Orange River Cellars' Icon Matthee van Schalkwyk Retires After 45 Years

Thursday, 6 June, 2013
Orange River
To imagine Orange River Cellars without Matthee van Schalkwyk is like picturing the Kalahari without antelope and Kanoneiland without a single vine. For his name is as synonymous with the cellar and the Orange River wine region as the waters of the mighty river are with irrigation, canoeing and huge barbell!
Yet this year, after 45 years of loyal service, Matthee will retire as Head of Production.

When one refers to someone having seen it all, it is usually a figure of speech. However, as far as the Orange River wine region and Orange River Cellars are concerned, any observer who talks to Matthee can testify that this man with the pleasant, calming voice has indeed seen it all.

In 1968, Matthee was there to receive and weigh the first batch of grapes when Orange River Cellars opened its first cellar in Upington. "You always remember something like that when spending a long time at one place," remembers Matthee. "On 18 January the first grapes arrived at the cellar.  And that year we managed to take in 4400 tons of grapes, for which the farmers were paid a royal price of R32 per ton. Although Orange River Wine Cellars were initially established to distil surplus raisin grapes, it was evident to the first cellar team right from the start that good wine could be produced. We actually managed to make 300 000litres of good wine in that first year, over and above the distilling wine.

In those early years there was a lot of crop-farming along the river, especially lucerne.  Through the encouragement of Orange River Cellars and the increasing demand for wine and distilling wine from the Cape, more and more farmers began to plant vineyards - mainly Palomino, Chenin Blanc and later Colombar.  And consequently the cellars expanded.
"In 1971 Keimoes was completed, followed by Grootdrink in 1972 and Kakamas and Groblershoop in 1976. The main reason for the expansions were to eliminate unnecessary transport, thus lessening the distance between grape farmer and cellar.  This was an integral part of Orange River Cellars' philosophy then and is still applicable today, namely that the grape producer should be accommodated as far as possible.”

Although Matthee was fascinated from a young age by anything mechanical that required manual work, the wine bug only properly sank its teeth into him much later, after his appointment in 1971 as assistant winemaker at Keimoes.
"Initially I wanted to study engineering, but there simply wasn't enough money," recalls the Kanoneiland native who also grew up in Grootfontein, Namibia before the family returned to Upington. "I always had an affinity for mechanics and machines though, something that definitely came in very handy during my career at Orange River Cellars.  Once I started to understand the winemaking process however, I discovered a new passion."

He trained himself in viticulture and the winemaking process by reading books, and under the mentorship of industry legends like Günter Brözel from Nederburg, Delheim's Spätz Sperling and Pon van Zyl from Robertson.
"I wanted to expand my knowledge, not only for my personal benefit, but because together with my colleagues I realised the potential of this exceptional wine region nearlyforty years ago, and we made it our goal to establish the Orange River as a leading wine region," he says.  He flashes a mischievous smile. "Let me put it this way: We wanted to prove a point to the other wine regions in the country - that they were not the only ones who could make wine!"
Matthee was assistant winemaker at Keimoes from 1971 to 1974, and due to circumstances he had to take charge of two harvests by himself. "That was a turning point for me - I realised that I could do the job and decided that being a production manager was the only thing I wanted to do." "It is hard work, as all the winemakers here will tell you, but at the same time it is immensely satisfying."

In 1974 he was appointed winemaker-manager at Kakamas. "The harvest of 1976 was a real revelation because of the sheer amount of constant rain we experienced. Cellars in other regions and countries might easily have given up in such circumstances, but here we didn't have a choice," he says. "We received and processed the damaged grapes, and until today I reckon that no winemaker in the world can rescue grapes the way that Orange River Cellars' winemakers are able to."  Despite receiving grapes in a poor condition from vineyards covered in flood waters, our winemakers can still manage to produce good, clean wines, as was again the case in 2011.

You want to ask Matthee about the pivotal years at Orange River Cellars. Like the floods of 1974 and 1988 - "2011 was a baby in comparison to those two." Also about wine prices and spirited farm politics and producer meetings.
But the biggest moment he frequently emphasises was when viticulturists  were introduced in 2005 to act as link between grape producers and the production team of Orange River Cellars.

"We initially wanted to appoint three, but today we have five viticulturists working under the guidance of Henning Burger, who was our first vineyard guru," says Matthee. "I cannot emphasise enough the value of the work these people do in ensuring that farming practises are implemented in accordance with the goals of the winemakers and marketing team. This, together with our team of hand-picked winemakers lead to the improvement of wine quality and we also began to harness the potential of the Orange River region for exciting new cultivars which nobody had previously considered planting."

What does he consider the most satisfying part of his work?

"The people that I work with, all the diverse personalities and skills," says Matthee. "I was privileged to work closely with excellent grape farmers, financial experts, visionary managers like Herman Cruywagen and the young, enthusiastic, and sharp winemakers working at our five cellars. To be surrounded by good people, capable and diverse people striving for one common goal as we always have at Orange River Cellars...that has made the 45 years a priviledge and a pleasure.

On a personal level Matthee had the opportunity to nurture his engineering and designing skills, which he grabbed with both of his big hands.

"I had to design buildings and cellar facilities on several occasions, and drew up the plans myself. When we arrived at the architects and designers my plans were accepted as they were and given the go-ahead," he says, smiling proudly. "Now that is true job satisfaction."

Apart from his colleagues, Matthee also has a special word of recognition for his wife, Marlien, the effervescent source of support by his side.  "It can certainly become very lonely being a winemaker's wife, especially during those lenghty harvests", he admits.  "But having her support to depend on was what made the toughest times bearable." My wife and family, like my association with Orange River Cellars, has been the greatest source of joy in my life. Looking back, you realise that there is so much to be grateful for."