The Stellenbosch/Franschhoek region of South Africa is ideal for viticulture. Above, a family tours the area’s Leeu Estate
There’s no contest. Australia’s Barossa Valley, Margaret River, and Mornington Peninsula, Napa Valley in the USA, Marlborough in New Zealand — all spectacular but no match for the Stellenbosch/Franschhoek region of South Africa.
It is best summed up by former Springbok rugby player Jan Boland Coetzee, when I asked him to describe to foreign travellers just where we were geographically. ‘Just tell them we are four doors from Heaven.’ This dramatic landscape of soaring granite mountains and lush, sweeping valleys is, thanks to the rich alluvial soils, ideal for viticulture.
Although the summers are hot, constant sea breezes soothe the south-facing slopes and the resultant wines are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the New World. The choice is enormous, as there are more than 130 wine farms in the Stellenbosch-Franschhoek area. The added bonus is that while the pound has softened against most currencies it remains strong against the South African rand.
THE BEST OF VINEYARDS
You can easily do tastings in four to five wine farms a day and find outstanding restaurants and accommodation in between on a tour around the Stellenbosch-Franschhoek area (above)
Production line: Sorting grapes for the country’s wine trade in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine region
The Cape has vineyards from coast to coast and the variety of wine styles and terroirs is staggering — from the drylands of the Swartland to the lush, cool environment of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
However, the greatest concentration is in the Stellenbosch-Franschhoek axis. This is most convenient for wine tourists who, by appointing designated drivers, can easily do tastings in four to five wine farms a day and find outstanding restaurants and accommodation in between. Tasting at these vineyards means you can take advantage of cellar-door sales, shipping wines back to the UK or, of course, adding them to the cases you take home.
Set in the Simonsberg mountain range, the Thelema Mountain Vineyards (above) has the most spectacular views
Thelema Mountain Vineyards is one of the great locations, sitting on top of the Helshoogte Pass which connects Stellenbosch with Franschhoek. Thelema founder Gyles Webb, aka The Hermit on the Hill, takes a back seat these days while his son Thomas runs the show.
Set in the Simonsberg mountain range, it has the most spectacular views.
It is a superb place and, if you’re lucky, the Hermit will be around to impart some of the wisdom for which he is famous (thelema.co.za).
TIME FOR LUNCH
Haute Cabriere Wine Farm, pictured, is a superb place to have lunch and try wine. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons
Sample indigenous pinotage reds as well as South African variations on pinot and chardonnay at Vriesenhof Vineyards (pictured)
Haute Cabriere Wine Farm is at the opposite end of the valley from Thelema, high on the Franschhoek Pass. This is a superb place to have lunch and try wine. The Estate’s tasting room is underground, a cool inviting space to sample Haute Cabriere’s rather good Burgundy-style wines (the first old vine pinot noir was produced in 2020) and its even more famous champagne (cabriere.co.za).
Jan Boland Coetzee’s estate, Vriesenhof Vineyards, sits in the Paradyskloof Valley, on south-facing slopes beneath the Helderberg and Stellenbosch mountains. When the Springboks were banned from rugby tours abroad during the apartheid regime, Coetzee decided to live and work in Burgundy, France, to learn at the feet of the great pinot and chardonnay winemakers.
You can taste his South African variations on the theme at the estate, as well as the indigenous pinotage reds. Jan might even be around to add his colourful stories to the visit (vriesenhof.co.za).
THE CHENIN BLANC KING
Expect to find dogs, horses, geese and ducks running amok while you relax under the oak trees and taste excellent wines at the Ken Forrester Wine Estate
Graham Boynton travelled to the Cape winelands with The Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk; 0203 733 0002) which can arrange tailor-made tours of the Cape winelands.
The Ken Forrester Wine Estate is further across the valley from Vriesenhof. This is where you’ll find another larger-than-life Cape winemaker, Ken Forrester, who turned himself from a colourful Johannesburg restaurateur into Mr Chenin, an award-winning maker of the country’s most fashionable white.
Expect to find dogs, horses, geese and ducks running amok while you relax under the oak trees and taste Forrester’s excellent wines… and not just the chenin. An added bonus is his restaurant, 96 Winery Road. It is often cited as the best in Stellenbosch and is not far from the wine estate (kenforresterwines.com).
Just 15 minutes drive from Forrester’s is Waterford Wine Estate, set in the Blaauwklippen Valley in the shadow of the Helderberg Mountains. This is one of the area’s most picturesque and tourist-friendly estates.
In the middle is a marvellous terracotta building, built in classic Bordeaux style, which features an open courtyard where the tastings take place and where lunch can be enjoyed at the outdoor restaurant. In 2021, Waterford was voted The Best Cellar Door Experience by international wine critic Tim Atkin (waterfordestate.co.za).
Time for wine: Taste some of the best wines made in South Africa at The Leeu Estate in the remote Swartland town of Riebeek Kasteel
Intoxicating: Sip on wines produced by husband-and-wife team Chris and Andrea Mullineux at The Leeu Estate. Pictured right are staff at the estate posing with its wine
On a visit to Leeu Estate, stay at Le Quartier Francais (above) – it’s part of the estate and was once named ‘the best small hotel in the world’
You do not need to be a Leeu Estate guest to book a tasting at the property’s Wine Studio.
It is the best place to taste the wines of the celebrated husband and wife team Chris and Andrea Mullineux, given that their other base is the charming but more remote Swartland town of Riebeek Kasteel.
Here you can taste some of the best wines made in South Africa.
A short stroll down the road is 21-bedroom Le Quartier Francais, which is part of the estate and was once named ‘the best small hotel in the world’ (leeucollection.com).
So the winelands await — over to you.
FROM LUXURY TO BUDGET… STAYING IN THE CAPE WINELANDS
This selection of accommodation is centred mainly in Franschhoek and all are a short drive from the vineyards.
Splash the cash
Delaire Graff Estate is English jeweller Laurence Graff’s luxurious creation high up on the Helshoogte Pass which connects Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The ten rooms here are referred to as ‘lodges’ and each is the size of a small cottage. This is pure pampering and there are two outstanding restaurants. £1,300 per night (delaire.co.za).
Leeu House is a 12-room boutique hotel on Franschhoek Village’s high street. Just a walk away from the art galleries, bars and boutiques that make up this cultured town.
Individually decorated bedrooms have superbly comfortable beds with high-quality linen. Rooms closer to the main road suffer a little from traffic noise — lorries late at night. There is a well-maintained garden and pool area. £650 per night (leeucollection.com).
Le Cle de Montagnes is a boutique complex of four villas in a wine and fruit farm, established by the French Huguenots in 1692. There are four-poster beds, roll-top baths and rooms that open onto verdant lawns. Just a short walk from Franschhoek village, the lodge’s petite rooms cost £300 per night (lacle.co.za).
Half an hour’s drive from the centre of Franschhoek is Babylonstoren, one of the region’s oldest Cape Dutch farms, set on a massive, sprawling vegetable farm and wine estate that naturally offers fresh food and own-label wines. The cottages are comfortable and elegantly designed by one of the owners, former Elle Decoration editor Karen Roos. £480 per night bed and breakfast for a farmhouse suite (babylonstoren.com).
L’Auberge Chanteclair is set in the Franschhoek valley with panoramic views of the vineyards and surrounding mountains. The Victorian farmhouse, with lofty ceilings and light and airy rooms, lies in landscaped gardens with splendid oak and jacaranda trees. The auberge is within walking distance of the centre of Franschhoek. £163 per night bed and breakfast for a standard room (chanteclair.co.za).
Auberge Clermont is a stylish four-star guesthouse with six en-suite rooms, one of which is a honeymoon suite. It also has a self-catering three-bedroom private villa that is perfect for families. £144 per night bed and breakfast for a deluxe room (clermont.co.za).