The Stellenbosch/Franschhoek region of South Africa is ideal for viticulture. Above, a family is touring the Leeu Estate in the area
There is no contest. Australia’s Barossa Valley, Margaret River and Mornington Peninsula, Napa Valley in the US, 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 travelers where we were geographically. “Tell them we’re four doors from heaven.” This dramatic landscape of high granite mountains and lush, sweeping valleys is ideal for viticulture thanks to its rich alluvial soils.
Although summers are hot, constant sea breezes calm the southern slopes and the resulting wines are as good as anywhere in the New World. The choice is huge, as there are more than 130 wine farms in the Stellenbosch-Franschhoek region. The added bonus is that while the pound has fallen against most currencies, it remains strong against the South African rand.
THE BEST OF VINEYARDS
You can easily sample four to five wineries in a day and find excellent restaurants and accommodation in between on a tour of the Stellenbosch-Franschhoek region (above)
Production line: Sorting grapes for the rural wine trade in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine region
The Cape has vineyards stretching coast to coast and the variety of wine styles and terroirs is astonishing – from the arid regions of Swartland to the lush, cool surroundings of the Hemel-en-Aarde valley.
However, the greatest concentration is on the Stellenbosch-Franschhoek axis. This is most convenient for wine tourists who, by employing designated drivers, can easily sample four to five wineries a day and find excellent restaurants and accommodation in between. Tasting in these vineyards means you can take advantage of cellar sales, ship wines to the UK or, of course, add them to the boxes you take home.
Hermit on the mountain top
The Thelema Mountain Vineyards (above), located in the Simonsberg Mountains, has the most spectacular views
Thelema Mountain Vineyards is one of the great locations, on top of the Hels Hoogte Pass connecting Stellenbosch to Franschhoek. Thelema founder Gyles Webb, aka The Hermit on the Hill, takes a backseat these days as his son Thomas runs the show.
Located in the Simonsberg Mountains, it has the most spectacular views.
It’s an amazing 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).
Haute Cabriere Wine Farm, pictured, is an excellent place to have lunch and try wine. Image courtesy of Creative Commons
Sample native pinotage reds and South African variations of pinot and chardonnay at Vriesenhof Vineyards (pictured)
Haute Cabriere Wine Farm is located on the other side of the valley from Thelema, high on the Franschhoek Pass. This is an excellent place to have lunch and try wine. The estate’s tasting room is located underground, a cool inviting space to sample Haute Cabriere’s rather good Burgundy wines (the first old vine pinot noir was produced in 2020) and the even more famous champagne (cabriere.co.za).
Jan Boland Coetzee’s estate, Vriesenhof Vineyards, is located in the Paradyskloof Valley, on south-facing slopes below the Helderberg and Stellenbosch mountains. When the Springboks were banned from rugby 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 on the estate, as well as the native pinotage reds. Jan may even be around to add his colorful stories to the visit (vriesenhof.co.za).
THE CHENIN BLANC KING
Expect to see dogs, horses, geese and ducks running as you relax under the oak trees and sample excellent wines at the Ken Forrester Wine Estate
Graham Boynton traveled to the Cape Winelands with The Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk; 0203 733 0002) who can arrange bespoke tours of the Cape Winelands.
The Ken Forrester Wine Estate is further down the valley from Vriesenhof. Here you’ll find another larger-than-life Cape winemaker, Ken Forrester, who turned himself from a colorful Johannesburg restaurateur into Mr Chenin, an award-winning maker of the country’s most fashionable white wine.
Expect to see dogs, horses, geese and ducks running amok as you relax under the oaks 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, Waterford Wine Estate is nestled 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 center is a beautiful terracotta building, built in classic Bordeaux style, with an open courtyard where the tastings take place and where lunch can be enjoyed in the open-air restaurant. In 2021, Waterford was named 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 town of Riebeek Kasteel in Swartland
Intoxicating: Enjoy wines produced by husband-and-wife team Chris and Andrea Mullineux at The Leeu Estate. On the right of the photo are employees on the estate posing with the wine
When visiting Leeu Estate, stay at Le Quartier Francais (above) – it’s part of the estate and was once voted ‘the best small hotel in the world’
You don’t have to be a guest of Leeu Estate to book a tasting at the property’s Wine Studio.
It’s the best place to sample the wines of celebrated husband and wife team Chris and Andrea Mullineux, as their other base is the charming but more remote town of Riebeek Kasteel in Swartland.
Here you can taste some of South Africa’s best wines.
A short walk down the road is the 21-bedroom Le Quartier Francais, which is part of the estate and was once called ‘the best small hotel in the world’ (leeucollection.com).
So the winelands await – up to you.
FROM LUXURY TO BUDGET… STAY IN THE CAPE WINELANDS
This selection of accommodation is mainly centered in Franschhoek and all are a short drive from the wineries.
Splash the money
Delaire Graff Estate is the luxurious creation of English jeweler Laurence Graff high on the Hels Hoogte Pass connecting Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The ten rooms here are called ‘lodges’ and each is the size of a small house. This is pure indulgence and there are two excellent restaurants. £1,300 per night (delaire.co.za).
Leeu House is a 12 room boutique hotel on the main street of Franschhoek Village. Within walking distance of the art galleries, bars and boutiques that make up this cultural city.
Individually decorated bedrooms have exceptionally comfortable beds with high quality linens. Rooms closer to the main road suffer from some traffic noise – lorries late at night. There is a well maintained garden and swimming pool. £650 per night (leucollection.com).
Le Cle de Montagnes is a boutique complex of four villas in a wine and fruit farm founded by the French Huguenots in 1692. There are four-poster beds, roll top baths and rooms that open onto green lawns. Just a short walk from the village of Franschhoek, the lodge’s small rooms cost £300 per night (lacle.co.za).
Half an hour’s drive from the center of Franschhoek, Babylonstoren, one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms in the region, sits on a huge, sprawling vegetable farm and wine estate that offers natural fresh food and private label wines. The cottages are comfortable and elegantly designed by one of the owners, former Elle Decoration editor Karen Roos. £480 a night bed and breakfast for a farmhouse suite (babylonstoren.com).
L’Auberge Chanteclair is located in the Franschhoek Valley and offers panoramic views of the vineyards and surrounding mountains. The Victorian farmhouse, with high ceilings and light and airy rooms, is set in landscaped gardens with beautiful oak and jacaranda trees. The auberge is within walking distance of the center of Franschhoek. £163 per night bed and breakfast for a standard room (chanteclair.co.za).
Auberge Clermont is a stylish 4-star guest house with six en suite bedrooms, one of which is a honeymoon suite. It also has a three-bedroom self-catering private villa that is perfect for families. £144 per night bed and breakfast for a deluxe room (clermont.co.za).