On the Bubbly Route in Franschhoek

Once known as the Valley of the Elephants, Franschhoek is now better known as the Valley of Bubbles.

The wine farmers of Franschhoek have always felt a close affinity with their French heritage and the town is decked out in red, white and blue bunting on Bastille Day, once described as the only day in South Africa when you can wear a beret without feeling a complete twit—or being a member of Parliament.

The annual Franschhoek Cap Classique Route  and Champagne Festival is the highlight of the town’s calendar year and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country—and beyond. Local and imported bubblies are offered side-by-side and it’s easy to see the strength of the French influence.

To serve this continuous flow of visitors, Franschhoek is home to almost 100 bed-and-breakfast establishments.  For those who want a grander style of accommodation, however, it’s hard to beat a stay at Mont Rochelle Hotel on the slopes overlooking the town. Recently bought by Sir Richard Branson, Mont Rochelle has been incorporated into the Virgin Limited Edition portfolio of fine hotels.

The valley’s Champagne tradition probably started properly when winemaker Achim von Arnim moved from Boschendal to establish a new winery at Clos Cabrière. His iconic bubbly is labelled Pierre Jourdan and has earned a loyal following. At that time Cabriére was the first South African winery to be devoted entirely to the production of traditionally made sparkling wines. The cellar is now run by Achim’s son, Takuan, and today the Cabrière brand covers far more than bubblies. Franschhoek still boasts the only winery in the country devoted entirely to the Cap Classique—and Champagne—culture.

Jean-Philippe and Isabelle Colmant, who arrived from Belgium a decade ago, have set up a cellar geared to the production of a range of four different MCC bubblies, some made from grapes bought from other farms, as their own vineyards have become too small to meet the demand for their products. They also import and distribute Champagne from France.

It's all in the bubble

Sparkling wines in the Franschhoek valley must be made in the traditional Champagne way—the Méthode Champenoise, officially called Méthode Cap Classique in South Africa—or MCC. There are cheaper ways of putting the bubbles into wine, but the Vignerons de Franschhoek insist on sticking to the traditional way, where the wine is fermented in the bottle for a second time. No other method, they say, achieves that delicious biscuit character that distinguishes “real” Champagne from the rest.

Boschendal, probably the most historic and most visited farm in the Franschhoek valley, produces a wide range of Cap Classique bubblies, from their crisply bone-dry Jean Le Long to their pretty pink Brut Rosé.

Neighbour Allée Bleue, the German-owned farm across the road from Boschendal, offers a host of facilities from wedding venues to accommodation and produces a range of wines that includes an attractive Brut Rosé MCC made (unusually) mostly from Pinotage, and a more conventional MCC Brut—both well worth trying.

Many of the Franschhoek farms offer far more than wine. At for example, there’s a charcuterie bar and restaurant. They produce a non-vintage MCC bubbly called Solitaire Blanc de Blancs and an attractive pink one (Petit Rosé) under the Miss Molly label.

For those wanting to delve into the early history of farming in the valley, Solms-Delta Môreson,  has established an intriguing museum and archive devoted to the many slave families who helped develop the Franschhoek valley and its farms. The farm also runs a music programme, encouraging local farm workers to learn and play traditional Cape folk songs.

La Motte, owned by acclaimed singer Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg and her husband Hein, is often the venue for classical music concerts and also home to one of the biggest collection of art works by the South African artist, Pierneef. One of their ranges of wine is named after him. Their stunning MCC is a classic made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—totally dry, yet smooth as velvet.

The Rupert-Koegelenbergs’ other farm, Leopard's Leap, produces a fine non-vintage MCC bubbly, but is also known for its food and wine presentations and cookery classes. Its kitchen shop is a superb place to buy high-quality culinary equipment.

Across the road from Leopard’s Leap is another Rupert-owned farm, the elegant L'Ormarins,  home of the Anthonij Rupert wines. For motoring enthusiasts, this farm is a must, as it houses what it probably the biggest collection of rare and historic cars in the southern hemisphere. About 100 cars are on display at any time—all in pristine showroom condition—and the exhibits are changed from time to time to put different ones on show. The museum owns more than 200 rare vehicles. L’Ormarins is probably the best-groomed and clipped estate in the Cape. One hardly sees a single leaf out of place. Gardeners and groundsmen constantly tend the elegant grounds.

At the other end of the financial scale is the little boutique winery called Four Paws, owned by three cat lovers who all have day jobs in the wine industry. You have to love their very limited sweet charmer called Picatso, made from naturally dried Viognier. Sadly, there’s not much of it made each year.

Franschhoek village is a place to be explored on foot. Leave your car parked under a shady tree and wander though the streets of fascinating shops. You’ll find a chocolatier, one of the country’s best bookshops, a salmon deli, restaurants, souvenir shops and fine jewellers, not to mention stores selling homemade farm products such as jams and preserves. One shop specialises in honey—different flavours, different colours. You can even make your own blend!

Keeping up with international trends, Franschhoek is also home to several microbreweries, one of the best known being at Dieu Donné Vineyards, a French-owned farm.

Diners enjoying the ambience and spectacular view at Cape Chamonix can also order a beer with their meal.

For those wanting to experience a wine tasting with a difference, why not take a leisurely horse-ride along the lower slopes of the mountain, stopping in at wineries Rickety Bridge and Mont Rochelle to sample their wares? The riding tours take about two-and-a-half hours and begin at Paradise Stables on the Robertsvlei road. No great equestrian skill is required as the horses are gentle and well trained to cope with beginners. Rickety Bridge also provides luxury accommodation among the vineyards, and the wines are becoming increasingly recognised for their elegance and bold individuality.

One of the most specialised of the Franschhoek vineyards is Landau du Val , owned by Basil and Jane Landau and home to what are certainly the oldest Semillon vineyards in the Cape, planted in 1905. They produce two versions of this delicious wine; one is a Late Vintage that is made only occasionally. The wine is available for sale at La Cotte in the village.  

And between sampling the wares of the valley, there is always time for a game of boules—the traditional French version of bowls. Many of the farms have boules courts, and visitors are always welcome to try their hand at this very French sport.

Why travel all the way to Paris when you can have the whole French experience right here in the Cape?

Celebrating South African Méthode Cap Classique  
In wine circles Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) is no longer regarded as Champagne’s inferior cousin—but is in fact carving (or is it cuvée-ing?) an identity as its own style of winemaking.  

French Champagne can sometimes be, well, very same-same—so bound are the vignerons to rules and regulations. Winemakers in South Africa don’t subscribe to such bureaucracy—and this means they’re (mostly) free to play.  

MCC producers are experimenting with all kinds of varietals. For example on the market there are bubblies made with Chenin Blanc (South Africa is the world’s largest producer of the grape), Sauvignon Blanc and even Pinotage—our patriotic grape as it were. Though, Chardonnay (along with Pinot Noir) is of course, the most popular cultivar in MCC production.  

Five Fizz Facts

1. MCC is the style of making sparkling wines—with a focus on whole bunch pressing—using the classic method of undergoing second fermentation in the bottle, as it is done in Champagne, France.

2. In 1992 the Méthode Cap Classique Association was formed. The mission? To promote Méthode Cap Classiques, the interests of the producers, and also to establish MCC as a generic term. 

3. The growing conditions and diversity of regions in the Cape, result in MCC, which are individual in style. 

4. Currently, a band of Swartland winemakers are experimenting with a method known as Méthode Ancestrale (MA), which is purported to be the very first way of making sparkling wine. While the wine is still bottle-fermented, the difference is MA goes through a single, continuous fermentation, rather than the traditional two-step process. 

5. A bottle of MCC contains three times as much pressure as a car tyre. So, open carefully.