IF THERE is only one thing you get to do 10 times before you die, then escaping to Franschhoek in the heart of the Cape winelands should be at the very top of your bucket list.
Enclosed as it is by three dramatic mountain ranges and nestled in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful valleys in the universe, driving into Franschhoek feels as if your favourite land has suddenly appeared at the top of the magic Faraway Tree.
In an instant, you find yourself teleported right out of the South African reality and directly into a tiny corner of France itself, complete with the fabulous pretentiousness, fashionable ambience, audacious opulence and silly spelling which is so quintessentially French, but without having to deal with the French themselves (just kidding!)
So it was that our sybaritic part-time PE wine lover bon vivants found ourselves once again lured to South Africa’s gourmet capital, where galleries, bistros and antique shops fill tree-lined streets which boast more award-winning restaurants than you’ve had hot dinners.
Franschhoek is home to SA’s most lauded restaurant and one of the top 50 in the world, The Tasting Room at Le Quartier, although I personally wouldn’t be caught dead spending everything I own on an infinitesimal, albeit pretty, helping of almost nothing when there is good wine to splurge on instead.
First stop in search thereof is our favourite breakfast place in all the world, the picturesque Café Bon Bon with its magical setting amongst old oak trees on the estate La Petite Dauphine, where breakfast is served in a 200-year-old restored wine cellar.
Not only do we get to reacquaint ourselves with their friendly resident cockerel who ambles between tables sampling five-star scraps, but we also get an early 7.30am start which is important if one is to have any chance whatsoever of hitting eight estates in one day, the lofty goal of this group of gastronomes.
Café Bon Bon also has the advantage of being the tasting home of Haut Espoir, so our morning is given a cunning double-kick start by their delectable Gentle Giant 2007.
Its no co-incidence that Franschhoek is home to the last two consecutive years’ Platters winery of the year award-winners, so it’s off to last year’s recipient next, Boekenhoutskloof.
Conversation en route turned to the simultaneous delight and scourge of the wine tasting experience where really great wines must necessarily be made in miniscule quantities to ensure their quality.
In my own still limited experience and taking my preference for red wine into account, I have encountered four wineries in my time whose premium wines are so delicious that they make me want to eat the inside of my cheek: Any of Rust en Vrede’s top reds, Thelema’s Rabelais, Grande Provence’s The Grand Provence and the cabernet of Boekenhoutskloof. Alas, these require parting with over R380 per bottle, which would have a far too limiting effect on the longevity of the tasting experience itself if these purchases became too regular a part of the monthly budget.
All one can do is find a way to distract or enamour the wine pourer enough to be able to drink on the estate’s account, which is something we managed to achieve in spectacular fashion during our latest check in.
Boekenhoutskloof is creator of the famous Chocolate Block and also home to the easy drinking Porcupine Ridge, The Wolftrap brands and thankfully a host with a very short attention span. The estate’s top wines are so rare that one cannot purchase them individually and one is instead required to buy them in mixed cases.
Then it was off to neighbour Stony Brook, whose Ghost Gum at R250 a bottle almost made the above list too. Stony Brook offers very comfortable accommodation on their farm at a reasonable rate too and is well worth a visit.
It was time to head up the mountain to this year’s Platter winery of the year, Chamonix, which has won so many awards for their exquisite wines that they use them to wallpaper their tasting room.
Their restaurant overlooks a river and has been added to our to-do list for next time.
Further up the same road you will find another favourite, the atmospheric Rocca Restaurant at Dieu Donne with its unparalleled 180° view and an owner who will personally fetch you at your accommodation and drop you back home afterwards, which is a valuable service indeed at the end of a long day!
The whimsical setting of Haute Cabriere was next on our itinerary, so we headed to that cellar cut into the mountain to be regaled with some of the best sparkling wine Pierre Jourdan could throw at us.
Here, every Saturday, guests are whisked away on an intimate journey through Haute Cabrière’s history and wine philosophy. The use of a French cavalry sabre to open SA’s top Cap Classiques adds the perfect dramatic flair to this exceptional adventure.
Lunch was a choice between picnicking at the scenic and excellent Rickety Bridge, popping into Glenwood (whose wines are also most superb) for an unlikely spot of Japanese sushi at their Okamai restaurant, heading for a platter to Solms Delta with their novel wine making approach and interesting history – or dining at the delectable Pierneef restaurant at La Motte, which eventually won out. In many ways, La Motte seems to symbolise the face of excellence for which this area has gained such a sterling reputation.
That said, I cannot for the life of me fathom what owner Anton Rupert saw in the depressing Perneef “paintings” he so proudly hoarded.
A short drive in the direction of Paarl brought us to Vrede en Lust, situated on the eastern slopes of the Simonsberg between the top notch Rupert de Rothschild and Plaisir de Merle estates.
Here the inviting outdoor views are matched indoors by their trademark “ladies in red” hostesses.
With seven tastings down and the clock just having struck 5pm, our clever advance planning paid off handsomely as we headed to our final stop for the day, Grande Provence. This is the only estate in the area with the benevolence and foresight to stay open until 6pm and thus to extend one’s tasting experience.