South Africa used to be all about the Safari, but of late, it has also become a premier destination for wine. Traveling from Chicago to South Africa for a good friend’s wedding, we added an unexpected visit to the wine country. Bypassing the larger, better known Stellenbosch, we opted for the quaint town of Franschhoek, one of the oldest towns of South Africa. We rented a car in Cape Town and drove out along the N1 highway, surprised by how quickly the city vanished behind us.

An hour later, we arrived in Franschhoek. Strikingly colorful hills of vineyards and lush green landscape unfolded before our eyes. Passing through the small town of shops and restaurants, we were soon greeted by the Huguenot Monument, representing the original French settlers who still influence the local wine culture to this day. Winding our way up into the hills, we passed our hotel twice before catching the turn into the driveway. A big change from Cape Town, indeed, La Petite Ferme was gorgeous online and, in person, it did not disappoint. Behind the reception desk was a huge window displaying a postcard-worthy image of the vast Franschhoek Valley, the purple mountains and vineyard covered hills instilling an immediate sense of relaxation.

We stopped by a few local vineyards and appreciated their beautiful grounds and tasty wines, but soon we were ready for lunch. Following a recommendation, we headed to Boschendeal where we stumbled upon an open lawn, speckled with trees and, surprisingly, bistro tables and chairs where we made ourselves comfortable.

Soon enough, a lovely waiter greeted us. “A picnic for two?” I asked, unsure of how that request would fare.

He nodded his head, and soon delivered a proper picnic basket, unlike anything we ever experienced in the States. It included full table settings and a scrumptious array of bread, cheeses, salads, meats, dessert and wine. The air was fresh, the temperature in the mid-70’s, and we were as happy as a couple from Chicago could be in the middle of March.

Heading back to Le Petite Ferme, we felt like locals… left at the Huguenot, drive up the hill, turn into the (previously missed) driveway. Upon checking in this time, we were escorted to our room. We had booked a Manor House Suite, situated in the owners’ original residence, which overlooked the serene pool, with views of the vineyards and valley below. We opened a complementary bottle of wine and relaxed on the grass as we watched the sun set into the valley of patchwork vineyards.  

We had been looking forward to eating at The Tasting Room of Le Quartier Francais, for some time. Touted as the place to dine in South Africa, and as one of the world’s Top 50 Restaurants by Restaurant magazine, The Tasting Room boasts a sophisticated meal peppered with surprises of African inspiration in every course. Award-winning Relais & Châteaux Grande Chef, Margot Janse, has created an evolving menu that proclaims, “Life is what you do between meals; real living is what you do during them.”

Each course presented a different story of South African history and lore. The nine course “surprise” tasting menu was intended for foodies (table for two, please) looking for cutting edge cuisine utilizing traditional African produce, grains and herbs. We tasted it all, from lightly smoked Namibian oysters, chorizo, cucumber and granadilla to Northern province foie gras custard, african soil, and suurvy (Cape fig). A favorite dish, the “wonder bag” was brought to our table in a traditional pouch used by South African women to keep their meals warm. When opened, it revealed a mini Le Creuset filled with a porridge of samp (local ground corn), bochu (local herb) and sunflower. Some courses were more simple; a plate of lovely cheese made from the milk of Chef Janse’s own cow. Every course was paired with a beautiful, local wine. It was pure joy and creativity, and we loved every bite.

Next morning, we had a full country style breakfast at the hotel. Our table had a picturesque view of the valley, and the fare was a spectacular array of farm-fresh eggs, smoked trout, fruit, breads and pastries. After breakfast, we strolled the grounds, peeking around the vineyard and checking out some of the other suites. Soon enough, it was time for wine. Our fearless leader was none other than the owner of Le Petite Ferme, Mark Dendy Young, who takes great pride in serving just about every role needed in the small hotel/restaurant/winery. For a moment he reminded me of Basil Fawlty, but that is meant in only the most generous of interpretations. He introduced himself and shared that the ownership of the restaurant dates back to his grandmother, and that he began learning to make wine at the age of eleven.  

Mark and his wife, Josephine, took over the property in 1994. They make 13 different wines, with a strength in Sauvignon Blanc grapes. In the cellar and wine production rooms, we tasted young wines straight from the barrel. Mark told us the tale of the Angel’s Share, the wine which goes missing from the barrel during the aging process. He logically explained that the missing wine is, most likely, due to evaporation during the aging process. But he coyly implied that even if not due to evaporation, no-one would be the wiser.

After strolling the grounds and wandering among the vines a little longer, it was time for our departure. Following all of this beautiful fare, it was easy to forget that we actually came to South Africa for a wedding “in the bush” on a top-notch game reserve. It was time for our journey to continue, but we would always be grateful for our unexpected jaunt to Franschhoek.

STAY Located in Franschhoek, Le Petite Ferme is a working winery, restaurant and B&B.

VISIT Boschendeal is one of the most historic properties in Franschhoek, dating back to 1685. Tour the estate grounds, enjoy a wine tasting and tour, and do not miss the “pique-nique.” La Motte is a vineyard and restaurant offering wine tasting and tours on the large property.

EAT Chef Margot Janse offers two unique prix-fixe meals featuring local produce and wines at The Tasting Room of Le Quartier Francais. The African Inspired Surprise Tasting Menu is not to be missed. The property also includes a hotel with a variety of accommodations.