In Food + Drink

How Franschhoek Became South Africa’s Gourmet Capital

South Africa may be synonymous with wildlife and wilderness, but it also has a proud history of wine making dating back hundreds of years.

Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia are arguably the most well-known South African wine regions. Over the last few decades, however, the small but significant Franschhoek wine region has all but eclipsed them to become the country’s premier gourmet destination.

Great wines, stunning scenery and heritage architecture, together with a well-rounded luxury hotel and dining scene, have helped transform this once-sleepy town into what many describe as the “food and wine capital” of South Africa. Yet, it almost didn’t happen.

Settled by Dutch migrants and French Huguenot refugees in 1688, who brought with them knowledge and expertise harvested from the great wine regions of Europe, Franschhoek soon flourished thanks to its temperate climate and superior wine growing conditions.

In the 1980s, though, the town had lost much of its heritage charm and was on the cusp of being redeveloped as a retirement hub. Recognising the need for action, the local council established an aesthetics committee and set about beautifying the town and crafting a chic, village atmosphere. It paid off and soon attracted people in search of a quality lifestyle.

Today, the charming town is home more than 150 indulgent accommodation options and a plethora of wineries producing superb whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chenin Blanc, as well as full-bodied reds including Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet and Pinot Noir.

Franschhoek’s location in the Western Cape Winelands, less than an hour from Cape Town, has been vital to its success, with its sheltered position between three mountains, diverse terroir (soil types) and climate combining to produce the perfect growing conditions.

Dustin Osborne, wine maker at the exclusive Mont Rochelle Hotel & Vineyard – part of Sir Richard Branson’s award-winning collection of ‘Virgin Limited Edition’ properties around the world – is one of the local wine makers taking full advantage of the ‘goldilocks’ location.

“In most instances, great wines are made from quality grapes that are planted in well suited terroirs, focussing on ‘wine quality by design’,” he says. “There is a great variety of terroirs in Franschhoek, and at Mont Rochelle we are blessed with seven different soil types.”

“Our location between 250m and 400m above sea level also means that grapes are exposed to a range of micro climates; dry summers and high winter rainfalls. The valley experiences the south-easter which helps bring in cooler air, allowing for a longer ripening period.”

“This variation in growing conditions allows for more complex and interesting fruit, ultimately resulting in wines of serious complexity and intrigue. At Mont Rochelle, we focus on varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.”

For first-time visitors to the region, Osborne recommends starting active, and then slowing things down with some of the fabulous food and wine options available across the area.

“Start with a hike in the beautiful Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve just off the Franschhoek pass; there are beautiful views looking back over the valley to the North West. Then it would be onto the Franschhoek Wine Tram, which is a great way to explore as many wineries as possible. My tip would be to make sure you get the blue or green line!”

“It’s difficult to single out specific vineyards as there is such a variety, and each has its own charm. Mont Rochelle, of course, would be top of the list! We have a beautiful location, top-class wines (if I may say so myself!), cuisine and accommodation.”

“L’Ormarins offers the opulence of Franschhoek Motor Museum, a selection of rare motor vehicles and beautiful views. Then there are little gems like Stonybrook and My Wyn; both small, family operated wineries offering a range of top quality wines presented by a hands-on team with a traditional family feel. No fuss, just great wines!”

“Lunch would be either at the Country Kitchen, Rickety Bridge, or Holden Manz. After sampling the brilliant wines Franschhoek has to offer, I would take a bottle from one of the local vineyards on the route and enjoy it as a sundowner on the Franschhoek pass.”

After a full day sightseeing, Osborne says it’d then be time to indulge at one of the fine local restaurants in Franschhoek, complemented by more wine over dinner (of course).

“Maybe I’m a little biased but both of Mont Rochelle’s restaurants, the Country Kitchen and Miko, have amazing quality food and a view to die for. Foliage Restaurant has a menu that is seasonal and based on foraged items; the food is always fresh and of mind blowing quality.”

“Chef Pierre Hendriks of Le Bonvivant also offers years of experience in Franschhoek, with immaculate food and exciting flavour combinations. For me, Friday’s are often spent at Tuk Tuk Brewery or The Station Pub and Grill, usually after doing blends in the winery!”

An easy day trip from Cape Town, Franschhoek is a full-bodied destination worth exploring.

For more information, visit franschhoek.org.za

(Lead and all images: Mont Rochelle Hotel & Vineyard)

Published 05 June, 2018