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Regional profile: Franschhoek

Frustrated that their valley is not always taken seriously as a wine appellation, a number of producers are prouder than ever to put Wine of Origin Franschhoek on their bottles. Joanne Gibson reports...

Franschhoek at a glance:

Area under vine: 1,254ha (1.25% of South Africa’s total plantings)
Main grape varieties:
White: Sauvignon Blanc (189.5ha), Chardonnay (181.5ha), Semillon (86.6ha), Chenin Blanc (62.5ha), Viognier (24.8ha)
Red: Cabernet Sauvignon (188.4ha), Shiraz (170.5ha), Merlot (116.9ha), Pinot Noir (59.3ha), Pinotage (28.9ha), Cabernet Franc (26.7ha)
Annual production: 18 million bottles, including brands that use fruit from other appellations

Quick links:
– Franschhoek: know your vintages
– Six names to watch
– Six of Franschhoek’s finest wines

Regional Profile:

Almost regardless of wine quality, Franschhoek has long been regarded as one of South Africa’s sexiest destinations for wine lovers. It is one of the Cape’s most beautiful valleys, enclosed on three sides by towering mountains, and boasts a plethora of top restaurants and luxury accommodation, ensuring a steady influx of well-heeled foreign visitors.

But for all the pride taken in its French Huguenot winegrowing heritage, dating back to 1688, the Franschhoek Valley was only classified as an official district in South Africa’s Wine of Origin scheme in 2010, having fallen under the less-hyped Paarl district prior to that. Moreover, it has acquired an unfortunate ‘terroir by truck’ stigma, thanks to farming costs spiralling on what has become very sought-after real estate, with the result that many cellars buy in cheaper fruit from other areas – in some cases very successfully.

Boekenhoutskloof, for example, sources its iconic Syrah from Wellington, while its crowdpleasing The Chocolate Block as well as secondlabel Porcupine Ridge and The Wolftrap ranges are generically labelled as Wine of Origin (WO) Western Cape. Only its flagship Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon are entirely WO Franschhoek.

Meanwhile, Hein Koegelenberg, CEO of La Motte, believes that the freedom to source fruit from other areas is South Africa’s’s strength. ‘Being able to say that a wine is WO Franschhoek is irrelevant. We’re not in France where, if you’re on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the question is how much Merlot to put in your blend. We’re in Franschhoek, where the question is which grapes that you have access to will help you make the best wine in the specific style of your brand.’

La Motte’s Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is a blend of up to 12 wines (the 2012 comprises 30% Franschhoek fruit, 20% Stellenbosch, 5% Elim, 5% Durbanville, 5% West Coast and 5% Nieuwoudtville). ‘A wine grown on our loose, sandy soils at La Motte would be one-dimensional,’ explains Koegelenberg. ‘Only by combining flavours from different regions can we realise the full potential of Sauvignon in South Africa and get the style we want. And then repeat it. A global brand needs consistency.’

There is, however, one wine in La Motte’s portfolio that is WO Franschhoek: its singlevineyard Chardonnay. ‘It is possible to achieve the complexity we want for our brand with Franschhoek Chardonnay; with Franschhoek Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz it’s not.’ And this is the current focus for a small but growing band of the region’s winemakers: which varieties grow best in their valley?

The ‘underestimated’ region

It might seem like a daunting if not impossible task, given that this is an appellation in which annual average rainfall varies from a mere 400mm on the valley floor to more than 2,000mm in the southwest corner where the Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek mountains meet. ‘They farm trout there because it’s so wet,’ says Rosa Kruger, South Africa’s leading viticulturist, who works as vineyard manager for five clients including Boekenhoutskloof and Solms-Delta in Franschhoek, as well as nearby Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons (not in the valley but included on the tourism-orientated Franschhoek Valley Food & Wine Route).

Add in the Klein Drakenstein and Wemmershoek mountains, and the result is a near unfathomable diversity of slopes, aspects and soil types, from alluvial sand on the valley floor to what Kruger describes as ‘amazing Stellenbosch-type clay’ up the west-facing slopes. Not to mention outcrops of granite and even Greywacke sandstone – highly unusual in South Africa, and celebrated by Cape Chamonix in its Greywacke Pinotage. ‘You have to do what suits your little pocket best,’ says cellarmaster/ viticulturist Gottfried Mocke, a philosophy that saw Chamonix named Winery of the Year in Platter’s South African Wine Guide 2013.

Given that Kruger specialises in finding ‘different landscapes’ that make site-specific wines (she hates the word terroir), it’s not surprising that she feels ‘Franschhoek is completely underestimated’. But the diversity that makes her job here so exciting – from reviving century-old Semillon blocks to planting Macabeo at Solms-Delta – also makes it a challenge to isolate viticultural strengths for Franschhoek as a whole, let alone identify ‘typicity’ in its wines. ‘Franschhoek needs more focus,’ insists Môreson winemaker Clayton Reabow. ‘So far we’ve taken a shotgun approach because the market wants everything. But in 50 years it would be nice to see a focus on a few varieties that we start identifying now.’

Spoiled for choice

As far as white wines are concerned, there’s distinctly floral, spicy Sauvignon Blanc and fresh, elegant Viognier to be found, while Franschhoek has also taken ownership of Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wine in recent years. But already general consensus is that the valley’s best-performing wines ‘in terms of history and prestige’ are creamy, barrel-fermented Semillon (‘Franschhoek is the cradle of Semillon in South Africa,’ Kruger points out) and elegant, mineral Chardonnay.

The debate intensifies when it comes to reds, although Cabernet Sauvignon leads the way, in both plantings and prestige. ‘Classic Franschhoek Cab is elegant, never overextracted or jammy,’ says Wynand Grobler, cellarmaster at Rickety Bridge Winery. La Bri Estate’s winemaker Irene Waller is most passionate about Syrah, Franschhoek’s second most planted red variety, while Dieter Sellmeyer of Lynx Wines makes a strong case for single-varietal Cabernet Franc, a variety which makes up 85% of Chamonix’s Bordeaux-style blend Troika 2011. ‘The wines with more Cabernet Franc are the most interesting and also age the best,’ reveals Mocke.

Jean Smit, chief winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof agrees in its ability to lift a blend.

Nevertheless, Semillon, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have been selected as the three flagship varieties for Franschhoek. More than 100 varietal examples, or blends containing no more than 15% of other varieties, have been sourced for a tasting in which independent expert panellists will attempt to identify stylistic typicity for Franschhoek – and award Appellation Grand Prestige status where appropriate (see www.agpc.co.za). ‘A green style of Semillon made in tank, with 15% Sauvignon Blanc added probably won’t make the cut,’ says Craig McNaught, winemaker at Stony Brook Vineyards, explaining that Franschhoek is already well known for a barrel-fermented, lees-stirred style.

‘A lot of us also make wines that show better when older,’ Waller points out. Stony Brook, for example, has only just released its Semillon 2009, while Smit feels his current-release Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2010 won’t plateau for another six or seven years: ‘But it’s at a price point (£20 a bottle, see box, right) where the people who buy it will understand that they need to cellar it for a few years in order to appreciate it properly,’ he explains. ‘The tasting is merely a starting point for developing origin control guidelines,’ stresses Reabow.

It’s inspiring to see the confidence of those Franschhoek winemakers who have invested seriously in their vineyards, in time as well as financially. As McNaught jokes, ‘Our philosophy was to make absolutely no profit for 17 years, and we’ve achieved it!’ Waller concludes: ‘It’s taken a while but we’ve found the gems: the older vineyards as well as the right pockets for planting new ones. Yes, we can bring in fruit where necessary, but ultimately we can now rely on what’s in the valley.’

Written by Joanne Gibson

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