Grapes on the Cape

If you know us, then you know we wouldn’t dream of passing up an opportunity to do some wine tasting in South Africa, so we of course took a few days to explore the wine region in and around Franschhoek.

On the drive from Cape Town we stopped in Stellenbosch to visit Thelema winery, which definitely had our favorite wines of all the vineyards we tasted at. We arrived in the fog, but as it lifted it became increasingly evident how beautiful this area is. And all that flora contributes not only to the views, but also the wines. They have a cab that legit tastes like mint because of the eucalyptus nearby the vines. It is such a strange influence on the wine. We ate lunch down the road at Tokara. The window table afforded us a superb view of the rolling hills of grapes while we wined and dined.

We stopped on our way into Franschhoek town to visit a couple more tasting rooms, with Lynx being first. Their wines are admittedly less complex, though they claim their intent is to produce a more “quaffable” drink. The jury’s still out on that one, though we did find it interesting that here and a few other spots they blend in a bit of viognier to cut the syrah.

Next up was La Motte. The property is flat out stunning. And the tasting room is fit for a visit from the queen. The wines, however, left a lot to be desired.

After this we headed to our hotel to relax in anticipation of a full day of wine tasting on the Wine Tram. Our spot was situated just outside of town, and it was charming and lovely. It even had its own vineyard and olive grove. We were smitten with the scenery and surprised to see that the surrounding environment included beautiful, steep, rugged mountains rather than the rolling hills you typically find in many wine regions.

We were up bright and early on a perfectly sunny, blue-sky morning to hop on the first wine tram of the day. Can I just say that this is the most brilliant invention ever? It’s essentially an organized party bus that takes wine tasters around to a number of the local wineries so they can taste and enjoy without driving. It’s partly trolley, partly train, and all awesome.

Maison was the first stop on our tram. What a chic place. We opted to go with the full tasting of six wines plus paired accoutrements, including biltong, blue cheese and truffles. The wines were decent, but the visit worth it for the experience alone. Tasting outside, surrounded by the mountains in their beautifully manicured lawn? Yes, please.

Dieu Donné had the most amazing views of the valley and mountains. We tasted near the vines there and then walked over to Roca for lunch. The pork belly and duck were delicious!

By the time we got to Chamonix our tasting notes took a turn for the worse. This is what our discerning palates had to say about the wines at Chamonix:

We finally boarded the actual tram portion (i.e. on rails and not the trolley/bus) and headed to Grande Provence to finish out our day. I adored their “Grande” red blend, and also the big elephant statue out front. Solid end to a wonderful day exploring South Africa’s wine country!

Practical Info

The Cape Peninsula itself has several wineries, but a greater concentration can be found about an hour away in the vicinity of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek, etc. We chose Franschhoek on a couple of recommendations. Stellenbosch has a university and I believe more Dutch influence. French Huguenots settled in the valley of Franschhoek, which is why there are so many French-named wineries and restaurants.

Our overall impression of Franschhoek is that it is a very beautiful and pleasant place to spend a day or two. The wines in general are reasonably good, but very few will “wow” you. The value, on the other hand, is superb. Very drinkable wines cost R50-100 per bottle. Tastings tend to be generous and cost R25-50. The food is also good value, with most nice restaurants charging R70-100 for appetizers and R120-200 for entrees.

Our favorite winery was Thelema, which is at the top of the Helshoogte Pass in Stellenbosch. Note that some of the wines we enjoyed there actually come from the sister property, Sutherland, which is in the cooler coastal region of Elgin. The best views among wineries we visited in Franschhoek were had from Dieu Donné. Maison is the most stylish, and it seemed like a meal there might be nice.

Transportation: We drove from Cape Town, taking N2 to M9 to R44 to Helshoogte Road to visit Thelema and Tokara. From there, we stopped at Lynx then La Motte on the way into Franschhoek. If you stay right in town, you can walk to several restaurants and perhaps even some wineries. For our full day here, we took the Wine Tram to visit several wineries without needing to drive.

Accommodation: We stayed at Auberge Clermont. We wanted to be walking distance to town, which we sort of were and sort of weren’t. You could walk, but it’d certainly be iffy at night. The property is lovely, with vineyards, an olive grove, some orchards, etc. Our room was very spacious and breakfast was great. There are several places to stay in town if you want to be able to walk to restaurants and the Wine Tram.

Other places I considered include Centre-Ville, Les Chambres and Fransvliet (just outside town). My mom had been before and stayed at Babylonstoren (further outside town), and she loved it.

Food and Drinks: Lunch at Roca Restaurant at Dieu Donné was my favorite meal in the area. The pork belly starter was amazing, the risotto was plentiful and yummy, and the duck duo was on point. Dinner at Reuben’s was good. We had a dinner reservation at Allora but ended up just doing takeout after a full day of wine tasting. Not ideal judging conditions, but we were disappointed.

On the drive from Cape Town, we ate lunch at the restaurant (not deli) at Tokara. The setting was lovely, but we were a tad underwhelmed with the food. It is good, but it felt like maybe they’re trying a little too hard to be avant-garde. If you want to dine at the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, book well in advance. I tried three weeks ahead and it was full both nights we were in town. We tried to walk into Cafe Des Arts; it was full but looked cozy and tasty. My mother stayed at Babylonstoren on a prior visit and loved the food.

The wineries we visited for tasting were Thelema, Lynx, La Motte, Maison, Eikehof, Dieu Donné, Chamonix and Grande Provence.

Activities: For our full day of wine tasting, we took the Franschhoek Wine Tram. More specifically, the Red Line Bus First 10:30 am departure. It is basically a hop-on hop-off wine tour. You have to choose the Red Line or Blue Line, and it was sort of a toss up for us. Tickets cost R170 each. The main advantage is not having to drive, but you also get some free tastings at certain wineries and the tram will hold wine you buy to be picked up at the end of the day.

You could visit the Huguenot Memorial Museum, and I think there is hiking in the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve.

October 30 – November 1, 2014 (Thursday-Saturday)

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