturesque estate. He has built a reputation for outstanding chardonnay and consistent quality throughout the range.

Sipping the 2013 sauvignon blanc we agreed that everything was better with sauvignon, or chardonnay, in fact anything grown and bottled in Franschhoek. The balanced crisp sauvignon has tropical flavours and a zesty lemon finish and was perfectly paired with the starter of mozzarella salad.

The mushroom tagliatelle was perfectly paired with slightly chilled merlot 2012. Full-bodied, with layers of chocolate-dipped ripe plums and mulberry, this full and elegant wine was a satisfying complement to a delicious dish.

A trio of mouth-watering sorbets completed our meal as we tasted the unwooded chardonnay.

Like a breath of fresh air, this wine offers a full, creamy, tropical palate of citrus and delicate green apple flavours.

With time running out, we ventured into the heart of bustling Franschhoek, where Huguenot Fine Chocolates is the country’s first black economic empowerment producer of hand-crafted Belgian chocolates.

Leon Groenewald gave us a tour of chocolate history, from the Aztecs who drank it on special occasions to the Spanish, who tried grow trees, without success. - Cape Times

l Call 021 813 6433, or e-mail [email protected] or see www.ecoactive.travel

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