The Africa River Lodge on the banks of the Groot Gariep must be as close as it gets to an ideal wine judging venue: fish eagle circling above the river, walls of reeds and sand hills rolling off into the middle distance, Cesaria Evora on the CD player. The 97 submissions to this screening round of the Orange River Winemaker of the Year Competition slipped past like diamonds tumbling by in the river below.
I’ve been judging the ORWYC for three years now and quality increases monotonically upwards. As usual, the Colombards impressed as did white and red blends. Vintage 2008 was a challenging one with the harvest up to a month late in some regions of the 320Km broad appellation. Alcohol levels are down (without the help of reverse osmosis machines) and fruit flavours are intense and pure. The program sending young winemakers to France for a vintage is clearly paying off, as is the competition itself with entries and quality up.
Hats off to Spar for picking up the tab for this the richest wine competition in SA in terms of prizes. To Orange River Wine Cellars for being progressive enough to embrace change and Tinus van Niekerk for making it all happen. The five cellars employ 17 winemakers between them and its clear the younger generation are breaking out and putting pressure on their seniors to raise their game.
Exotic grape cultivars also help lift the bar with Petit Verdot and Tannat in particular making serious statements. My top red was a blend of Tannat, Shiraz, Merlot and Petit Verdot from Keimoes that was a real Grace Jones wine: big, gutsy and daringly exotic. A White Muscadel from the 2007 vintage (again from Keimoes) was top scoring wine overall, a reassurance to traditionalists that this great sweet winemaking appellation is not turning its back on its heritage. But with reds coming on leaps and bounds and young vineyards getting older each year, a champion red from the Orange River lies in the immediate future.