The Franschhoek Valley is surely the most spectacular and utterly beguiling wine region in the world today. Its history dates back to the 17th century when the area now under vine was farmed by Huguenots settlers fleeing religious persecution. Today, Franschhoek carries that legacy with its French place and family names. Although strictly speaking it is classed as a separate wine growing sub-zone, parts of the Franschhoek Valley do fall under the Paarl Ward or regional boundary. The valley is enclosed on three sides by mountains, offering magnificent views of the surrounding vineyards and award-winning restaurants.
Although Franschhoek lacks the glamour of the more celebrated Stellenbosch zone further west, some very exciting wines are nonetheless made in this perhaps less fashionable part of South Africa. Indeed, some of the country’s best wine producers are located here, including Boekenhoutskloof, Boshcendal, Chamonix and Stony Brook. Approximately 1,400 hectares are currently under vine, situated in a clearly defined valley with the Wemmershoek Mountains to the north separate and Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek Mountains to the south. The scenery is also punctuated by the Berg River, which runs north-west towards the region of Paarl.
The region’s terroir is, therefore, more varied and complex than first-time visitors might perceive. In general terms, it offers warmer growing conditions more suitable for robust red variates, however, different sites can vary significantly in average daytime temperatures. For example, the valley gets cooler as you move east and up to higher altitudes, with some excellent Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc of real class and finesse now produced. The soils are a mixture of sandstone and granite, with the former offering good drainage. However, what is arguably far more important than soil composition is vineyard altitude and aspect – the best sites are found on south-facing slopes, affording those all-important cooler growing conditions.
But despite the fact that some excellent whites are now being made in Franschhoek, it is the reds that are truly world class. Shiraz – or should that be Syrah? – is always reliably excellent and the wines tend to offer more cool-climate finesse than their Stellenbosch counterparts. Bordeaux blends are also particularly successful here, a general indication of the fashion to favor red over white varietals in the Western Cape. Cabernet Sauvignon, in fact, grows with ease tantamount to promiscuity in Franschhoek, offering immense concentration, power and depth of flavor only rivaled by the best examples in Stellenbosch. The fizz is also pretty excellent too, try the wines of Graham Beck to see the mighty potential of Cap Classique.
Wine tourist's paradise
Today, Franschhoek can accurately be summed up as a wine tourist’s paradise; visitors are literally spoilt for choice with a surfeit of leading wine estates, restaurants, and other attractions to visit. Yet, tourist numbers remain blissfully manageable; the beauty of Franschhoek is its slight unanimity compared to Stellenbosch; the fame of the region doesn’t compare but then neither does the tourist numbers or wine prices. Yet, the wineries of this magnificent region are more than geared up for visitors and almost all of the major wineries come equipped with tasting rooms, guided tours, and opportunities to stock up on delicious wines at cellar door prices. Indeed, some truly excellent wines are being produced in the region, as the understanding of the terroirs and what varieties work best here increases, so too will the quality of the wines continues to rise and rise. And if that is not enough, the Franschhoek Valley offers unrivaled physical beauty in South-Africa – what better way to appreciate the view than with a glass of delicious Shiraz in your hand?