Falling for Franschhoek
It’s a warm, blue-skied, spring morning in Franschhoek, on a date I am unaware of and a day I have no reason to place. Jack pants beside me in the lush green grass and my fingers run absentmindedly through his golden fur as I watch a pair of birds waltz together among the tiny, purple wildflowers that dust the bright green floor. The sky is the sort of blue you’ve waited a very long winter for and everything comes alive under the South African early morning sun. Rows of barren grape vines stretch longingly upwards toward the warmth. Even the lake at the end of the yard seems to be finally relaxing. The only sound for miles and miles is residential bird choir practice and Jack’s gentle breathing. I wonder in between dosing off how Linda and Bruce would feel about adopting me so I never have to leave this perfect little cove of heaven. I could just stop right here and never go any further. Just me, the birds, the flowers and Jack.
Nestled at the foothills of the Franschhoek mountains, outside the quaint little town, stands a modest piece of land and small family vineyard owned by Linda & Bruce, where they run the charming Chanteclair guesthouse. With the ease and graceful hospitality that makes you forget you are paying them to stay there, it is impossible not to feel like a welcomed guest in their home. A few elegant bedrooms named after trees hide privately in corners of this ivy wrapped, rennovated farm house and breakfast is served out on the terrace each morning, homemade by the Petro and Leonora. This is my favorite part of the day here, with their yellow lab, Jack patiently waiting for scraps at my feet (I’ve been feeding him against instruction in hopes that he will follow me when I go) as I watch the world wake up. A torrent of white clouds comes crashing over the mountaintops each morning, as fast and furious as tidal waves, racing each other in their expansive playground, tumbling down the slopes like an avalanche of powdery snow and breaking on the shore, dissipating into nothing amongst the vines.
I’m in Franschhoek because some few days after my 27 hours of travel agg, I’ve remembered and regained my purpose for coming to South Africa in the first place – the wine. (Huh? South Africa has wine?) Yes, they do in fact and some of the greatest in the world at that. The Cape winelands are located only 45 minutes north east of Cape Town and have been making some of the most unique wines ever since this lush landscape was discovered. However, only since the 80’s have they been world recognized.
My quest began in Stellenbosch, a town only a 30 minute drive from my current location, founded and claimed by Sir Simon van der Stel who, with an ego no smaller than this country, decided to name this haven after himself, because, hey, why wouldn’t ya? Surrounded by mountains, the most famous of which is said to look like the arrogant bastard, drunk lying on his back with a bottle of wine. And that is exactly what it looks like … lazy van der Stel himself napping in a drunken haze, his profile in perfect view showcasing his rather large nose, and his hand gripping a forgotten bottle that rests on his rotund belly just below his sagging chin, ready to drink or passed out from it.
Here I discovered the native South African grape Pinotage, after which, I spent a shameful amount of hours comparing every version of this exciting wine. A wine that I had been rather uneducated in and often getting a bad rap, I instantly developed a fond fascination with this varietal. The love child of two separate grapes, Africa has birthed an heir to the New World wine family that is as unique and exciting as it claims to be. It was long since discovered that the beloved Pinot Noir did not take to these South African climates quite as well as English and French settlers had hoped and thus, some genius decided to cross breed it with the polar opposite grape, Cinsaut (formerly known as Hermitage in SA), creating the perfect offspring of the two. Pinotage yields the delicacies of its mother – the elegant and soft-spoken Pinot Noir- with the bold resilience of its daring father, Cinsaut. A dark maroon in color, this wine varies vastly from winery to winery in terms of nose and mouth, from simple table wines to elegant and robust centerpieces. The best of it’s kind, in my opinion, delivers an orchestrated dance that begins with a warm chocolate and coffee nose enticing you in before delivering a punch and loudness of fruit to shock, surprise, confuse and intrigue you. Certain to keep you coming back for more.
Despite it’s close proximity, Franschhoek has a different feel entirely to it’s brother counterpart, Stellenbosch. Discovered in the 1600’s by the French Huguenots, this quaint little town known as the “French Corner” has all the elegant feel of France without the upturned noses, and the remote picturesque landscape of Africa. What you find here today is the beautiful fusion of bold South African wine traditions intertwined with the subtlety and grace of its knowledgeable French mother. A unique and undeniable success in the marrying of Old World wine traditions and New World wine explorations.
A much smaller, quieter place than Stellenbosch, although its food and wines do not shy away in comparison, Franschhoek has all the quaint small town feel, breath taking landscape, and lazy Saturday afternoons that anyone could ask for. The town is comprised primarily of one simple street - Main Street - and what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in depth as "the food and wine capital" of the country. Just a short, peaceful walk from Chanteclair, Main Street is bustling on a Saturday with markets, African jewelry, and families enjoying lunch, wine, and laughter outdoors. One small restaurant in particular catches my eye on this certain Saturday with it’s white linen table cloths and Porcupine Ridge embroidered umbrellas, tucked into a small stone square by a bubbling fountain and although I’m not quite hungry, I ask for a table for one (a routine that I have become incomprehensibly comfortable with). I am instructed to sit where I please and a four-person table ornate with all the silverware and fancy dressings of a 5 star restaurant accompanied by farm charm aura, is the only one open so I pull out a chair.
No sooner do I allow my weight down into the white chair as elegantly as I know how, do I tumble over backwards. One leg of the chair abruptly wedging down into a grate in the cobblestone floor, landing me boots over head, ass out in daisy duke denims, sprawled out on the concrete, and knocking the back of my head into the legs of a proper lunchtime date behind me. A little more than slightly mortified in front of all these sophisticated types, I laugh hoping these fancies might join in the fun and games however, they decline. Twenty plus stares and pauses before turning their attention back to their meals while I wrestle with a chair, trying to pry it out of the grate in silence. Not my finest hour.
Taking a seat in the most poised manner possible after such a debacle, I join in the pretending that the little charade did not happen and order my lunch. Franschhoek, although a modest little town, is unabashed in boasting about the food delicacies they prepare and the perfect neighboring wine pairings they orchestrate, and my first food experience does not disappoint. Lightly battered calamari stuffed with pesto, pine nuts, and harami cheese, drizzled in a sweet chili glaze, accompanied by a glass of Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, already has a ring on my finger before the delicate artichoke hearts dripping in a pool of garlic butter has time to seal the deal.
Careful not to trip over my own feet as I exit the restaurant, I decide it's time for what we came here for - the wineries. The Franschhoek Wine Tram hop-on-hop-off is a thing of genius and the most charming way to explore the lush wineries of this infamous Cape Wineland region. A small fee will get you an all day pass. Plan your winery route accordingly, or just hop off at one that happens to strike your fancy. An old trolley cart with open windows and an educated, bubbling driver, it gives any traveler the ideal view of the countryside and picturesque beauty that this small town encompasses in a big way. (www.winetram.co.za)
If you know me, you will assume that, clearly, I did not pick out any wineries beforehand, nor did I care too. Taken with the ride, I simply waited for something to tell me to get off at each winery I passed and trusted that instinct. Because so far, albeit getting me into some bastard situations, it hasn’t quite steered me wrong thus far.
Having spent the previous night dining at Holden Manz, a romantic dinner for one that postively surpassed any date that I have ever been on, I was already swept away and couldn't wait to see what the other Franschhoek wineries had to offer, or if they dared to top my first love. Candelit tables next to a crackling fire, overlooking the stretch of Holden Manz vineyards, along with a mouth-watering, daring menu that would get any adventurous food lover's heart pumping, Holden Manz provides the same elegant and cozy, family feel that the small town of Franschhoek does, while delivering bold culinary and varietal statements that everyone should witness. (www.holdenmanz.com)
Today, I come to the culmination of my previous Pinotage quest for perfection at La Couronne. An intensely ripe, fruit boasting mouth feel disguised in a chocolate and espresso aroma. Well balanced and entirely intriguing – definitely one of my favorite South African wines. (www.lacouronnewines.co.za)
And my venture would not be complete without the savory lunch menu of Moreson winery, a stroll through their enchanted Orchid greenhouse, and their endearing, hilarious Miss Molly collection of bubbly and wine. With tasting notes like these, I am right at home …
“MISS MOLLY IN MY BED ~ Miss Molly, the captivating Môreson Weimaraner, doesn’t do mornings. Her late night social schedule ensures that, by sunup, she’s ready for bed. After Miss Molly’s breakfast is served, and devoured, she loves to climb (uninvited) into whichever bed is available. In My Bed is a wine designed to be two of Miss Molly’s favourite things – comfortable and easy going.”
Moreson is a must stop on any Franschhoek winery tour. Perfect for that midday break and a quick snack to soak up some of that early morning wine and fatten you up for a full day’s worth of drinking ahead. (www.moreson.co.za)
And after today, I am certain that I need to live here forever and I can't think of anything I'd rather do than curl up by the fire at Chanteclair with a glass of their newest red and Jack at my side.