Why Orange River Cellars’ Sauvignon Blanc was 2018’s talk of the town

by | Feb 22, 2019 | Wineland, Business and Marketing

Keimoes Sauvignon Blanc vineyards lie on an island in the Orange River, from where the fog rises to create a microclimate that is particularly suitable for this delicate cultivar.


Sauvignon Blanc is not often associated with the Northern Cape, but Orange River Cellars released an exceptional Sauvignon Blanc last year that was the talk of the town for all the right reasons. What contributed to this fresh breeze from the far north?

South Africa’s incredible diversity is often highlighted as one of our strengths, especially in terms of wine (see Playing your cards right, WineLand, February 2019). But our diversity is also, sometimes, downplayed. Perhaps the industry is so keen to identify those authentic South African icons that we want to decide beforehand how it should taste or where it should be produced. But it’s one thing to keep your eye on the ball, and quite another to play the game with blinkers on. 

For example, according to France’s ‘product of origin’ system, a top-quality Sauvignon Blanc is linked to a specific region and cannot qualify from any other region. Under these circumstances, Orange River Cellars (ORC) would probably not have been able to enter their 2018 Sauvignon Blanc for competitions, not to mention winning last year’s SA Champion Trophy at the National Young Wine Show and double gold at Veritas from the only 39 gold medals awarded.

Prepared for success

ORC’s 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic drinking wine, says Cape winemaster Bennie Howard. But of course it’s not something that happened overnight. Bennie tells how he, Charles Hopkins, cellar master at De Grendel, and several other journalists did a tour of the vineyards at Upington and Keimoes cellar five years ago for the National Young Wine Show. “They do the right things in the vineyard,” he says. “And by now they have enough experience of working with the wine and the vineyard. In addition, 2018 was a fantastic year for the region, with plenty of water and favourable temperatures. I don’t know how long the stock will last. At the current price, it offers excellent value.”

Judges of the 2018/19 Ultra Value Wine Challenge agreed that the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc earned its gold (86/100) at this competition. The next test is whether the winemaking team can keep the quality consistent.

A river runs through it

The team responsible for Keimoes’ 22 ha Sauvignon Blanc (with another hectare at Kakamas) is the winemaker, Rianco van Rooyen, and Keimoes cellar manager, Johan ‘Mosdop’ Dippenaar. “We just did the basics right,” says Rianco.

The vineyards are still young – three to six years old – and lies on Skanskop Island in the Orange River which has a particular microclimate. The winter nights are freezing cold and stay cool until spring. The area is low lying and covered with mist in the mornings.

The soil type and proximity to the river play an important role in forming of the fruit. The vineyard grows mainly in deep silt soils with clay here and there, while the river allows flood irrigation. The vineyard is kept cool by the alluvial soil.

The river clearly plays a role in making Sauvignon Blanc possible in the hot Northern Cape climate, but the human factor cannot be ignored. There is a lot of art involved, from timing and temperature control to training systems and cellar practices that unlock the full potential of the berries.

In the cellar

“We use the highwire trellis system,” says Rianco. “This year it is harvested mechanically.” The grapes are usually harvested early in the year, during January or February, before high temperatures start to affect the taste. The average temperature for February is 25.5 °C – lower than one would guess, but high enough to recommend agile handling. Mechanical harvesting means the grapes can be collected earlier and faster.

“Our grapes come in much warmer than in other regions, so we try to cool it down quickly,” says Mosdop. “We offload the grapes as soon as possible and treat it with sulphur dioxide and enzymes. It is floated as soon as possible and the next day all the yeast is mixed in. Fermentation is not too cold and we try to keep the yeast nutrition so that the yeast isn’t taxed too much. As soon as the tank has been fermented dry, it is pumped from the thick lees. We keep the wine on the thin lees for as long as possible and make it cool. “

The crop delivered 40 000 bottles last year. Rianco wants to press at least 150 000 litres this year and double that by 2020 to 300 000 litres.

Proudly South African

Hard to Find Wines in the UK describes ORC’s 2018 Sauvignon Blanc as “quite possibly the best value Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world” and who would argue with it.

And before anyone wonders: there is no Colombard mixed in – it’s 100% Keimoes Sauvignon Blanc with the compliments of the Orange River and ORC’s capable winemaking team.

The cellar’s incredible Colombard is a story for another day…

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