The future of Franschhoek

Terroir or winemaking? As Jamie Goode reports, the age-old question has divided Franschhoek.

Looking across Franschhoek
Looking across Franschhoek

The most scenic route from Cape Town Airport to Franschhoek runs through the town of Stellenbosch: follow the road over the Helshoogte Pass and then turn right. A valley is revealed, surrounded on either side by vineyards framed by mountains. This is Franschhoek, where thousands of tourists flock each summer, to enjoy the gastronomic and wine capital of the Western Cape. It’s a beautiful spot, and despite its popularity still manages to retain a tranquil, elite air. 

The geography of the Franschhoek valley, with its main arterial road running through the middle of the vineyards, keeps visitors connected with wine in a similar way to California’s Napa Valley. And like Napa, Franschhoek has its own wine train, which is a popular way for tourists to hop from wine farm to wine farm. 

Franschhoek is also one of those rare things in the wine world: a financial success story. And it has attracted significant inward investment. Analjit Singh, a major overseas investor in the Western Cape bought three well-situated farms and merged them to produce what is now Leeu Estates, while Richard Branson’s Virgin Limited Edition has purchased and renovated Mont Rochelle, a luxury hotel with a winery and restaurant attached. 

But when it comes to wine, there has been some recent tension. 

Terroir by truck

The commercial lure of Franschhoek has led many wineries to move in, open cellar doors, and sell lots of wine, virtually none of it from Franschhoek grapes. This is termed by detractors as ‘terroir by truck’ and, as a consequence, commentators have developed a low opinion of Franschhoek wines, which has hindered the ability of wine farms working solely with valley grapes to build their reputation. “There’s lots of investment here, but very few people who come in are serious about wine,” says Ludwig Maske, owner of local wine shop La Cotte. “Few people are trying hard, and some young winemakers are being pushed back.” Maske agrees that Franschhoek wines haven’t been taken seriously. “The press seem to have it in for us. People are jealous of Franschhoek.” Coupled with this, there have been commercially driven moves to expand the boundaries of Franschhoek to take in wine estates that are located in the neighbouring ward of Paarl. 

The conflict here is between the Franschhoek Wine Valley, and the Wine of Origin (WO) Franschhoek. It all sounds a bit like the Judean People’s Front, versus the Peoples’ Front of Judea, but for many who make wine here this has been a critical battle. The former is the local tourism body, while the latter is solely concerned with wine. If your winery falls within the right boundaries and you are thought of as Franschhoek, then this gives you a commercial advantage. “The history of this Franschhoek Wine Valley is greater than wine of origin Franschhoek,” says Kevin Swart of Black Elephant Vintners. “It went on a crusade to earn fees, so it stretched the valley. Then there’s a sector here banging the WO Franschhoek drum, but it’s in conflict with the Franschhoek Wine Valley status. So the guys outside the WO feel like they are not getting the love.”

Swart moved to Franschhoek after a career in finance in Johannesburg, and with no background in wine found himself building a winery with winemaker Jacques Wentzel. He had a recent spell heading up the local winery alliance, Vignerons de Franschhoek, when he found himself caught up in a power struggle. The battle began in earnest when the Franschhoek Wine Valley, in conjunction with some producers in Paarl, petitioned the official wine body, SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information and Systems), to extend WO Franschhoek. “About two years ago they went to SAWIS and asked to expand Franschhoek WO to the Klapmuts turnoff,” says Swart. “This is past Glen Carlou, where Anura is.” A look at the map shows this makes a significant incursion into what is now Paarl. “We had big meetings here, and there was a massive fight.” 

Looking for solutions

A compromise was suggested that involved expanding the boundaries of Franschhoek to include everyone who wanted in, but then splitting the WO into four wards. “And then SAWIS came back and said, sorry, we are not doing that,” says Swart. “They looked at the geology, and there’s no basis to extend it. So it killed the idea. But it was a proper contentious fight.” After this decision Backsberg and Vrede en Lust left the Franschhoek Wine Valley tourism route because they felt they weren’t part of Franschhoek. Discussing the topic in the region still feels highly charged, two years on.

In the light of this, how does Franschhoek establish its identity? Beginning in 2013, there was an attempt to set up a sort of appellation system, promoting the best in-valley wines, called Appellation Grand Prestige (AGP). It was headed up by four young winemakers: Haut Espoir’s Rob Armstrong, Stony Brook’s Craig McNaught, Rickety Bridge’s Wynand Grobler,  and Môreson’s Clayton Reabow. They had a consultation and settled on three varieties as being the best for Franschhoek, and then after a round of blind tasting of submitted wines, awarded AGP status to the best examples. Most of the wineries making Franschhoek wines got involved, but there were a couple of notable exceptions. It ran for three years before stopping. “Where they made a mistake is that they were the young guys, and they came in and said to the [Vignerons de Franschhoek] board, you are old and we’re young,” says Swart. “So the board shot them down. The board took over AGP and killed it. They didn’t realise that they had to play the game, so they alienated those people.”

There remains quite a push for Semillon, largely because there are some exceptional old blocks in the region. Perhaps the most famous is the old 1905 vineyard owned by Basil Landau. This is used by Landau to make his Landau du Val wine, but also by Rickety Bridge and Black Elephant to make serious, age worthy whites. Then there is the La Colline vineyard planted in 1936, which is a component of Boekenhoutskloof’s celebrated Semillon, and is also used by Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards and new producer Wilderberg. Boekenhoutskloof’s Semillon comes from two other vineyards, including a 1902 block at Eikehof.

Gareth Robertson, marketing manager of Anthonij Rupert wines, describes a new collaborative Franschhoek Semillon project that began with the 2019 vintage, prompted by a tasting group he’s involved with which includes many of the younger winemakers in the valley. “We brought grapes in from Glenwood, which has some old Semillon,” he explains. “We split the grapes up and gave batches to different winemakers. Then we did some tasting trials and decided on a blend as a group.”

But not everyone is focused on making wines just from Franschhoek, or targeting specific varieties to champion. “I believe in terroir by truck,” says Van Zyl du Toit of Allée Bleue, located on the boundary of Paarl and Franschhoek. “I don’t have a problem with that, if it is managed correctly.” He also thinks it would be a mistake for Franschhoek to focus on just a few varieties. “The problem is that the terroir and the region is so diverse, even more so than Stellenbosch,” he says. “There is also a lack of consensus among the winemakers. We have the Semillon guys in Franschhoek saying that Semillon is the best. But there is only a limited number of old blocks, so what are the others supposed to do? That’s why you have some of us punting the Chardonnay train which is a better train to be on because it is more inclusive.” He adds that there are other people cheerleading for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, while “the guys down in the valley floor are saying Shiraz, Shiraz, Shiraz.”

Towards a future

Debates aside, there are many top-class wines being made from its best vineyards. Top Semillons include Boekenhoutskloof, Black Elephant, Wildeberg, Damascene Vineyards (another new project, not based in the valley), Landau du Val, Rickety Bridge and Haut Espoir. Impressive Chardonnays include those from Môreson (specialists in this variety), Haut Cabrière and Mont Rochelle. Syrah is emerging as full of potential, with La Motte, Rickety Bridge, La Bri, Allée Bleue and Mont Rochelle all making excellent examples. For Cabernet Sauvignon La Bri, La Petite Ferme and Anthonij Rupert are making some great examples. And there are other varieties that do well: Cabernet Franc from Holden Manz, Chenin from DGB-owned Old Road Wine Co, and even Grenache from Lynx. This is far from a complete list.

But perhaps the future for Franschhoek is not so much establishing a reputation for wines from the valley, but instead as a centre for wine excellence. Increasingly the high-end of South Africa’s wine scene is moving from the estate model of the past, towards a more vineyard-focused one, where talented winemakers source grapes from a range of vineyards, including more than one region. Many of the valley’s top wineries are making some excellent in-valley wines, but also some top out-of-valley ones too. The likes of Leeu Passant, Boekenhoutskloof, Anthonij Rupert and La Motte all follow this model. And with initiatives like the Old Vine Project, which has charted all the vineyards over 35 years old, the shift towards a vineyard focus rather than a strict estate model, or one of production tied solely to one region, seems to be a direction for fine wine in the Western Cape. If it chooses to put its squabbles behind it, Franschhoek has a chance to build its reputation on the back of this.

Jamie Goode

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

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