Orange River Cellars
An aorta to the arid northern hinterland, South Africa’s largest river sustains five wineries known collectively as Orange River Cellars. Rob Morris reports from Upington.
In 1965 the bold task of vine cultivation began in the hottest corner of South Africa’s poorest province, an undertaking considered delusional at the time and an unfortunate perception that lingers to this day. Though there was some merit in the planting of tracts of Thompson’s Seedless Sultanas (the raisin grape) there was less to recommend the area around Upington in the Northern Cape as suitable for table wine cultivation. Within a little over a decade five cellars sprang up along the river spanning a distance of 300km from Kakamas in the west to Groblershoop in the East.
Today the co-op registers some 800 growers, the bulk of whom brace the river’s banks or locate on vast islands in the delta. OWK (Oranjerivier Wynkelders) is the second largest co-op in the country, has sold upwards of one hundred million rand’s worth of wine through SPAR’s Country Cellars range, distills rebate wine (brandy spirit) for both Distell and KWV and has white wine cultivars outnumbering red plantings by more than 10 to one.
They speak of terroir here, of temperatures no more severe than those of Paarl, of summer rainfall and cropping at 50 tons a hectare and over, of sustainable empowerment initiatives and a booming export demand. It was only in 1992 that bottling under the Orange River brand commenced. For their value-for-money wine and the viticultural anomalies a visit by WINE seemed timely.
The region is roughly 800km from both Cape Town and Johannesburg making it an unlikely wine destination by the sheer logistics in getting there. Those traversing the desolate plains of Gordonia do so primarily for the dramatic natural phenomena the area offers – the Augrabies falls, river rafting, the Kgalagadi transfrontier park or the seasonal wild flowers.
Journeying north from Cape Town with WINE’s deputy editor Christian Eedes in tow, we charted a route north on the N7 to Vanrhynsdorp veering west to Calvinia and north again through the lunar-like landscape of the Groot Karoo and the R27 towns of Brandvlei and Kenhardt, before arriving in Keimoes and finally Upington. Breaking the journey for lunch at the Hantam Hotel in Calvinia saw us having the first of many portions of Karoo lamb enjoyed during the road-trip, in this instance a delicious, slow-cooked shank.
The entire journey should take nine hours to Upington where over 90 guest houses suggest there’s more to the place than first meets the eye. Locals are used to visitors – especially those from the automotive industry since Upington’s environs are an important test terrain for new models prior to global release. The local boast goes that a year in the secret depot is equivalent to six years of weathering elsewhere. The quiet long, straight roads are also ideal for high-speed testing of performance models.
Select wine media also make an annual sojourn to OWK Upington for the serious business of deciding the annual SPAR Country Cellars Oranjerivier Winemaker of the Year.
Matthee van Schalkwyk is production and planning manager having been with OWK from the early days. “The error most make is in classing the entire 300km region as one unit of terroir, but there are very distinct regions designated for varietals. Our reds are predominantly upstream at Grootdrink and Groblershoop and whites in the west at Kakamas, Keimoes and Upington.”
As a rule, temperatures drop moving west to east along the river’s meander beginning at Kakamas through Keimoes, Upington, Grootdrink and finally Groblershoop. In their respective processing capacities the sequence is identical. Each cellar possesses a tasting room.
One erroneous assumption is that the region excels only in the production of dessert wine – a sweeping inference and one with which OWK takes issue with some savvy unfortified table wines at alcohols miraculously under 14% given growing conditions.
Excellent wines are indeed being made. Cellar manager at Kakamas, Bolla Louw, has a fine barrel fermented Chardonnay that is sadly unlikely to ever materialise as an exclusive bottling. The same can be said of Chris Venter’s 2005 barrel fermented Shiraz from Groblershoop, sufficient in quality, we thought, to outclass many a Cape equivalent. A depressing reality of producing at these volumes is that these glimpses of potential from the individual cellars are typically blended away.
Whilst site suitability is foremost for group viticulturist Henning Burger, the reality is that even site-specific fruit from the region finds its way into mass produced wine. OWK is, after all, a co-op. What matters to their bottom line is stylistic and flavour consistency and that compels blending – their retail buyers insist on it, organisations such as Spar and the Liquor City group.
The unenviable task before marketing manager Koos Visser is not the selling of more wine but changing the perceptions of his product. “OWK make no speculative wine and we can meet any demand. We don’t take risks on the positioning of our product either since our complementary ventures permit some hedging. We would rather lose the business than lose on the business.”
Visser refers here to the manufacturing of rebate wine (brandy spirit) that comprises 8% of the co-op’s trade. Grape juice and the production of distilling wine (industrial spirits) together comprise 65% of their dealings with the industry. It’s not hard to fathom why the model works when the risk is spread thus.
There are two ranges under OWK’s own trademark. River’s Tale is considered the premium label with, for the most part, single vineyard fruit. It’s a pleasant enough range and modestly positioned as the better – although still entry-level – alternative to the Orange River Cellars line but is a negligible step up. In reality, fruit for most of the River’s Tale range is bought in from the Western Cape!
A good portion of the considerable plantings of Muscat Morio, Alexandrie and White Muscadel find anonymous acclaim in Distell’s Graa and Autumn Harvest Crackling – two of the country’s biggest sellers.
Central to OWK’s focus is quality Colombar and Chenin Blanc achieved through their so-called A+ grading system. Incentivising the region’s growers (through a premium system for their reds and other white grapes) is the key to quality improvement at these volumes. Group viticulturist Burger relates one such anomaly: “In 2007 some of our top Colombar and Chenin blocks produced better yields at 40 or 50 tons per hectare than if they yielded 15 ton/ha previously.” In the north, bigger means better
All things considered one has to wonder whether resilient Rhne varietals like Shiraz, Grenache noir and Carignan, given climatic suitability, wouldn’t be a strategic way forward for the region but, then again, most suppositions here defy logic. Even those established growers under the aegis of OWK are open to testing the waters. There are already plantings of Viognier set to bear in the next year or two and sentiment is bullish.
No OWK white wines contain added acid which is due to fastidious monitoring of pH levels. Cellarmaster Chris Venter’s Colombar from Keimoes is peculiarly good having been made with minimal intervention. He insists volume is irrelevant when physiological ripeness has a bearing, no matter how this may rankle with his Boland colleagues where conventional thinking has quality coupled to lower yields.
In red wine country upstream, Grootdrink Cellars is the charge of Klein Jan Steenkamp. Discovering a better Ruby Cabernet in the country would surely take some doing. The tasting room also sells a phenomenal Ruby Cab Jerepiko. Growers from the Grootdrink region plant on alluvial soils and because only wine grapes are cultivated here, top grading is regarded with less opportunism and more necessity than growers downstream who can diversify their farming with table and juice grapes.
The smallest of the cellars in capacity, Groblershoop possess a young, progressive team. Johan Dippenaar is cellar manager and ably supported by Ferdi Loubscher w
ho worked under Andr van Rensburg at Vergelegen and at Jonkershoek’s Neil Ellis Wines.
The 2005 Shiraz being made here is of comparatively high quality. Regarded with all the modesty we’d come to expect from the good old boys involved – the wine spent 18 months in barrel. It’s a headache wine in the best sense for CEO Herman Cruywagen who’s somewhat perplexed with the prospect of a low volume, quality wine. “We need to consider a limited release or reserve range and perhaps this is where we should start. It’s from a special clone and from one of our more socially conscious growers, Johan Fourie.”
Fourie is based outside Groblershoop. On Arbeitsgenot his empowerment project is one of two showing genuine sustainable promise, the other being Riemvasmaak – we arrive the day after television news ran an insert on the venture. All are abuzz with the exposure.
The country’s first plantings of Villard Blanc have been assigned to the respective communities participating in each undertaking. Villard Blanc is a hardy hybrid, Southern French in origin that has been targeted primarily for its projected returns in the manufacture of rebate wine.
Altogether the region certainly begs a visit. There’s nothing romantic about winemaking here but there certainly is a story and enough bang for your buck to warrant buying by the boot load.
Things you didn’t know about Upington…
- The airport runway is the longest in Africa at 4 900m – and is long enough to land the space shuttle. Rumour has it that it’s put on standby should an emergency landing be deemed necessary…
- One million tons of table grapes are flown out of Upington airport every year.
- Open concrete pans seen alongside the road are used to dry raisins and sultanas – again for export to foreign markets.
- The longest and most densely planted avenue of palm trees in the southern hemisphere – all 1 041m of it – can be found at Die Eiland resort in Upington.
- South Africa’s only monument to the humble donkey can be found outside the Mission church in Schreuder Street.
- There’s also an interesting statue of a camel and uniform-clad rider in front of the local police station, paying tribute to law enforcement officers of a previous age.
- Upington is the capital of the Green Kalahari and is registering annual growth of around 6% a year.
- Oranjerivier Cellars has capacity to produce 30 million litres of juice and wine a year.
Nobody should think that the Northern Cape is the world’s last great undiscovered wine region but Oranjerivier Cellars is churning out plenty of pleasant drinking, budget-friendly quaffers. Christian Eedes reports.
The Oranjerivier Cellars model is more than likely different to anything you’ve encountered before. “We’ve got lots of sunlight, more than enough water and very fertile soils. What’s optimal yield? Closer to 50 than 15 tons per hectare,” says longtime production and planning manager Matthee van Schalwyk. Here’s what’s worth drinking.
Blanc de Blanc 2007
Cellar price: R15.30
A Chenin Blanc-Colombard blend. Whereas the Grand Cru made along the same lines is searingly dry, this is bolstered by a cheerful 5g/l residual sugar and is overtly fruity. Cool by the pool.
Chenin Blanc 2007
Cellar price: R15.30
A perky wine with surprisingly true varietal character – lots of pineapple, in particular. An alcohol by volume of 12% makes for particularly easy drinking.
Cellar price: R15.30
Great sundowner wine. Fruity on entry, crisp finish. Only 11% alcohol by volume so you can keep your glass topped up for longer.
Cellar price: R17.65
Technically correct and not too challenging. Attractive citrus fruit and wood influence is well judged.