Exploring The Heart Of South Africa’s Oldest Winelands

In 1685 in the Edict of Fontainebleau, issued by King Louis XIV of France, revoked the rights of French Protestants, the Huguenots, to practice their religion without persecution from the State. From that point onwards, large numbers set sail for a better life elsewhere, with a significant number choosing the Cape of Good Hope as the land on which to build a future.

In 1688, a group of 176 French Huguenots settled in a remote valley of the Western Province, 80km away from Cape Town and its mighty Table Mountain. The Dutch government allocated them lands in the valley of Olifantshoek, named after the large numbers of elephants living in the area, and this new farming community soon became known as “le Coin Français” (the French Corner). The Dutch East India Company’s policy to teach Dutch at schools soon phased out the knowledge of French, as the settlers assimilated in their new environment and the city was soon renamed as Franschhoek. Amongst the set of skills that the Huguenots were to retain of their former homeland was the art of making wine, a skill that centuries onwards allows South Africa to claim strong credentials within the wine-producing nations. These skills were to be added to the initial efforts of Jan van Riebeeck, Dutch Administrator of the Cape, who had set a task to grow the first vineyard of the country, in the belief that drinking wine and eating grapes would protect the sailors from scurvy. The tradition would soon spread to large areas of the Western Cape, to as high up north as the banks of the Orange River.

South African wine in itself can be traced back to 1659, with a white wine originating from Constantia. This Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains has become one of the symbols of the region, and Groot Constantia still stands today as South Africa’s oldest Winehouse. In the 18th and 19th century, Constantia wine was exported all over Europe till an epidemic of Phylloxera (the “Great French Wine Blight”) devastated the winelands towards the end of the 19th century. Its production only resumed in 1986, and the country now boasts 60 appellations within the Wine Origin system.

[easy-image-collage id=17429]

Today’s South African wine country makes up for one of the most scenic drives in the world, be it for the curious traveler or for the connoisseur in search of the most unique bottles.

Nestled in the mountainous regions around the Cape, these century old vineyards gravitate around four mythical towns: Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Worcester, and Paarl. The raw beauty of the mountains, the endless rows of vines, as well as stunning examples of Cape Dutch Architecture are highlights of this fabulous experience. Historical reminders of the journey endured by the founders of these cities are present in every aspect; The Huguenot Monument retraces the history of the first settlers and the initial farming community, the architecture is reminiscent of houses in Amsterdam, and many farms have retained their French names, including newer ones trying to keep a tie to their past. Bourgogne, Champagne, La Provence, and many other landmarks of France’s wine scene can be found 9000 km away from their original location, to the southern tip of the African continent. Far from being isolated, the region has been continuously opening itself to tourism, and fine dining can now be included to the list of things to do while driving in the region, whether in one of Franschhoek’s numerous restaurants, or in one of the wineries who are combining lunch and wine tasting in an exceptional environment. Last, but not least, Stellenbosch is home to one of South Africa’s oldest universities with 25,000 students out of the 100,000 population, and offers a bustling nightlife to those who wish to extend their trip with busy night out!

 Cape Town is a beautiful city, with one of the most extraordinary sceneries in the world, but like in most South African urban areas, safety precautions must be taken to ensure you’re staying out of trouble. Having the option to escape town for a few hours, or a few days, to visit the Western Cape winelands is something very few places can offer, and the easiness with which the area can be reached, combined to its quiet, rural atmosphere, makes up for the most wonderful countryside break one can think of. And most of all, drink responsibly!

 Photography & Words | Pierre-Olivier Drevillon