The Franschhoek high street is not what it once was.
Siegfried Schäfer, editor of Franschhoek Tatler, describes the valley prior to the pandemic as “a hub of activity”. Siegried says: “Franschhoek was a bustling cosmopolitan village. A magnet for international visitors. Wineries, galleries and restaurants were thriving, serving a high-end, mostly international clientele seeking exclusive experiences in a beautiful setting.”
However, as a result of the global pandemic, Siegfried says: “The village is a shadow of its former self. Finding parking on the main road during summer used to be unheard of! Several restaurants and shops have closed and wineries are struggling.”
Franschhoek had become a playground for the rich, a hideaway for the famous and a treasure hove for the aspirational. The valley has the rare ability to combine the beauty of nature with the glamour of art and architecture. According to Rob Armstrong, custodian of Haut Espoir, a shadow of an elephant in the mountain harkens to the town’s early inhabitants. This rarefied air was breathed in by visitors in pursuit of luxury and leisure.
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The Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival has become part of how the valley scintillates. The valley is home to over 20 celebrated Methode Cap Classique producers and it is home to annual celebrations of sparkling wine and other festivities, such as the Bastille Festival – a celebration of the valley’s French Huguenot history and heritage.
Darielle Robertson worked on early iterations of the Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, as well as other festivals and events, before founding DNA Festivals & Events.
Darielle says that prior to the pandemic, “life was great! After 14 years of event management, I finally secured sponsorship for four of my festivals. 2020 was going to be my year, then, two weeks before my Johannesburg Cap Classique & Champagne Festival, we got locked down!”
Due to the World Health Organisation’s advice to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, large events were discouraged during different levels of lockdown.
Darielle pivoted to other opportunities, including a farm shop called The Local Space and management of the market at the newly revamped Paisir de Merle in Simondium.
Sadly, as a result of the pandemic, Darielle was retrenched from two of her biggest clients, The Cape Wine Auction and the Franschhoek Wine Valley. With her future in the balance, she had the opportunity to focus on her other businesses and family, while they sheltered in place at their home on a Franschhoek farm.
In May 2021, Darielle hosted her first festival since lockdown. She says: “I am grateful to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I really look forward to having a big festival again, but until then I will concentrate on my other businesses.”
Martine Bauer, editor of Franschhoek Life, agrees with Darielle’s sentiment, explaining: “The results of lockdown rendered us a ghost town, with few businesses managing to stay afloat. Most businesses had to ‘pivot’ and ‘hustle’ to survive. Sadly, a few closed their doors but others opened delis or home services – they did whatever they could to keep going.”
However, Martine says the tide is turning for the better. She says: “One incredible consequence was that the community come together: locals volunteered daily to help feed those in need; soup kitchens, veg gardens and hand-washing stations were established throughout; and a wonderful initiative – ‘Together Franschhoek’ – was born!”
Franschhoek continues to inspire hope.
Marna Viljoen, hospitality manager at Grande Provence Estate, says that as a result of the pandemic, the estate has reshaped their offering for local visitors – which they hope to continue to grow.
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She says: “To cater for our local market, we opened a deli, manned by Chef Verno Gordon, and a more relaxed bistro restaurant, helmed by Anvor Fortuin. Our deli is stocked with goods from locals, preserves, and fruit and vegetables from our own gardens – which we also started farming during lockdown. Daily life and operations changed in the sense that our staff are now more flexible because we all do whatever needs to be done.”
Likewise, Gerard Holden, proprietor of Holden Manz, describes Holden Manz as “a wine tourism destination” that saw guests visit daily.
As a result of the pandemic, Gerard says Holden Manz receives tasting room guests only on weekends. He says: “The Country House is fully booked most weekends and runs at around 65% occupancy but with mainly South African guests paying rates two-thirds below the historic rates. Our Franschhoek Kitchen restaurant does not serve à la carte, focusing instead now on light lunches for tasting room guests. Weekly picnic numbers are the same level we are used to. The staff complement is 25, with 20 employees laid off. We have obviously been terribly affected by the lockdowns and bans on the domestic sale of alcohol. The amount of wildlife we encounter on the farm has increased.”
With continued hope, Gerard says: “We believe in a positive future. The rapid rate of vaccination in Europe and the USA will make travellers more confident, and we expect to start seeing international visitors from October onwards. It will take a couple of years to get back to pre-COVID levels, but we are confident that the attractions of South Africa, Franschhoek and Holden Manz will allure our international visitors to return.”
Similarly, Hein Koegelenberg, CEO of La Motte Wine Estate and Leopard’s Leap Family Vineyards, says: “While the profitability of South African wine is not new on the agenda before COVID things were going well.”
As a result of the pandemic, Hein says: “COVID showed the cracks. While the alcohol and the tourism industries have been very hard hit by COVID regulations, the pandemic forced us to reconsider how we do things.”
Besides adapting to the local market and making effective use of their online platforms, Hein says the tourism offerings are “weekend driven”, supported by outdoor activities like the La Motte Hiking Trail.
Hein concedes: “Uncertainty is the name of the game and we think we should plan more for the immediate than the distant future. COVID has – like a crisis does – forced us to evaluate and to be creative.”
Hein says that the pandemic has spotlighted the need for domestic tourism and its role in job creation.
He says that for La Motte and Leopard’s Leap: “I see us having new energy, doing some things differently, but staying true to our principles and quality.”
Internationally celebrated chef Reuben Riffel was born in Franschhoek and has namesake restaurants in the valley as well as at Val de Vie Estate.
An astute businessman, Reuben says: “Our industry was obviously heavily affected during lockdown – things were quite dire. At the moment, business is very sporadic. Daily life has changed for many of us in- and outside this industry. I’m busy with different projects. Life has changed significantly, but I would say it’s not all negative.”
Sagaciously, Reuben says: “We’ve learned some hard lessons and hope we will be busy in future, of course, but with more efficiency than before.”