Corner of Cape that is forever French
Cape Town - I’m astounded that people from north of the Du Toit’s mountains (and south of the Limpopo river) disparage the Western Cape winter. It’s the best time of the year in the province: when the sun is out the days are glorious, and even when it rains and the nor’wester howls, you can check into a guest house and fortify yourself with sumptuous food and glorious wines.
And nowhere is this truer than in Franschhoek, an unabashedly Francophile (to the extent that it stages a two-day Bastille Day festival each July) enclave hemmed between the Jonkershoek, Wemmershoek and Groot Drakenstein mountain ranges.
The town, which has a population of fewer than 20 000, was recently named as South Africa’s favourite winelands destination in the annual TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. There are two principal access roads to the valley. The southern route takes the traveller up the Franschhoek Pass where, at the crest, the town’s rustic beauty is suddenly revealed. The elevated viewpoint presents the valley as a quilt-work of vineyards and orchards, varying remarkably in colour according to the season.
The northern access (the R45 from Paarl) is historically beguiling as the names of villages, farms and vineyards morph from Dutch to French.
The valley was ceded by the Dutch government of the Cape of Good Hope to 176 Huguenot refugees – who had fled France in the face of persecution for their outlawed Protestant beliefs – in 1688.
Originally named Olifantshoek because of the elephant herds that roamed the area, it soon became known as Le Coin Français (“French Corner”) to the locals and this description was passed back to the Dutch. Hence its current name.
The settlers’ sponsor was the governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, who first cultivated vines on Groot Constantia in Cape Town in 1685. Many of the wine estates are named after the areas from which the original settlers bolted. One such is Haute Cabrière, owned by charismatic cellarmaster and bon vivant Achim von Arnim.
Von Arnim bought his first parcel of Cabrière in 1981: “Franschhoek was the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the Western Cape at that time and we bought those 17 hectares for peanuts,” he laughs.
The farm was established in December 1694 by a former resident of Cabrière – north-east of Cannes – called Pierre Jourdan, who has since lent his name to one of South Africa’s most highly regarded Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wine ranges.
The Von Arnim family – Achim’s oldest son, Takuan, recently put his name to the Haute Cabrière label for the first time with the 2014 chardonnay pinot noir blend – are widely regarded as among the pioneers of Franschhoek’s wine and gastro-tourism boom. The two men are also exponents of sabrage; the technique of lopping off the top of a bottle of bubbly with a sabre.
The same year that Jourdan set up shop, Pierre Joubert arrived in the valley and built Grande Provence. By the time of his death in 1732, he had also acquired Belingchamp (now Bellingham), La Motte, La Roche and L’Ormarins – all of which are still producing.
Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate now forms part of the Huka Retreats group.
Unusually, the owners have consolidated the position of cellarmaster and general manager of Grande Provence in the person of Karl Lambour, a burly but sophisticated man who started his working life as a silviculturist (forester) for the Lion Match Company before studying oenology at Stellenbosch University and going to work for The Bergkelder.
For all the beauty of the estate and understated elegance of its accommodation – I stayed at the five-star Owner’s Cottage – the highlight of any visit to Grande Provence is the time spent at what is simply called The Restaurant.
Given that Franschhoek has a multitude of superb restaurants offering the spectrum of cuisines – just think celebrity chef Reuben Riffel at his signature spot on the high street, Margot Janse of the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, Pierneef a La Motte (whose chef Chris Erasmus has just left to open his own business) and Ryan Shell at Haute Cabrière – it’s almost unfair to single out Darren Badenhorst.
But when a man serves you Karoo lamb loin settled on a caramelised beetroot-onion marmalade with a courgette baba ghanoush, root vegetable puff-tart (with a porcini purée) and follows it with a boozy and colourful sorbet selection of all the grapes that are currently being harvested on the estate… well, what’s not to like?
Honestly speaking, though, the only thing that will lose weight on any extended stay in Franschhoek will be your wallet.
That said, I believe that the best gastronomic value for money in the town is to be found at Fyndraai on Solms Delta estate.
The fare is upmarket indigenous – delicious and delightfully different from just about anything else you’ll find in a formal Franschhoek restaurant setting.
If you’re there for any length of time and find yourself tiring of spectacular à la carte menus, the town also offers an artisan food route and a Cap classique route. See www.franschhoek.org.za.
Franschhoek is also distinctly arty, and numerous galleries and exhibitions can be found along the main road or on individual estates. As far as the latter is concerned, among the more noteworthy are those at Grande Provence and La Motte.
A collection of a completely different kind can be found at L’Ormarins. Just don’t pitch up on a motorcycle wanting to take a look at the Franschhoek Motor Museum (www.fmm.co.za): I was turned away because the sound of my bike would disturb Dr Rupert’s horses.
One of the really nice things about Franschhoek is that it is sufficiently far from Cape Town (about 70km) to make an overnight stop almost mandatory. I found a little gem: Lekkerwijn Historical Guesthouse, a stately but reasonably priced Cape Dutch homestead.
l The 2014 Franschhoek Bastille Day Festival takes place on July 12-13. For details, go to www.franschhoek.co.za.