Growing grapes on the banks of the Orange River
11 December 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. We head to, it’s not a hotbed of wine production, I can tell you. You think of wine in South Africa and the first place that comes to mind is the Western Cape.
But we head to Upington in the Northern Cape now where there’s some interesting things going on there from a wine perspective as well. It’s a great pleasure to welcome the Marketing Manager for Orange River Cellars into the show today, Koos Visser, Koos, welcome, thanks for taking the time to chat to us.
Koos Visser: Thank you very much, it will be a privilege.
Unique region with unique wines
BB: Koos, Upington and wine, those two words, I’ve never thought I would ever mention that in the same sentence, but you guys are doing some interesting things up there.
KV: Ja, unfortunately there’s always a perception that the Northern Cape is not the best of the wine regions in SA, although I tend to differ. I think this is a unique wine region with very unique wines.
BB: Koos, tell me about some of the things that are going on there from a wine perspective. I think a lot of people don’t actually even realise that there are vines in the Northern Cape and you’re producing wine.
KV: Ja, well, if you look at the volumes, the Orange River region comprises about one-fifth of the total South African wine industry, so there is a lot of things going on up here, it’s not just wine, but we can talk about that later. On the wine side, definitely, I think there’s big things coming and we are growing.
BB: Koos, from an agricultural perspective and particularly growing grapes in the Northern Cape, what are some of the challenges that the farmers there are struggling with at the moment?
A massive area of grape growing and wine production
KV: I can tell you, they might have a lot of challenges and the availability of water is not one of them, the Orange River is the life-giving artery that runs through this area and that is actually where all these wine grapes are coming from, is on the banks of the Orange River.
Our area stretches from about 350km from the East, a town called Groblershoop and then going through to Grootdoring which is a very appropriate name for a wine cellar. Then Upington and Keimoes and Kakamas. So the whole stretch along the river is about 350km and in that area you find about 800 grape growers, farmers that produce grapes for the Orange River Cellars, which is a cooperative in the whole sense.
BB: It’s fantastic. Let’s talk about some of the grapes that are being grown. You say water is not a problem, what’s the soil like and what sort of varietals are you able to produce?
KV: The soil types also vary over the 350km, and that’s very interesting. We always talk about the inner soils and the outer soils. The inner soils are the alluvial ground soil, next to the river. Then from there you find chalk and quartz and all that alluvial or old type of soil.
On the wine grapes, we produce quite a variety of grapes. The annual intake is about 135 000 tons, but then I must correct immediately because this 135 000 tons, not all the grapes are going for wine. We are also the largest producer of grape juice concentrate. A lot of grapes are going for the grape juice concentrate plant, but cultivars cultivated here are Chenin Blanc and Colombard. Colombard which I think is the most unique wine of the region.
The Sauvignon Blanc, we planted this year another 21 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc. So Sauvignon Blanc, although the people originally said it’s not possible for the Northern Cape produce Sauvignon Blanc, we are quite successful. Then the Chardonnay Viognier that we use mostly for blending Novelle.
Shiraz on the red side now, Shiraz, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Ruby Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec. Then for the fortified wines, the Muscat Alexandria and the Muscat Fontana, that we produce only for the production of the fortified wines and we also use it in some of the sweeter wines as well as in the grape juice.
Producing wine since the 1960’s
BB: Koos, it’s amazing to me that it’s just thriving and flourishing the way it is up along the banks of the Orange River. As far as the time frame that this has been going on in the Northern Cape, how long has that region been producing wine?
KV: Well, the Orange River Cellars was established in 1965, so it’s actually young, but originally the cellars was erected for an alternative to raisin grapes. You see, some years, when it’s good rainy season, it is difficult to dry all the grapes and then at that stage they don’t have an alternative for these raisin grapes.
They built the cellar initially in 1965 to be as an alternative for raisin grapes and then they produce at that stage, they produce only distilled wine. Later on things start to happen, they built more cellars and at the end there was five cellars in total.
We’ve also got a dedicated grape juice cellar at one and then also we’ve bought the cellar at Hartswater Wine Cellars and that is to increase our capacity to produce more good quality wine. There is about 450 000 hectares of wine grapes stretching along the 350km sides of the Orange River. But as I said, there’s not just wine grapes here.
Other big plants are table grapes, fresh grapes and then raisins, that’s also in big volumes. In this Orange River Cellars area, wine grapes are actually the smallest portion of the grapes growing along the Orange River, but the first harvest was in 1968 and in 1969 already they produced the first dessert wines.
Then in 1970 the first semi-sweet wines, but seriously we started off with marketing about 20 years ago and that brings a lot of new things to Orange River Cellars. We invested heavily to produce better quality wines and to actually have more tanks available and barrels and so we are now, I think, in quite a nice winning streak at the moment.
Heat plays to our advantage
BB: It sounds like things are really taking off and growing nicely. Koos, something I wanted to ask you as well, from a weather perspective, obviously the Northern Cape does get brutally hot in summer, is that something that the producers and the farmers really struggle with, is the heat and what that could possibly do to the grapes and vines?
KV: No, I think heat is one of the best things that could have happened to the grapes along the Orange River. It is all the trellis systems that they use that helps, that actually protect the bunches, the grapes from the sun. It grows very nicely in this hot climate with yields as high as 35-45 tons a hectare. For us, the heat is actually an advantage and not a disadvantage.
BB: That’s very interesting indeed. Koos, I’ve loved chatting to you. I can just feel your passion about what you guys are doing up there in the Northern Cape. I’m keen to get you on, on another podcast, to talk a little bit about the wine specifically and some of the wines you’ve produced. You’ve received many awards for them as well. I’d like to just touch on that and find out a little bit more about the exact wines that you guys are producing. Thanks for your time today, much appreciated.
KV: Thank you very much.