The Orange River is capable of many surprises. This watery artery in the arid red-hued Kalahari landscape surprised all and sundry by bursting its banks once again earlier this year. R2.4 billion worth of damage resulted – bridges and roads washed away, not to mention pumps, farming equipment, table grape vines and soil swept away by the rampaging waters. It’s a tribute to the hardy folk of the Northern Cape that they simply knuckled under and got on with setting things back to rights.
The Spar Country Cellars winemaker of the year competition also dished up a few surprises. 2011 marked a decade of Spar’s sponsorship of this competition – and the surprise to me and my fellow judges was that the overall standard of entries had once again been ratcheted up in what was proclaimed a bad year.
Ten years ago Spar’s group liquor executive Ray Edwards mooted the competition among the winemakers of the five wineries which comprise Orange River Cellars to stimulate them to up their game. It was a win-win situation for both – Spar’s offering to consumers in both bottle and bag-in-box has improved because Orange River Cellars have learned a lot of lessons and upped their quality standards.
I can recall very few wines in the inaugural year reaching even moderate scores of 14 and 15 out of 20. A decade later and there were very few which scored under 14… The strides taken over the course of such a short period of time has been remarkable. As one judge said, these were “real Stellenbosch scores – not the special Olympics!” Where there used to be one winemaker per winery there are now 24 winemakers and – more importantly – viticulturists spread between Keimoes, Kakamas, Upington, Grootdrink and Groblershoop cellars which coincidentally span a geographical spread of 350km from west to east.
Where 10 years ago wood contact on wine was unheard of, now it is accomplished and restrained. Searingly high acid levels have been toned down, overripeness is seldom a problem, clumsy winemaking in the form of reduction or sulphur levels is no longer an issue.
These wines are unlikely to see the light of day because they will be blended away into commercial batches. While these wines are made in minute volumes the influence on the large commercial wines produced is pronounced. The Chenin, Chardonnay and Viognier blend might well find traction with a market in the Far East as it’s ideally suited to their food. The overall winner was a red blend of Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Ruby Cabernet that was deliciously succulent, spicy and danced confidently on a restrained platform of oak. A straw wine made from Colombar had all the judges raving and drooling over its delicacy, fresh acidity and clean finish.
The Spar Country Cellars competition has motivated the entire team at ORC. They all vie energetically for the top prize since it carries with it the opportunity of a harvest abroad. The horizon for these Northern Cape winemakers has expanded dramatically in 10 years. They’re eager and ambitious to continue improving standards. These wines – and the fact that Spar is now doing in excess of R30 million worth of business with ORC annually – speaks volumes. And volume is something they know about: Orange River Cellars harvests in excess of 100 000 tons of grapes annually.
Over Friday night’s braai of skilpaadjies and lamb chops, winemakers casually mentioned that their cellars handle a few thousand tons of grapes a day. That’s more than most Western Cape wineries, 800km further south, handle in an entire season…