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Orange River Wine Route — following the Grape Trail all along the Mother River

Orange River Wine Route — following the Grape Trail all along the Mother River
Orange River Wine Cellars at Grootdrink, Northern Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There are 580 grape-growing farmers along the Orange River producing sophisticated, award-winning wines. On the wine trail? The best place to start is the Orange River Cellars Tasting Room.

The Northern Cape has a wine route that defies convention. Its vines grow in a punishingly arid land with furnace-hot summers and frosty winters. Simply named the Orange River Wine Route, it meanders along 300km of the Mother River, its grapes watered by canal-led irrigation, with the brown dry desert always in sight.

It is biblical.

The Orange River Cellars and vineyards are concentrated around Kanoneiland, Keimoes, Kakamas, Upington, Grootdrink and Groblershoop.

There have been vines here for generations. With the intense summer temperatures and plentiful water (thanks to irrigation canals first excavated in the 1920s), grapes grow fast, healthy and sweet.

canal system, Orange River

The canal system that brings water to the farms from the Orange River. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Sultanas were, and still are, major cash crops. Flawless table grapes, raisins and peaches followed.

But growing vines specifically for wine, using the irrigation along the Orange River, only started in 1966. In 1967, a cellar was built, and the first harvest was in 1968.

Orange River

The Orange River, South Africa’s premier waterway. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Quality & Perception: When wines of Keimoes and Kanoneiland came to dinner in the deep Karoo

At first, there were only three choices: dry white, semi-sweet and full sweet.

Compared to the French-inspired wines of the Western Cape, these blends were considered fairly ‘rough’, but over the years, the quality has improved dramatically. Sophisticated, award-winning wines are being produced along the Orange River, with varieties that include Colombard, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc on the white wine side; and robust red grapes like Pinot Noir, Cinsaut, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese and Shiraz.

Dessert wines were once mostly limited to muscadels and jerepigos. They now include the very popular Straw Wine, a sweetly viscous creation redolent of peaches and pineapples, made from fully ripened Chenin Blanc grapes.

Overall though, the region’s signature product remains Brandy. The current prizewinner is a Kalahari Truffle Potstill from Die Mas estate at Kakamas.

Grape farms near Groblershoop

Grape farms near Groblershoop, on the Orange River. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There are now 580 grape-growing farmers along the Orange River. Not surprisingly, Orange River Cellars are among the largest cellars in this country by volume. You’ll see some Orange River Cellar estates in the best wine shops or bottle stores.

The major difference between the longer-established Western Cape wine routes and this one is that here there are far fewer picturesque wine-tasting rooms or estates. But several stand out.

The best place to start is the Orange River Cellars Tasting Room in Upington’s main road, Schröder Street. You can sample many different wine varietals, as well as sparkling wine, brandy, and gin. Try pairings with fudge, chocolate, Turkish delight, nougat, cheese or Mediterranean platters.

wine farm, Orange River

One of the wine farms near Keimoes, Northern Cape. (Photo: Chris Marais)

There are also Orange River Cellars in Kakamas, Keimoes, Groblershoop and Grootdrink.

Bezalel, a wine and brandy estate run by the Bezuidenhout family, is easily accessible on the road between Upington and Keimoes. At the entrance is a distinctive castle-like construction. At Bezalel they make boutique wine, brandy or liqueurs. There is also a restaurant, and staff will help you create a delicious picnic, if you’d prefer a more rustic meal in the gardens.

Bezalel Wine Estate, Orange River

Bezalel Wine Estate, between Upington and Keimoes. (Photo: Chris Marais)

At Die Mas at Kakamas, owned by the Hanekom family, try the award-winning brandy, as well as their gin (very popular among locals) and wines. There is a shady deck overlooking the vineyards (with parking in the shade of vines), where you can eat breakfasts, pizzas and other light meals at the Kokerboom Kombuis.

Look out for Welna Hanekom’s lovely sultana jams.

The brandy cellar at Die Mas, Kakamas. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Die Mas in Kakamas

Sunday afternoon lunching on the deck of the restaurant at Die Mas in Kakamas. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Travelling the forgotten highway of South Africa’s hinterland

One of this country’s most brilliant wine producers, Lowerland, is an outlier outside Prieska, beyond what locals call the Wonderdraai – a massive oxbow in the Orange River.

Here regenerative farmer Bertie Coetzee and winemaker Lukas van Loggerenberg create sought-after small-batch organic wines (Tolbos Tannat, Koedoe Cabernet Sauvignon, Vaalkameel Colombard, Die Wonderdraai and their renowned Die Verlore Bokooi blend).

This farm sells organic flour from heirloom species, pecans, kudu, lamb, sausage, biltong.

Prieska town, Orange River

Prieska town, with the Orange River flowing in background. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Die Wonderdraai,

One of the fine Lowerland wines from Prieska is Die Wonderdraai, referring to the nearby giant oxbow formed by the Orange River. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Lowerland trains apprentices and interns in sustainable livestock farming, regenerative agriculture, organic crop cultivation and the art of cultivating vines and other crops using cattle, pigs, sheep or kudus to prune, weed and fertilise).

Know before you go:

  • Many estates serve meals or are close to restaurants, but look out for interesting farm stalls (padstalle) en route where you can source interesting local foods. Try out Die Pienk Padstal and Rose Café in Kakama; Heksie se Huise and Die Kanoniki on Kanoneiland. Many place are closed on Sundays. Call ahead if unsure. DM

For more stories on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

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