Franschhoek, South Africa

Today we journey to a very small and oft-overlooked corner of South Africa’s ever-expanding Coastal Region, the engine room of their wine industry. Franschhoek is a small and rather unusual region with a very interesting past that has strongly influenced the style of wines it produces today. The vineyards of Franschhoek sit within a clearly defined valley that runs east-west. The Wemmershoek Mountains to the north separate it from neighbouring Breede River Valley wine region, while the Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek Mountains to the south make up the southern border. The Berg River, originating in the Drakenstein Mountains, runs through the centre of Franschhoek towards Paarl and Stellenbosch to the west. So let’s get into what gives Franschhoek, SA such an interesting story!


As with many of the regions I write about, to understand the region of Franschhoek today, we must look back into the history of the region to understand why it is the way it is today. This is particularly true for this very unique appellation in the very eastern edge of South Africa’s Coastal Region, about 80km due east of central Cape Town. The story of Franschhoek you see, goes back to Northern France during the rise of Calvinism and the Protestant faith in Europe. The Edict of Nantes spelled the end of the French Wars of Religion, 35 years of battles that were tearing France apart in the mid-to-late 16th century. This edict was written by King Henry IV, and it set in law that no Christian religion was above another in an attempt to promote unity and stop the civil wars weakening France. The edict offered to individuals general freedom of conscience to choose what arm of Christianity they wanted to support; the traditional Catholic faith or the newer Protestant one. Neither was better, and members of each arm of Christianity had equal rights and freedom from persecution. However in October 1685, the Edict of Fontainebleau was introduced by Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, which revoked the Edict of Nantes, and the persecution of Protestants, who were known in France as Huguenots, was not only once more allowed, but actively encouraged. Just before the turn of the century in 1700, the French government enacted the ‘Dragonnades’ policy, which instituted the billing of Catholic French Dragoons (light cavalrymen) in Huguenot households. The Huguenot families had to feed, bathe and house the Dragoons, while the soldier was legally allowed to abuse the inhabitants and destroy or steal their possessions. If the family converted to Catholicism, the Dragoon was moved out, but if the family complained or assaulted the Dragoon, the whole family were either executed or expelled.


So, in the early 18th century, a flood of French Huguenots, mostly from central and northern France, fled their homeland to settle in countries all over the world. Many families moved to Dutch colonies, as the Dutch were traditionally very tolerant of religion. So it was that several families moved to the Dutch colony in the Western corner of South Africa. These families were given a small valley to live in which became known as Franschhoek, which is Dutch for ‘French Corner’. Now as you could probably guess, many of these French families were grape growers and winemakers, and they brought these skills, along with several vine cuttings, to their new home and got started on making wine!


It wasn’t that straightforward though- while the hillsides looked very similar to those they had left, and the sandstone and granite soils were ideal for grape-growing, the climate of Franschhoek is quite a bit different from the Huguenot’s home in northern France! Ironically enough though, it was by sticking to their traditional farming methods they were able to mitigate the warm South African weather. You see, in northern French regions like Burgundy and Champagne, the best Grand Cru sites are almost always on south-facing slopes, to take advantage of every ray of sunshine through the day and get the ripest grapes possible. Here in Franschhoek though, there was no lack of sunshine, and if they planted on the north-facing slopes (as they are now on the other side of the equator), they would get too much sun and the vines would be over-ripe and jammy. Instead they planted on the south-facing Wemmershoek Mountain slope, which only received the sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, and the grapes retained their fresh acidity, lower alcohols and had lighter, more elegant flavours.


Today of course the warm sunshine has been embraced by winemakers, and vines are found on both slopes of the Valley. The warmer north-facing slopes are usually planted to Syrah higher up the hill and Cabernet Sauvignon and a bit of Chardonnay down by the cool Berg River. The modern style of Franschhoek wine tends to embrace the juicier, jammier flavours and the corresponding warmer alcohols, though there is still a style of wine that comes from those cooler south-facing slopes in Franschhoek, made famous by this particular region that is reminiscent of its northern French history.


Cap Classique is South Africa’s premium sparkling wine, and can be made anywhere in the Coastal Region, though the highest quality examples tend to come from the cooler south-facing slopes here in Franschhoek. Cap Classique must be made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and must be made in the traditional method of secondary fermentation in bottle to achieve carbonation. It seems there were at least a few Champenoise that came across all those centuries ago!

Mark Faber
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles