By David Biggs
Photography by C&D Heierli
The acoustics are pretty good inside a crash helmet. As I scoot along the Winelands roads I find myself singing Gerschwin’s “Summertime (and the Livin’ Is Easy)”, from Porgy and Bess, at the top of my voice, albeit rather tunelessly. Soon it changes to “Harvest Time (and the Tractors Are Busy)”.
The air is filled with the heady scent of sun-warmed grape skins piled up beside the pressing cellar doors. Every few metres I swing the little Vespa out to overtake yet another tractor and trailer-load of ripe grapes on its way to the cellar.
Two of us are on scooters, heading out on a glorious summer day to explore the delights of the Franschhoek valley. After the picturesque and sleepy hamlet of Pniel we pass BOSCHENDAL, probably one of the best known of the Cape’s historic estates, with more than three centuries of farming history behind it.
Our first stop is less famous but no less interesting. SOLMS-DELTA WINERY is a living monument to the hundreds of slaves who lived and died in the valley more than two centuries ago. I’m always moved by the wall of granite plaques in the farm’s well-researched museum, each one bearing the name of somebody who worked here centuries ago.
Many are nameless—just a blank plaque and maybe the words “van de caab” (from the Cape). At last, I feel, somebody has cared.
There’s now also an attractive restaurant there, and the owner, Mark Solms, runs an inspiring social upliftment programme for the farm workers of the valley. The farm has its own choir and band.
While you’re there, make a point of tasting the Solms Delta Shiraz made from grapes desiccated on the vine. Intense, unique and powerful. I’d buy a bottle or two if there were space on the scooter.
Further along the road is the brand new home of LEOPARD’S LEAP WINES. It probably comes as a surprise to visitors that the ultra-modern building is focused more on food than on wine. Chef Liam Tomlin runs the culinary studio in which regular cookery classes are offered. These range from day classes to 20-session courses on various kinds of cuisine, or a special course in basic knife skills.
Franschhoek styles itself “The Food and Drink Capital of the Cape”, and as soon as we roll into the pretty village, we can see why. Almost every second building houses an eating-place or bar of some kind. They range from the internationally acclaimed LE QUARTIER FRANÇAIS and LE PETITE FERMÉ to the less pretentious TAKI’S, where they serve a range of everyday Greek dishes at modest prices, and KALFI’S for easy local fare while you sit on the stoep and watch the passing parade.
The interesting thing about Franschhoek is that, although it has become a tourist magnet, it has managed to retain the image of a sleepy little Cape country village. It’s also the one place in South Africa where you can wear a beret in public (on Bastille Day) without looking a complete prat.
Signage is kept to the bare minimum, and tour buses deposit their cargoes of visitors in the town centre, then retire to the outskirts of town, where they wait out of sight in the shade of great old oak trees.
Not even the banks look like banks. Nedbank is housed in an old Georgian style manor house, Standard Bank in a thatched Cape Dutch style building, and FNB in a corrugated-iron roofed village house with sash windows.
Tucked among the eateries are art galleries to make any art-lover drool—paintings, sculptures, tapestries and African artefacts spill out onto every pavement. For book lovers, a visit to MARION MARSH’S TREASURE BOOKS is a must. The vast selection of books fills several rooms from floor to ceiling and they’re displayed—as one could expect from an ex-librarian—in a neat and easily accessible way.
I spend time chatting to Marion, who says her Internet sales are growing, while most overseas visitors carry Kindles or iPads loaded with holiday literature, so they no longer buy as many paperbacks as they once did. She still does a steady cyber-trade in out-of-print books and her collection of Africana is worth seeing.
Horse riding is one of the many activities offered in the valley, so it’s not a surprise to see a neat paddock, complete with mounting block, in front of the MONT ROCHELLE tasting room and restaurant, where equestrian visitors can park their horses while they taste the wines. The good thing about this is that you are not likely to be breathalysed on your way home. Most of the Franschhoek-based horses know the way by now.
Mont Rochelle also has an elegant five-star hotel with unsurpassed views across the valley and all the extras your heart could possibly desire, from a spa and pool to mountain biking and horse-riding tours. And, of course, you’ve got two restaurants to choose from, the fine-dining restaurant Mange Toute and the more relaxed Country Kitchen.
And if it’s high culture you enjoy, discover the LA MOTTE ESTATE’S programme of monthly concerts arranged by acclaimed soprano Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg, owner of the farm.
Walking around the Pierneef à la Motte Restaurant is a delight. It’s a tribute to one of South Africa’s greatest artists—and there’s a museum tracing the history of the Rupert family and the life and art of JH Pierneef. Although we don’t stop for a bite, I’ve heard the Cape bokkom salad alone is worth the visit.
After absorbing all this hectic culture, we’re ready for some quiet relaxation, and head far up the valley to one of Franschhoek’s newer attractions—HOLDEN MANZ WINERY, restaurant and guesthouse.
Formerly known as Klein Genot, the farm was bought by Gerard Holden and Migo Manz a few years ago and has been transformed into a haven of peace and elegance, far from the bustle of the village.
After a day of scooter riding, it’s a pleasure to kick back and relax with a glass of pretty pink rosé and watch the sunset paint the craggy mountains in brilliant shades of pink and purple. Pierneef would have loved the colours. There’s a secluded swimming pool in the garden, and guests are invited to stroll among the orchards and pick any fruit they may want to enjoy—peaches, figs and, of course, grapes.
The tasting room offers an excellent Shiraz, as well as a traditional red blend called The Big G. I loved their port-style wine, cheekily labelled Good Sport Cape Vintage, as we’re not allowed to use the word “port”. My own favourite was their dry Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, which went perfectly with my dinner of roast duck at the farm’s Franschhoek Kitchen Restaurant.
The next day we set off to HAUTE CABRIÈRE, where winemakers Achim von Arnim and his son Takuan make wines from just two grape varieties—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, traditional components of the great French Champagnes.
I’ve known Achim since his days as cellarmaster at Boschendal and enjoy his obvious passion for bubblies—and life. His Pierre Jourdan bubblies hardly need introduction. At the top of his list is the Cuvée Reserve, which spends more than six years on the lees before being degorged and labelled. For those who like a very dry sparkling wine, there’s the Brut Sauvage, with zero dosage—tingly crisp and elegant.
Just as exciting, however, are their Ratafia (an unusual Chardonnay fortified with Chardonnay potstill brandy, a style traditionally used in France to ratify the signing of a treaty, hence the name) and Tranquille, a still wine made from the two Champagne varieties and ideal as an accompaniment to poultry and fish dishes.
Now it’s back to the village for a taste of the products of two enthusiastic Belgian-trained chocolatiers, Danver Windvogel and Denver Adonis, who run the HUGUENOT FINE CHOCOLATE SHOP. Danver and Denver produce their chocolate creations in full view of their customers, using only the finest imported Belgian chocolate, and regularly present half-hour programmes of the history and art of chocolate making.
Luckily a bag of fine chocolates takes up very little space, so I slip one into the scooter’s basket and set off for home, smiling all the way.
It’s still summertime, and the tractors are buzzing all along the road through Helshoogte and Stellenbosch and down to the coast where the wheeling seagulls hovering above the cliffs don’t seem to care about wine, food or chocolate—or anything else.
For them it’s always summertime and the living is pretty easy.