The Olifants River wine region is awakening, and the priority now is business – quality business. Producers showcased their best in Cape Town, where the media marvelled at their new-found self-confidence and the attractive “package” of products.

“Although the region has always been known as one of South Africa’s biggest vine and wine producing areas, the past few years’ singular dedication to better quality wines is now paying off,” said Deon du Toit, chairman of the Olifants River Wine Route, at a tasting in the smart new Cullinan Hotel beside the Waterfront.

The region ranges far and wide, from Citrusdal to Koekenaap, comprising altogether 9 370 ha and producing 170 000 tons of grapes annually. Approximately 27 million vines have been planted in the region, representing almost 9% of all wine grape vineyards in South Africa.

“With a view to improved quality, we have been planting the so-called Big Six cultivars, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage over the last decade,” Du Toit said. “These leading cultivars represent about 30% of our current plantings.

“Combined with investments in cellars and technology amounting to more than R2 000 million, and a greater awareness of quality from the vine to the bottle, this resulted in a significant improvement in the overall quality of our wines.”

According to Du Toit, this fact is underlined by numerous awards won by wines from the Olifants River region over the past few years, as well as a number of substantial export contracts. “In recent years wines from this region have, for example, been awarded the General Smuts Trophy at the SA National Young Wine Show, they regularly win gold and silver medals at the Veritas competition, and some of our wines are also featured on the SAA wine lists.

“With regard to exports, about 10% of our production is exported to Europe, America and the Far East.”

The region has five co-operative cellars (Goue Vallei, Spruitdrift, Trawal, Vredendal and Klawer), two private cellars (Cederberg and Stoumann’s) and one company (Lutzville) and is also known for quality wines at exceptionally reasonable prices. “No matter how favourable the exchange rate may be, for the foreign buyer price remains a factor. In this regard we have always been particularly competitive and have therefore been able to negotiate long term local and overseas contracts.”

According to Du Toit the region, with its diversity of natural beauty and its wine route, is expanding its share of the Western Cape tourism industry. “Each year we also invest significant amounts in the marketing of the region and its wines, with the result that our wine industry has been eliciting a lot of interest from local as well as foreign consumers.”

Altogether 11 wines were introduced at the tasting, each by the winemaker in his own colourful, unaffected manner. And the proof was in the pudding: At least half of these wines can hold their own in the best company and among the rest you will also find extremely good value for money.

The organisers explained that instead of selecting the best products from each cellar, they wanted to focus on a few specific styles. Next time they will be looking at other cultivars.

Among the white wines, the focus fell on Sauvignon Blanc, namely from Lutzville, Goue Valley, Travino (Trawal Cellar), Birdfield (Klawer), Cederberg and Vredendal Goyia Kgeisje – all from the 2001 vintage. The latter is the well-known “Bushman wine” blend of 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Chardonnay, which is hugely successful overseas. With its fresh, fruity drinkability and creamy texture, it was my favourite among the whites.

Winemaker Pieter Verwey mentioned that this product, of which one million litres are made at a time, costs no more than R10 at the cellar. Talking about economies of scale! Vredendal apparently crushes more grapes than the entire New Zealand.

From among the rest, I preferred the wines from Cederberg (R25,50), Klawer-Birdfield (R13) and Lutzville (R10,25).

Among the reds, four Cabernets and a Cab blend, there were three outstanding wines: Cederberg 2000 (R45), Lutzville 1999 (R18,65) and Stoumann’s Vin de la Tortue 2000 (R30). The latter is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage, from a new private cellar . The name and logo of the wine derive from the tortoise, which is flourishing in these parts and represents slow but steady progress.

Stoumann’s was popular with the tasters, displaying good fruit and spiciness, although I was not too partial to its portiness. I would vote for the Cederberg 2000, balanced and complex, with lovely berry fruit character, hints of chocolate and herbs. The other Cabernets were Cardouw 1998 (Goue Vallei) and Vredendal Mount Maskam Cabaret (Cabernet Sauvignon/Ruby Cabernet).

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