Jewel of the Orange River shines bright in wine industry crown

Even though 50 years have passed since the first wine cellar was erected next to the Orange River, it seems the next exciting chapter in the history of Orange River Cellars is just beginning.

With the establishment of a new wine brand – Orange River Cellars – five years ago, a whole string of trophies and medals for outstanding wines, and not least an image as one of South Africa’s most important and trend-setting wine regions, this winery has entered a new era.

For Koos Visser, marketing manager of Orange River Cellars, it is a proud moment to see the wine region of the Northern Cape receive the recognition it deserves from local and international wine lovers. Not only does Orange River Cellars’ range of exquisite wines feature prominently on the shelves of local wine retailers, it is also sought-after in the rest of Africa, Europe, the USA and Far East.

“When the first Orange River wine cellar was built along the river in the Northern Cape in 1965, it was an act of faith to offer the farmers in the Upington, Kakamas and Keimoes regions a market for their raisin grapes,” says Visser.

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Koos Visser, marketing manager for Orange River Cellars

“In time more farmers began to grow wine grapes, and today we have 850 producers who supply grapes to five wine cellars – the three already mentioned, and further east at Grootdrink and Groblershoop.”

Although the cellar provided stability for wine farmers by transforming their grapes into wine, distilling wine and grape concentrate, the next chapter began about five years ago. And this entailed the creation of the Orange River Cellars trade mark by unlocking value for the winery’s farmers through packaged products and paying them more for their grapes.

“This presented two challenges,” recalls Visser. “Firstly the cellar had to determine its product range and get it into an attractive packaging to compete with the many established wine brands on the South African and overseas markets. And then we also had to show the wine world that Orange River Cellars’ wine region does not have to stand back for any other region in the country.”

As most of South Africa’s wine is made in the Western Cape, consumers expect a certain image of wine. On the local scene that image is largely based upon the climate and geographic environment of the Western Cape, 850 km south of Orange River Cellars and completely different than the conditions found along the Orange River.

“Yes, it was and sometimes still is a big challenge to convince pernickety wine people that good wine can also be made here in places like Keimoes, Kakamas and Upington,” says Visser with a wry smile. “Because we entered the wine industry later than the rest of the country, too much emphasis is placed on vineyards that grow against mountain slopes and are cooled by a sea breeze, something which we obviously do not have.”

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The wine region of Orange River Cellars has qualities however, that are increasingly capturing the imagination of wine markets locally and abroad: an unspoilt natural beauty next to South Africa’s largest river and bordering the magical Kalahari, sun-drenched days perfect for the cultivation of wine grapes, as well as deep, fertile soils in which vineyards grow exceptionally well.

“We started our bottled products to raise the perception of this unique area as an asset,” explains Visser. “Armed with our new label and product range we went to the consumer and showed them that although there are 800 wine cellars in South Africa, none of them make wine in a region so distinctive and unique as ours.”

The most important thing, however, remains the quality of your wine. Your cellar can be in the best, most beautiful region, but if your wine isn’t good it all comes to nothing.

“At Orange River Cellars it is still a source of great pride to see how much the quality of our wines has improved over the last few years,” says Visser. “But don’t just take our word for it – since 2010 the cellar has received a number of big awards on the local and international circuit. Among others we were named one of the top producers at the world’s leading competition for Muscadel grapes, the Muscats de Monde in France. And last year Orange River Cellars won a coveted gold medal at the Veritas Awards for our Colombard, one of the region’s workhorse varieties.”

What is the secret of these successes on the winemaking front? Visser attributes it to a major change in Orange River Cellars’ production team and its grape producers.

“Good wine is made in the vineyards, and one of the biggest mind shifts we made was to appoint a team of viticulturists,” he says. “Under the leadership of Henning Burger, our head of viticultural services, the team works closely with farmers to ensure that only the best quality wine

grapes are supplied to the cellars. And in the cellars we are priviledged to have a team of winemakers who have to work with exceptionally high volumes of grapes and at the same time can produce magnificent wines therefrom.”

“One can hardly ask for a better combination. This is the pillars underlying our current success, and the foundation on which we are going to build the success of the next 50 years.”