Making art from science & wine from sunshine – the Franki’s Vineyards story

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on all the interesting folks out here in the Swartland, you head out to a farm outside Darling one sunny day, and find yourself face to face with an organic chemist who left behind the laboratory to get her hands dirty and turn winemaker on a solar farm that also happens to play host to a vintage car museum. Intrigued? So were we!

We recently caught up with Erica Joubert from Franki’s Vineyards & Guest Lodge, and her right-hand woman Natasha Du Toit, to find out more about making art from science and how they turn sunshine into wine on their beautifully rustic farm off the R45. Here are a few of the interesting things we learned: 

Franki’s Vineyards & Guest Lodge is the perfect place to unwind

The farm is located quite a way off the beaten track, and their guest lodge was created with the express purpose of allowing visitors to leave the bustle of the everyday grind behind and enjoy a little bit of ‘pure plaas’ (proper farm). 

“We want our guests to unwind. There is no distraction out here – no ATM, no movies. When people come here, they disembark and unplug, and they only leave when it’s time to go home,” says guest relations officer Natasha du Toit. “The farm spreads out over 700 hectares, which is made up of two portions – Klein Rondebosche, which is where the infrastructure is located, and Diepkuil. We offer tours of the cellar, vineyards, solar park and vintage car museum with prior arrangement. The latter is a big treat for proper auto enthusiasts.”

You may ask yourself what on earth a wine farm in the middle of the Swartland is doing with a vintage car museum, but the answer is quite simple – owner Anthony Corin has always had an avid interest in vintage vehicles and actually received training in race car driving in the UK.  

Anthony’s favourite orange Capri in the car museum.

“He used to race quite a few of his cars,” says Erica, who has been Anthony’s partner for more than 20 years. “It’s always been a love and a passion of his, and since he recently stopped racing he has decided to give tours to die-hard motorsports fans when they come to stay. His private collection includes his favourite orange Capri, a GT40, a couple of Cobras that were manufactured by a factory in PE, a few Porches, a number of collectible Fords, a good-looking Saab and some very interesting racing memorabilia.”

Franki’s Vineyards Guest Lodge with the solar farm gleaming in the background.
The guest lodge boasting with all the small amenities guests may require to make for a memorable Swartland farm-stay.
Kasteelberg Mountain as seen from the air in the distance.

Erica earned her stripes as an organic chemist before becoming a winemaker

Erica and Anthony purchased the farm outside of Darling around 2000, but before that she used to work as an organic chemist for a company called Delta G Scientific in 1982. Little did she know that her background in chemistry would pave the way for artistic pursuits later along the line. 

“I started working as a synthetic organic chemist for in 1984,” recounts Erica. “After two years of paying back my student loans, I resigned, did my master’s degree and returned again. I started as a junior chemist and eventually became the manager of the laboratories, with all these very clever people with PhD’s reporting to me.”

“To a certain extent that was because I was better at admin than they were – I was great at gathering the research and placing it in an understandable format to see where we needed to go with a given product. The really intelligent people would change too many things in a process, and you wouldn’t know where the variables snuck in. I helped by designing experiments that would pave the way to the final product. I was all about purity and getting it out the gate.”

Erica Joubert, winemaker at Franki’s Vineyards.
The Franki’s Vineyards range of superb wines.

Today these same principles apply when she tends the vines and make the wines under the Franki’s Vineyards label. However, her love of wine did not appear in a vacuum. Erica grew up in the Cape and spent a lot of time exploring the Winelands with her father. 

“I loved visiting the farms, even in the 80s when there were only a handful, around 50 of them. My father quit drinking when I was about 6 years old, but we would head out to the wineries together,” remembers Erica. “He would smell and look and give his opinion, and I would do the tasting. It was a lovely introduction into wine appreciation. And even though he himself did not indulge; he would always buy wine to serve at his dinner parties. He liked his wines matured – he believed that a Cabernet should be at least 10 years old before you drink it.”

“So, I was always interested in the field, and when Anthony bought the farm I started studying through the Cape Wine Academy and finished both the introduction certificate and the diploma. I also did a short course at Stellenbosch University with Dr Wessel du Toit. It’s a great course that anyone can do – you get a wonderful handbook with practical information and they set you to work destemming, crushing, making must, inoculating – the whole process. You start on Friday night and end on the Sunday afternoon, so it’s great for working people.”

In the Swartland you can get by with a little help from your friends

After Erica had learned the basics, she went on to get her hands dirty and learn by trial and error, asking other producers in the area for help whenever she got stuck. This is how she found out that the Swartland’s reputation for being a friendly place is more than just a rumour. 

“Eben Sadie, for one, never hesitated to come out to the farm and help me when I needed it. Abie Beukes from Darling Cellars was another one of my mentors,” says Erica. “This is how I learned that people in the Swartland wine industry are always willing to help you, no matter how stupid your questions may be, especially when you are just starting out. I would even bug them in the middle of harvest time, and they’d be willing to help me.”

READ MORE: PLACE ABOVE PROGRESS – Eben Sadie on old vines, new cultivars and bottling the Swartland

Erica and her team currently have 22 hectares under vine – 10ha Mourvèdre, 5.6ha Viognier and 7.4ha of Grenache Noir. These varietals were carefully selected during a visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in south-eastern France in 2005. 

“The Southern Rhône area’s climate corresponds almost exactly with what we have here in the Swartland – low rainfall, strong, cold winds in the winter, etc. So that is where we went to select our cultivars before planting consecutive vineyards between 2005 and 2007,” explains Erica. “We’re a small winery, producing around 3000 bottles per year. We have a normal Viognier, a limited-edition barrel-fermented Viognier, rosé, Grenache and a red blend. These wines can be purchased from the farm, or reputable stockists like The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel, Bill & Co Swartland Street Market in Malmesbury, Sunset Beach Wines in Cape Town, and more.”

READ MORE: The Wine Kollective: The only little wine shop in the universe dedicated to Swartland wines

When you do buy their wines (or any other wine for that matter), Erica recommends that you take some time to use all your senses before you take that first swallow. 

“You miss so much when you just grab a glass and dive straight in. You first need to spend some time just looking at it. Is it clear, is it vibrant, brilliant, is it green, is it yellow, is there a tinge, is it an old wine, is it a young wine? There are so many clues about the wine you can pick up straight off the bat without putting your mouth to it,” explains Erica. “It’s like a little adventure, trying to figure out what you’ll find in the glass. Next, you need to smell it. This is another step in preparing your palate for what will be coming its way. That first whiff tells you whether you should expect wood, if the wine has matured, if its sweet or dry. Take your time to enjoy the full experience before you settle into the drinking of the wine.”

Erica Joubert and Natasha du Toit in their wine cellar, sampling this year’s vintage.
The cellar of Franki’s Vineyards dates back to the early 21th century and was lovingly restored and preserved by Erica and Anthony.
The clay walls of the cellar; a sure sign of Swartland heritage.

Franki’s Vineyards operates completely off the grid

And when we say, ‘off the grid’, we mean that quite literally. The major income of the farm on which Franki’s Vineyards is situated comes from a very extensive solar grid. 

“A couple of years ago when the government realised that Eskom cannot supply enough electricity to support the demand in South Africa, they allowed independent people to put in a bid to create electricity as IPPs (independent power producers),” says Erica. 

“At that time, Anthony Corin put in a bid in his personal capacity to build the Swartland Solar Park, and he was successful in the first round of bidders, which was a huge achievement. Subsequent to that, the 5MW park was built on 7 hectares and it’s been immensely successful. We supply directly to Eskom. There is also a second park that Anthony constructed himself, alongside a few other investors, that feeds the farm. So, the farm is completely off the grid, running exclusively on solar energy.”

How’s that for fantastic? Every time you buy a bottle of Franki’s Vineyards wine, you not only get to taste a little bit of the Swartland, you can also rest assured that the wine was made from pure sunshine – the perfect amalgamation of science and art. 

Erica and Natasha, your friendly host on this special Swartland farm.

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