The day I ate Kalahari Sushi in Kakamas

Thursday, 20 October, 2011
Graham Howe
Graham Howe does springbok makimono in Kakamas, attends the Tenth Country Cellars Wine Show in the land of Grootdrink, and tries his first-ever Colombard Fumé
The Kalahari is one of the last places on earth you'd expect to find a sushi bar. But here we are doing trendy sushi fashion sandwiches over Friday lunch in downtown Kakamas. Sushi chef Gerrie de Beer who is paring, slicing and rolling the sushi moved up here from Cape Town to open the first sushi bar on the Orange River three years ago. Putting a lekker local spin on the sushi, he does biltong roses, springkbok makimono and a Kakamas special with wasabi hotter than the Kalahari at high noon.

The only sushi chef this side of Pofadder says it all started when Dirk Venter, owner of the Kalahari Gateway Hotel in Kakamas, bought a sushi bar from Jimmy's Killer Prawn in Tableview. He wanted his own conveyor belt sushi bar - and the chef along with the deal. Hey presto - the Northern Cape now has its newest tourist attraction after the Augrabies Falls, river rafting and the Orange River Wine Route. Chef says chopsticks were a novelty for local farmers and wives who now know the difference between wasabi and avo dip. He flies in the fish and seaweed (nori) from Cape Town. 

Coming from the big city, the wine-list at the Kalahari sushi bar is a delight - with wines from Orange River Cellars priced at an unbeatable R35 for dry Chenin Blanc 2011 with ripe tropical flavours which go well with a Kalahari sushi platter (R180 for 24 pieces). The ORC whites - best-selling Colombard, Chardonnay and Dry White - are big on varietal flavour but low on alcohol (11.5 - 12.5%) in step with modern consumer trends. Catering for all tastes, the wine-list features the whole range of "champaine" (sic), "cherry" (sic), ports, semi-sweets and stickies from Orange River.

We head over to the Kakamas winery for a tasting in situ, leaving heartier Kalahari specialties like nekke van Japie se skapie and Hotazhel livers peri peri for next time. Tumbleweed rolls around the tasting room at one of five mega-wineries which make up Orange River Cellars - a powerhouse spread across the longest and most remote wine route (350 kilometres) in South Africa. Over 900 members grow some 165 000 tons of grapes per annum on 3500 hectares of vineyards along the fertile floodplains of the Orange. The maths works out at an average yield of 35 tons per ha - though it rises up to a lusty 70 tons per ha. One of the country's biggest wine producers, ORC is a major supplier of bulk and bottled wine to big buyers like Spar and Distell. 

Kakamas is full of surprises. Walking among the behemoth tanks of the winery with cellar master Bolla Louw and his two winemakers, we spot a few boutique barrels of whites and reds among the serried rows of stainless steel. In the 2011 harvest the team pressed 1200 tons of grapes every day in a massive 45 000 ton crush at Kakamas. We taste the 2011 vintage of a unique wooded Colombar and Chardonnay matured in three types of oak barrels - a few of the experimental entries by the 17 winemakers competing in the annual Tops at Spar Country Cellars Wine Show in Orange River.

"The Orange River wine region is unique in terms of soils, climate and temperatures," says Bolla Louw over my first-ever tasting of an experimental Colombard Fumé from Bolla's barrel. The winemakers I meet on my visit say their advantages are ripe, generous flavours, low alcohols, the diversity of varieties, high volumes and quality-to-value ratio. The wine business here is driven by the growers, and wine is made to put profits back into the pockets of 900 members - not to develop loss-leader brands.

Everything is larger than life around here - from a 300 ha grape farm to a five-varietal classic dry red made in 200 000 litre batches. Heading over the bridges which criss-cross the Orange, we pass a sea of trellised vineyards irrigated by a 360 km-long network of canals. Crossing Kanoneiland, the largest island in the delta, we see the damage wreaked by the devastating flood of early 2011, the biggest since 1988. These islands are intensely cultivated to table grape, wine grape and grape juice concentrate. On the road to Keimoes, one of the big five wineries of Orange River Cellars, we learn about the fertile alluvial clay soils of the binnegrond in the flood valley and the sandy shale soils of the buitegrond - the big divide in the terroir of the Orange.

I met grape growers Gerhardt and Frans Visser at Ikaia lodge outside Keimoes, where road workers are rebuilding the bridge to Rooikop island. Gerhardt is a grower of the Colombard which goes into the maiden Straw Wine 2010 (12% alcohol) released by Orange River Cellars - and describes how the grapes were air-dried for three weeks before fermentation and ageing in old 225 litre barrels. The amber nectar is a delicious melange of peach and pineapple flavours - and a delicious dessert wine. His cousin Frans Visser points out one of the first blocks of Merlot in the area - and his Chardonnay planted across the road from a paddock where the springbok graze.

Wine consultant Tinus van Niekerk tells me that Tops at Spar and Orange River Cellars have developed a special relationship over the last decade - growing buyers own wine brands like Country Cellars and Carnival (bag in the box) with a specific focus on value for money consumer styles tailor made for the local market. (The value of the wine relationship between ORC and Spar has grown from R14m in 2002 to R32m in 2010.) He emphasises that the Tops at Spar Country Cellars Competition aims to encourage viticulturists and winemakers to constantly improve quality - and that Orange River Cellars have spent R100m on upgrading winemaking facilities.

The highlight of the Orange River Cellars calendar is the awards dinner of the Tops at Spar Country Cellars Wine Competition attended by all the winemakers, viticulturists and guests at Upington High School in mid-October. In the most unusual wine competition in the country, winemakers from each cellar compete with 105 entries which will never be bottled. The whole point of the show is to focus on the winemaker - and encourage winemakers to upgrade quality and techniques. The judges include Abe Beukes of Darling Cellars and Guy Webber of Stellenzicht who comments. "These wines are a testament to good winemaking. Not a single red is over-oaked. They are able to grow an amazing diversity of grapes in one place here."

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Country Cellars Show. For the second consecutive year Johan Dippenaar, "the big dipper" from Grootdrink won the best red blend trophy and champion winemaker award for his delicious blend of Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Ruby Cabernet 2011 - winning the R30 000 prize money for a trip to a top French cellar. In a clean sweep, Grootdrink lived up to its great name, winning champion cellar - with its runner-up champion Jim de Kock winning best white blend trophy for his Chenin Blanc / Chardonnay 2011 and red cultivar trophy for his Petit Verdot 2011. What other wine show captures such a unique sense of place with a Kokerboom award for best vineyard, Groot Gariep award for best white and Kalahari award for best red? I look forward to making the great trek to Grootdrink next year.

* Orange River Cellars was named joint best cellar in South Africa in Wine's Best Value Guide 2011 - with seven best value wines. See www.orangeriverwines.com and www.topsatspar.co.za.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

Who's for springbok makimono, biltong roses or salmon sushi in Kakamas
Who's for springbok makimono, biltong roses or salmon sushi in Kakamas

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