Wine Tasting in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, South Africa

Being the wine lovers that we are, we wouldn’t consider visiting South Africa without spending a few days wine tasting. We took advantage of two days touring Cape Town and the Cape peninsula on the Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) itinerary that was part of the Post-trip extension to the Ultimate Africa trip, and then decided to plan the remaining three days on our own.

We did a bit of research to determine which wine districts we wanted to visit and what we had time for. In addition to pestering wine friends who had visited the region, I found Wines of the New South Africa Tradition and Revolution by Tim James to be a great resource. I also began saving articles on South African wine as I found them, well in advance of our planning the trip.

Stellenbosch is the epicenter of winemaking in South Africa, so that district was definitely on our list. We had read about the stunning beauty of Franschhoek, so really wanted to visit there as well. Then, we wanted to mix things up a bit. Visit a more remote winemaking area or maybe some organic or biodynamic farms.

Winegrowing Areas South Africa

We decided on visiting the Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Swartland districts. Then to get our biodynamic fix we planned a trip out to Waterkloof, a stunning farm in Somerset West. In all, we spent three days wine tasting is South Africa. Every wine region was just drop-dead gorgeous and the wines were amazing.

Craig, one of the members of our travel group, originally found Luhambo Tours using an internet search. Online reviews were consistently excellent, so we contacted them about organizing our wine tasting tours. It turned out to be a great choice.

Luhambo Tours has a number of wine tasting tours to offer or will organize a personalized tour for you, complete with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel door in Cape Town. In case you were wondering, Luhambo means journey in the Xhosa language.

Wine tasting with Luhambo Tours
Graham was our driver for the first day of touring to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. He’s the one who took our picture in front of the Luhambo Tours van before our departure. We were all proudly wearing our United We Sip t-shirts (courtesy of Leslie, she’s the one in the middle-left. Thank you, Leslie.) and joined by Sanction, our OAT safari guide. Although Sanction did not accompany us on our wine tasting trip, he was with us in spirit. We met up with Sanction again that evening for our final dinner together.

We had a wonderful day touring and wine tasting with Graham. He was friendly and so knowledgeable about the history and winemaking of South Africa. Graham came to South Africa from Scotland with his family at the age of 3 and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Having worked a harvest or two in the region, he has lots of first-hand knowledge of winemaking in the Cape.


Our first stop was Kanonkop, home to outstanding red wines. The name of the farm is an interesting one. From the Kanonkop website:

“The name Kanonkop was derived from a kopje (hillock), from which a cannon was fired in the 17th Century to alert farmers in outlying areas that sailing ships plying the waters between Europe and the Far East had entered Table Bay for a stopover at Cape Town.”

Farmers could then haul their goods to the harbor for sale to the ships.

Kanonkop remains family owned, being handed down from father to son for four generations. The estate totals 125 hectares, with 100 hectares planted, and is located at the foot of Simonsberg Mountain (Simonsberg means Simon’s mountain in Afrikaans) in the Stellenbosch Region of the Cape. Both Simonsberg and Stellenbosch are named for Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Cape (more about that later in this post).

Pinotage comprises 40% of plantings on the farm, with Cabernet Sauvignon adding 35%, Merlot 7.5% and a bit of Cabernet Franc. The Pinotage is some of the oldest in the Cape at about 50 years of age. They are bush vines that are largely dry-farmed. We passed large plantings of these lovely old bush vines as we drove through the farm to the tasting room.

Winemaking begins in open top concrete fermenters that are wider than they are deep allowing for maximum skin to juice contact. Only French oak (Nevers) barrels are used for aging.

Kanonkop Tasting Room (Cellar Door)
From the exterior the caller door (tasting room to us), and barrel room beyond, is very ordinary looking. The interior is is quite spectacular however. The tasting room is modern, beautifully lit with a rich wood ceiling. The barrel room extends beyond a glass wall in the tasting room. It was a really pleasant space in which to taste through the Kanonkop wines.

Kanonkop Wine Tasting Lineup
We tasted 5 wines, all delicious. The Kadette Pinotage Dry Rosé and the Kadette Cape Blend are the only non-estate wines in the group. In addition we tasted the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2011 Paul Sauer, Kanonkop’s flagship wine, which is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot that is aged 24 months in new French oak.

The 2012 Pinotage, made from fruit harvested from Kanonkop’s 58 year old bush vines, showed ample dark fruit, a bit of smoke and nice tannins. Great depth of flavor and well balanced. If all Pinotage tasted this good, no one would ever make a face as you pour them a glass of Pinotage.

Our next stop took us to the Franschhoek Valley with dramatic views of Simonsberg Mountain along the way and the Drakenstein Mountains which encircle the valley on three sides. The combination of green farmland and spectacular mountain vistas was stunning.

The Franschhoek Valley was settled under the direction of Simon van der Stel. At the time he and his scouts explored the area, shortly after his arrival in 1679, San and Khoi people inhabited the area. The picturesque valley was also home to herds of elephants, and its early name was Oliphantshoek, elephant’s corner.

One of van der Stel’s major tasks was to develop the Cape as a refueling station for Dutch East India Company ships passing between Europe and India. That meant developing farming in the region so that ships could be provided with meat, vegetables and wine.

With the revocation of the Edict of Nants by King Louis XIV in 1685, French protestants known as Huguenots suffered increased religious persecution in France. They began fleeing the country in increasing numbers.

Van der Stel saw the Huguenots, who were farmers and winemakers in addition to having similar religious beliefs, as a potential source of families to help settle and develop the Cape region. He requested that the Dutch East India Company provide passage for any suitably-skilled Huguenots to the Cape. So, between 1688 and 1689 about 175 Huguenots re-settled in the Cape region.

The Huguenots were given land to settle in what is today called Somerset West and Stellenbosch, but the majority settled in the beautiful valley that was at the time called Oliphantshoek. After settlement by the French it was re-named Franschhoek or French corner.

Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek
Today Franschhoek is a charming, but touristy, little town. At one end, with the mountains as a dramatic backdrop, is a beautiful monument to the Huguenot settlers.

A beautiful Dutch Reformed Church built in 1846 still stands on Huguenot Street and the Franschhoek City Hall built in 1935 in the Cape Dutch revival style is equally charming.

Mixed among these landmarks are countless shops, art galleries and restaurants. Many restaurants and wineries in the valley have French names as you would expect. The French language was eventually forbidden, however, in any communication with Dutch authorities.

We had just an hour to grab lunch and quickly walk through Franschhoek. Not nearly enough time to adequately explore the museum or the churchyard or wander the back streets, but we did have a delicious lunch, were able to find some beautiful gifts and enjoyed some decadent chocolates.

Grand Provence

This spectacular winery is located along the Main Road (that’s what it’s called before the name changes to Huguenot Street in the city) just before reaching Franschhoek. We stopped and tasted here before continuing on to Franschhoek for lunch and that quick tour.

Grand Provence Cellar Door
The drive up to the collection of Cape Dutch style buildings took us through the vineyards, some still wild prior to winter pruning and others neatly pruned. This winery oozes luxury at first glance. Immaculate white buildings stand surrounded by well manicured gardens, precisely trimmed hedges and spectacular outdoor sculptures. When’s the last time you noted a sign directing you to parking and the helipad outside a winery?

The modern cellar door was staffed by Andre the day we visited and he guided us through a tasting of Grand Provence’s red wines. Three of the four wines we tasted carry the Franschhoek Wine of Origin designation, meaning 100% of the fruit is grown within the boundaries of the Franschhoek production area.  For a detailed explanation of the Wine of Origin designation visit Wines of South Africa.

2011 Grand Provence Red is a limited release wine that is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. It shown nice Merlot fruit flavors with the great structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. A hint of bell pepper and spice flavors add nice complexity.

Rounding out the tasting were the 2013 Pinot Noir and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (both Franschhoek Wine of Origin) and the 2009 Shiraz which is produced from Stellenbosch-grown fruit. Grand Provence is one of only three wineries in the Franschhoek area producing Pinot Noir.

With our tasting complete (oh yes, there were chocolates too!) Graham politely encouraged us to move along. It would have been easy to linger, walking through the gardens, the art gallery, the restaurant or the gift shop, but we had more wine to taste, and more of the beautiful landscape to see.

On the way to our next wine tasting stop we made a detour through the town of Stellenbosch. Graham ably navigated the narrow streets of the picturesque town which is home to Stellenbosch University and its Department of Viticulture and Oenology. Education in viticulture and winemaking has been ongoing since the 1880s.

Dutch Reformed Church, Stellenbosch
During Simon van der Stel’s early exploration of the area surrounding Cape Town in 1679, he made camp on an island along the banks of the Eerste River. Van der Stel named the area Simon van der Stel se Bos (Simon van der Stel’s bush).

He was impressed by the broad valley and recognized its abundant water supply from the Eerste River made it the perfect area for farming. By 1683 farmers began settling the area which became known as Stellenbosch, Stel’s bush. The town was established in 1685.

Rust en Vrede

Rest and Peace is the translation of the winery name, and the setting could not have been more peaceful. The cellar door and winery are surrounded by the vineyards and framed by Helderberg Mountain. We were seated outdoors for the tasting with the beauty of the vineyards and the mountains providing a visual feast to accompany these substantial wines.

Rust en Vrede
This area just outside of Stellenbosch is a bit warmer, the surrounding mountains provide a bit of protection from cooling winds. As a result, the Rust en Vrede vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot with production limited to red wines only.

The farm was established in 1694, but wine has not been made continuously since that time. Winemaking began in the 1970s after many decades of not producing wine.

We tasted four red wines, all extroverted, powerful, flavorful wines with great tannin structure and ABV in the range of 14.9% to 15.7%. The first three wines we tasted were the 2013 Estate Merlot, 2012 Estate Syrah and 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

2011 Estate Blend is the biggest of the bunch. The blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah and 10% Merlot is complex with riper fruit flavors along with licorice, caramel and vanilla. Tannins are substantial.

All of these wines are aged in French oak, with the length of aging increasing from 12 months for the Merlot to 18 months for the Estate Blend. The Estate blend also spends 18 months bottle-aging before release.

In 1998 Rust en Vrede was the first South African winery to have a wine included in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines, and have been included several time since, most recently in 2012.

Unbelievably, we had time for one final winery visit on our way back to Cape Town. We were in for yet another unique winery visit.


The drive into the winery is lined with palm trees, making the entrance very unique. I could hardly wait to see what we would find at the end of the drive. Along the way we saw horses grazing the pastures, a beautiful white barn and a family cemetery. The private residence in front of the tasting room and winery was so beautiful; yet another lovely example of Cape Dutch architecture which is at the same time elegant and unadorned.

Meerlust manor house
I had no idea at the time of our visit that Meerlust, which means “pleasure from the sea”, has been designated a National Monument. The farm was originally settled by German immigrants in 1693. The name is derived from the estate’s close proximity to the sea, it’s only 5 kilometers from False Bay, and the cooling breezes that blow in from the ocean.

We were greeted by two friendly winery dogs, who seemed very glad to see us. The cellar door contains an eclectic mix of poster art and furnishings. Yet another treat for the eyes as well as the tastebuds.

All of the wines at Meerlust are produced from estate fruit.

We began the tasting with the 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 Pinot Noir, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2011 RED, an “everyone in the pool” blend of 52% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot.

2010 Merlot has 7% Cabernet Franc added and I love that. This wine has green pepper on the nose with nice red and dark fruit flavors and great tannins. Love this combination of Merlot and Cab Franc. They definitely play well together.

2009 Rubicon is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot. It’s inky dark in the glass with deep, rich, dark fruit flavors, leather and green pepper vegetal notes. Tannins are significant and a bit grippy. Well put together with great structure.

All of these wines have a relatively modest ABV ranging from 13.08% to 14.5%, plenty of flavor and nice complexity from oak aging. Really delicious wines.

What a perfect day of wine tasting. I have certainly never visited a wine region more beautiful than Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The views are just stunning, as were the wineries themselves. And there was something for every wine palate. Some of the wines showed cooler climate influences, others warmer climate characteristics. It was a brilliant choice of wineries. All of these wineries export their wines to the US. Look for them, you will not be disappointed.

Thank you Graham for the great introduction to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

Day two of our wine tasting adventure took us to Tulbagh and Swartland. Two new regions in the Cape to explore and learn about in our next post. In the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.


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