The Elephant In The Room: Franschhoek’s Most Rebellious Winery

Rebellion isn’t an act but a reaction to the environment around you. I’ve always identified as a rebel, and it’s born from not fitting in nor having the desire to. Bell Hooks, best known for her writings on race, feminism, and class, said “Part of the heart of anarchy is, dare to go against the grain of the conventional ways of thinking about our realities. Anarchists have always gone against the grain, and that’s been a place of hope.” The Western Cape in South Africa exudes a unique type of hope evident through every smile, each confident gust of wind, and sturdy vine craning towards the luminous sun.

Make Wine Not War

The history of viticulture in South Africa is intrinsically linked to the colonization of the land. Records date South African wine to the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company established the Cape Colony outpost. This event also marked the beginning of a system of institutionalized racial segregation where European colonizers began expanding their presence in South Africa to take advantage of the abundant natural resources. This invasion disenfranchised the local population in reprehensible ways, with more than 300 laws barring non-whites from living, operating businesses, or owning land in specific areas.

Discriminatory legislation paved the way for colonizers to purchase large estates; some used to produce wine, which would become extremely lucrative for European markets as it started flowing through them. Many of us are familiar with the term apartheid, used to describe this system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that lasted until the early 1990’s. Opposition to apartheid resulted in global boycotts of South African products as well as sanctions that had a devastating impact on the local wine industry. Once the legislation that held up apartheid was repealed and export markets began to open, South African wines were finally positioned to receive the attention they deserved.

Today, there are nearly 600 wine farms in the Western Cape, many of which have origins that lead back to this dark history. I visited them with a healthy dose of research to understand what current owners are doing to repair these historic injustices. Many still have their original Cape Dutch architecture, framed paintings of their founders, and various artifacts from their complicated past. These elements come together to form a majestically haunting experience that is as unique to this land as its precious terroir.

No matter where I’m drinking wine, I seek out people, places, and spaces that feel inclusive. It has become crucial for many of us in the industry to look at wine through a lens of equity, inclusion, and sustainability and to make choices that bring us closer to a clear vision of this in the future. Black South Africans make up more than 80% of the population, yet Black-owned wine brands accounted for less than 1% of liters sold domestically (and an even smaller share of liters exported) in 2020. Despite the challenges imposed by historical inequity, the Black wine community is making its mark on the industry, and we, as consumers, are positioned to propel their success. I deeply admired how the South Africans I met co-existed with their past. Rather than attempting to scrub it away in an ‘out damn spot’ Lady Macbeth manner, they’ve decided to tie-dye their home in a spectacular act of reclamation and unity.

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” -G.K. Chesterton

While traveling to the Western Cape, I had the opportunity to visit places where these principles were evident, and Black Elephant Vintners was high on my list. I loved that there was diverse South African representation across the leadership team; their wine names (and nicknames) are superiorly cheeky in a way that makes you feel like you are part of an inside joke, an elevated sense of jest that is a throughline running across the BEV brand. The crown jewel, however was their ‘Music and Wine’ pairing approach to tasting, a combination that is a core value of ours at Monarch Wine.

Franschhoek is one of the most recognizable destinations in wine tourism, partly due to its infamous wine tram. Prior to my visit, I asked Kevin Swart, the Managing Director of Black Elephant Vintners, why they didn’t participate in the wine tram. He explained it wasn’t their target market, “they are more wine drinkers than wine buyers, tourists vs. travelers.” This differentiation struck me as someone who knows wine tourism is crucial to our ecosystem and accounts for a large part of the wine economy. Tourists will often visit up to 5 wineries per day with a militant schedule in the quest to fill their senses to the brim. This reminds me of attending a music festival, which can often leave you with sensory overload. An alternate approach to this is wine travel, an openness to letting the experience guide you, and a willingness to slip into what the French would call the ‘basement’ of the terroir. This ‘tourist’ vs ‘traveler’ differentiation may seem like semantics, but in this context, it made sense. The BEV tasting is designed for someone who wants to take their bag (or even their shoes) off and fully immerse themselves in a holistic experience.

Backstage Tour

Franschhoek has its own soundtrack, underscored by a strong wind that propelled us onto the Black Elephant Vintners property. This wind also benefits the broader ecosystem, as it can blow diseases, like downy mildew, away from the vines. We walked through deeply pigmented Cabernet Sauvignon (the only BEV grapes grown on site) and were greeted at the winery door by Babalo Phitsana, the Tasting Room manager, who is currently finishing his WSET 2 certification.

The exterior is adorned with large-scale paintings of an elephant, dachshund, and motorcycle, and backlit by the pink sunset, it felt like a Hollywood set design for the production waiting for you inside. The walls are covered in electric street-style art painted by a local artist who goes by ‘The Chalk Bandit.’ Pink Floyd inspired rainbows are emblazoned with logos that dare us to ‘Drink Differently’ and music x wine scrawled mashups including ‘Grenache N Roses’, ‘Red-Zeppelin,’ ‘Drink-182’, ‘Viognier Femmes,’ and ‘My Cabernet Romance’.

The tasting room blossoms around its core, a long wooden table on a colorful Turkish rug. A large group sat very much at home around it, mingling amongst Bluetooth headphones and glasses of wine speaking at least four languages. Within moments, we learned they had gathered for a wedding party; some were locals, some had traveled halfway across the world, and it suddenly hit me that these were travelers, not tourists. After they purchased their favorite wines and said goodbyes, we had the space to ourselves. The lights dimmed, and it was showtime.

Hearing Flavors and Tasting Sounds

Music runs adjacent to wine and is a lens I love to view wine through. Some experts study this extensively, and I’m particularly interested in synesthesia as it’s a core element of how I taste wine. Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway can involuntarily trigger experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. In this application, we’re looking at the relationship between sound and taste. Dr. Jo Burzynska does brilliant work on this topic and completed an interdisciplinary Ph.D. that explored the influence of sound/music on the perception of wine aroma and flavor. Many famous musicians experience synesthesia, including Billie Eilish, Lorde, Mickey Hart, and Pharrell Williams even used it as the basis for his album Seeing Sounds.

Black Elephant Vintners uses music to facilitate wine tasting through a ‘silent disco’ and various bespoke experiences with the owners. The original inspiration for the silent disco was born during a tasting at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall, “I have not had so much fun at a wine tasting since I don’t know when,” Kevin fondly remembers. The BEV team saw similarities between making wine and creating music, “both bring joy and happiness, so we think it’s a double win.” Many of us who drink wine have done so in the presence of music, but BEV asks us to do it with purpose. What happens when you tune out the rest of the world and tune into your taste buds? I am more than willing to find out in our world of overstimulation. When I asked Kevin about their specific process, I found it’s just as free form as making wine and music themselves, “we do it in various methods, we can hear a song and think that is great for a wine, or we search for songs that best match the wine’s personality.”

Two Dogs, a Peacock, and a Horse Walk Into a Bar

I had yet to taste any wine, but could feel the rebellious streak of how BEV conducted its business and brand. The rub about being rebellious is that it’s often mistakenly conflated with inferior quality. Think about movements like Dadaism, Africobra, punk, and even denim; while initially, they may have been considered subversive, they are cornerstones of high culture. What became crystal clear through tasting BEV’s wines was that they found a way to rebel against pretension while producing wine that is elegant, expressive, and accessible. A fantastic example of this is the Two Dogs, a Peacock, & a Horse Sauvignon Blanc, a tongue-in-cheek jab at “critter wines”. It pairs best with Dance Some More by Mango Groove and “requires no intelligence to drink.” From the first swirl I could tell that behind its comedic exterior, this wine would be hyper-accessible while also challenging. There were nuances at play, I saw green from gooseberry and asparagus, smelled white peach and chamomile, and tasted a richness from extended lees contact.

You can’t talk about Western Cape wine without talking about ‘MCC.’ Méthode Cap Classique, also known as Cap Classique, is a South African sparkling wine produced using the same traditional method as Champagne, which involves a second fermentation in the bottle. Unlike Champagne, fewer regulations govern Cap Classique, and any grape variety can be used. Most wine farms in the Cape produce their twist on it, and BEV features three in their Golden Circle range. The Cap Classique Brut NV is a blend of 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot Noir with 8g/l (grams per liter) of residual sugar. Kevin explained that this wine was “well suited to the African palate that prefers sweet but wants to drink a dry style.” With a sugar level well below the Brut limit of 12g/l this wine was clearly a main stage act, a classic headlining crowd-pleaser that pairs with Long Cool Woman (in a black dress) by The Hollies.

Along with seeking out wine made ethically and sustainably, I crave wines that are ‘alive’. This pertains to their capacity to evolve and change over time, responding to stimuli from soil, weather, and the hands they pass through. This may seem nebulous, but once you define what ‘alive’ means for you, I promise you’ll never taste wine the same. Living wines awaken all my senses; I feel pulsations and see colors, and as a result, my tasting notes often point to art. Given the history of The Dark Side of the Vine 2020 Sémillon, it’s no wonder this wine took me on a ride. These Franschhoek vines have been around since 1905 and deliver something akin to an aging rock star with battle scars and a story to tell.

South Africa Sémillon (often referred to as Sémillon Gris) can have a specific mutation where the typically green Sémillon grape will produce a spattering of red grapes. This red mutation is often attributed to sun and latitude, with the pigmentation perhaps serving as a way for the grapes to protect themselves from the sun. BEV refers to their Sémillon as “a red grape dressed up in white wine clothing” and who doesn’t love a wine that does Drag? This wine is best paired with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Ennio Morricone, and it shook me to my core. I smelled the earth and the people who had tended to it, I tasted honeycomb from the local farmers market and imagined what this wine would taste like 20 years from now. When it has lived a life, and I’ve lived a life, it slides down my throat, reminding us both of the youthful moments that brought us to this point.

Another evocative wine is the Amazing Grace Cabernet Sauvignon, planted on-site in 2013. This wine holds a special significance for Kevin and his brother Gary, who helps with harvest every year. It’s a tribute to their late father, Daniel Swart, paired with his favorite song, Amazing Grace, specifically a version their younger brother Darryl recorded with their band Tree63.  Aged for five years in half-new and half-used French oak, this wine is beautiful now and will see its full potential develop throughout the next decade. I sipped and saw a warm familial kitchen filled with aromas of bay leaves simmering and fresh violets plucked from the backyard. Most importantly, I felt the love and reverence that now connected one particular human to many. It was evident that music, like so many other things, can create a context for your wine-sense memory.

The Power Of Love

History is nuanced in that we must simultaneously respect it while rebelling against its cruelty. The best parts of it inform our path forward, while the worst parts teach us valuable lessons. It’s important to find the light, be aware of what’s going on around you, and push back against darkness even when they call you a rebel for doing so. Although this is the story of one region, may it remind you of the incredible power you possess as a consumer and invite you to collaborate on the playlist for the future of wine.

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Check out the Black Elephant Vintners Music and Wine Pairing Playlist
Select photography by Norah Hannel

Lucy Spain is an International Wine Professional currently based in London, with certifications from the American Sommelier Association, and a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines. Her experience acting and writing as a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as 10 years in Media Technology, make her uniquely qualified to present wine in a fresh way. She focuses on fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry, and uses her background in tech to look at the ancient art of winemaking through a modern lens. You can find her work at, and say hello on Instagram