South Africa's winelands are very different places. For the wine explorer, that's an exciting prospect but it's easy to be caught unaware. In the Cape, Klein Karoo and even KwaZulu-Natal, wine experiences are all within a relatively short drive from each other. In the Northern Cape – SA's most expansive and sparsely populated province - you'll need some extra planning.
Although a powerhouse of wine grape farming, the Northern Cape has only a handful of independent winery experiences in a radius of some 350km from Upington epicentre. By comparison, that same radius applied to Stellenbosch incorporates virtually every other South African wine business located from the Klein Karoo to the Olifants River region of the West Coast.
Orange River Cellars
The Northern Cape's Orange River Cellars is by far the biggest in South Africa and one of the largest in the world. Established in 1965, it now comprises four wineries that take in grapes from farms spread over 300kms along the Orange River. It is a major source of distilling wine for amongst others, South Africa's award-winning brandies.
From a visitor's perspective, the best place to start is the home of Orange River Cellars in Upington. For decades, its visitor centre was in the town's industrial area but 2015 signalled a change. Along with an industry-wide move towards premiumisation, the northern winery built a new complex to showcase the excellence of its wares. These days, peak season from mid-December to early January sees 150-250 people per day pass through its doors.
"All our production cellars have small tasting rooms, but we encourage people to come to Upington for the most comprehensive view and tasting options."
Here, visitors can taste line-ups of five to seven wines, and purchase wine to enjoy in the centre garden. The offering includes sparkling wine, craft beer made by Kalahari Craft Beer and Die Mas brandy and gin. Months of planning also went into locally sourcing the right snacks to match with wines for the pairing menu. This features olives, meats, a cheese platter as well as wine ice-cream.
"Visitors can also curate their own platter by selecting components and wines that appeal to them," says Wendy.
An audio-visual presentation is available, providing a virtual tour of the winery's operations and has been adapted with animation to be multilingual. The centre also has a broader aim - to introduce the region where the wine is grown. In addition to brandy and cheese, there are products like pecan nut oil and grape seed powder too.
Plans are afoot to further expand the centre to include a restaurant.
As for the wines, the Orange River Cellars range is substantial. Top sellers are the Straw Wine, which generally sells out quickly because of limited amount made, and the Lyra wines, which are also the most awarded of the range. The Orange River Cellars red muscadel was named among the Top 10 at the most recent Muscats du Monde competition, the leading international championship for muscat wine held annually in France.
Bezalel Wine and Brandy Estate
On the outskirts of Upington lies Bezalel, a small wine and brandy estate that takes advantage of the Orange River's fertile alluvial soils at Dyasonsklip. A landmark of its location is the massive solar plant and tower mirror that's visible to anyone approaching from kilometres away.
When it was established in the 1990s, Bezalel was the first private cellar registered in the region. Its first wines soon followed.
The fort-inspired entrance shares a link between the area's British colonial past and founder Inus Bezuidenhout's fascination with the style, while the estate's name reflects its craft focus: Bezalel was the chief artisan of the biblical Tabernacle.
His son drives operations now, is the fourth generation Bezuidenhout and is the youngest of three siblings.
The estate comprises just seven hectares, producing a wine range that includes Viognier, Pinot noir, Shiraz, Gewurtztraminer jeripigo, Colombar, Sauvignon blanc and a Port-style wine.
Its tasting room is home to two 660-litre copper potstills that produce the brandy as well as other fruit distillations. There's a portfolio of liqueurs for sale while an imminent release will see whisky added to the Bezalel range.
Unlike most brandies that are usually made with Chenin blanc and Colombar, half the base wine for those at Bezalel is made from red grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese. It's a winning recipe according to the panel at Platter's South African Wine Guide, which awarded it four stars this year.
Wine and brandy aren't the only products of the farm. In addition to a variety of crops, there are also various visitor-related activities alongside the tasting room: a restaurant, wedding and conference venue.
Visitors are encouraged to pop in to taste the wares, but also to enjoy a meal at the Bezalel Garden Café restaurant & brewhouse.
"We've always loved the social aspect of wine and brandy. Experience is at the heart of Bezalel and it's what we love to share."
Following Bezalel's footsteps as a private cellar, Die Mas (Afrikaans for The Mast) registered in 2005 and became Kakamas's first although the farm had been in the Hanekom family since 1970. The hamlet itself lies further along past Bezalel and some 80km southwest of Upington.
Here, the landmark indicator is the Pink Padstal (farm stall) located a few metres from the entrance to the farm while the drive to the cellar takes the visitor through the vineyards and along a life-giving irrigation canal.
A variety of grapes are farmed, producing table grapes and raisins, and include 55ha for wine. The latter is the domain of André Landman, the winemaker who joined just over two years ago after a spell in the Breede River Valley of the Western Cape.
Its range of wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz as well as fortifieds. In March 2014, it launched its two brandies; the occasion required excavating below a former swimming pool to create a dedicated maturation cellar. Gin is a more recent addition that has boomed. A new gin still is currently being installed alongside the 1000-litre copper pot still that produces the brandy, plus new gins are in the pipeline too.
"Things have been a bit topsy turvy since May this year when we began making space for the new still," says Andre. "I'm also awaiting new stock of red wines."
A popular seller at the visitor centre is the brandy and chocolate pairing, which is often served on the deck overlooking the vineyards.
Beyond just tasting however, Die Mas offers more reasons to visit. It has guest accommodation, a campsite and a river boat for excursions when conditions allow.
The tasting room is open Monday to Friday from 08:00 to 17:00, and from 09:00 to 14:00 on Saturdays and public holidays.
Landzicht has been producing wine for some time; grapes were first planted along this section of the Orange River in the 1990s. Awareness of its existence was however suddenly re-awakened last year when judges at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show (OMTWS) voted the Landzicht 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as Best in South Africa.
These days, the enterprise operates under the banner of agricultural services company GWK. It has two cellars - one located at Douglas, the other 120km east, at Jacobsdal in the Free State. Both are approximately an hour's drive south of Kimberley and have their own dedicated wine tasting rooms. Cellar tours are offered at Douglas.
Some 300ha of vineyards supply the winery and are located at Douglas, Prieska, Jacobsdal and Hartswater. Original cultivars planted comprised Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz and now include Colmobar, Chenin Blanc, Ruby Cabernet, Red and White Muscadel and Petit Verdot.
In addition to its range of wines, the tasting room offers brandy and gin – both launched a few years ago and distilled from its own fruit, on contract in Ventersdorp.
Ian Sieg has been a winemaker since 1984. After completing his studies, he worked in Ashton before departing for Zimbabwe – then Rhodesia – for 6 ½ years. There, he worked at a winery in Marondera. He returned to South Africa and first joined Landzicht in Jacobsdal before moving to Douglas 10 years ago.
In his view, the scarcity of wineries in the region is due to the capital required to start as well as the challenges of getting wine to market. "The Northern Cape and Free State have many challenges because it is regarded as a non-traditional wine area," he says.
The region's excellence in wine however is due to access to "some of the best soils in the world".
"Our vineyards grow in red sand-loam soils that have limestone in the subsurface," says Ian. "On the alluvial soils along the river, high-yield vineyards were established to ensure an income for the farmers. Water used for irrigation is of excellent quality while the clean dry air of the region ensures minimal disease incidence."
Despite the hoo-ha of Landzicth's victory at OMTWS, it has claimed its share of awards over the years, including gold at Veritas and Michelangelo. This year again, Landzicht was back at OMTWS to win the trophy for Best Fortified Wine.
The drinks are not the only reason to visit the region, of course. "The Orange and Vaal Rivers merge here and it's a sight to behold," says Ian. "There are also glaciated pavements some 290 million years old that you can visit."
The Landzicht tasting rooms are open 8:00 to 13:00 and 14:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday.