Best cellars: To parched lips
Neil Pendock visits a vinous oasis in a desert of ancient rocks
'Bezalel was the chap who made a tabernacle in the desert," said Inus Bezuidenhout when I asked about the origin of his winery's name. "It means 'Under the protection of God,'" said Bezuidenhout, a giant of a man who has more than a touch of Old Testament prophet about him.
Located at Dyasonklip on the N14, almost halfway between Upington and Keimoes, Bezalel Estate was started in the '40s by Bezuidenhout's pa and oupa.
From the road, a fort fashioned from Orange River boulders reminds you of the fate of Field Adjutant W Dyason of the Northern Border Horse, killed in a skirmish during the second Korana War. This was the final act in hostilities between the Korana, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, and farmers moving up from the Cape in the closing decades of the 19th century.
The captains took the precaution of bringing a cannon with them. So after Dyason died, an attack was launched on the largest of the 120 islands in the Orange River where the Korana hid cattle. Observing the power of the cannon, the Korana chieftain decided to build his own from the trunk of a giant quiver tree.
Alas, when fired, it exploded and killed the would-be gunners and spectators. The chief, dazed and covered in blood, told his troops, "If it's this bad with us, imagine what it's like with them," - and declared victory. The battle is commemorated in the name of the island: Kanoneiland, just downstream from Upington.
Quiver-fridges were much more successful than the quiver-cannons. The "wood" of the "tree" - which grow in profusion around here - is porous, with the feel of balsa and the weight of cork. When kept wet, evaporation cools the interior and it serves as a bush refrigerator, making quiver trees the Smegs of the Kalahari.
While the centre of gravity of SA wine quality moves inexorably south to Agulhas, as viticulturalists search for cooler vineyard sites or upwards, to the Cederberg, the centre of gravity of financially successful winemaking has moved north - to the vineyards on Kanoneiland, which can deliver a balanced colombard at 12.5% alcohol from grapes grown at 51 tons/ha.
Flood irrigated by the Groot Gariep and paid R1500 a ton, this nets farmers like Barnus Steyn around 10 times the income those gnarly old bush vines make for the millionaires in Franschhoek.
Bezalel is something of an experimental farm, with grapes like cornifesto and pinot noir producing the most unexpected wines, using only free-run juice. There is an excellent ruby port-style fortified red made from Portuguese varietals tourigas naçional and francisca and tinta barocca.
Bez also sells 300 tons of grapes to the Keimoes winery Orange River Cellars, where winemaker Rianko van Rooyen makes fresh and fruity chenin blanc and colombard, plus a straw wine of chenin blanc that may be the last straw for the myth that the Western Cape has a monopoly on fine wine.
Like Star Tree, yet another name for the quiver tree and a wine brand Orange River Cellars sells in the US, it has enjoyed much success. For exports to Angola, ORC has registered the Rio Laranja brand, and eight containers have recently been sent to China.
Bez says: "I don't like drunkards," which is why, rather than produce cheap papsak wine, he distils it into brandy using colombard, chardonnay and red varietal grapes. In fact, he dislikes dronklappe so much, he distils the stuff twice, before ageing it in barrels of French oak for at least five years.
There is a liqueur made from dates you can buy for R15 a box in Keimoes, plus Kalahari Broffee, an infusion of Cape moer coffee with pot-still brandy. Bez also produces an unexpected range of mampoer made from carrots, limes and prickly pears.
Their best brandy is the current distillation, from 25% colombard, 25% chardonnay and the balance from red wine. It has an earthy, nutty taste with some sweetness.
But the farm will become famous for a spirit called Inferno, which calls itself "the ultimate 'I dare you' shooter."
Sixty percent un-aged brandy spirit with an enormous red chilli in the bottle, it's the Kalahari version of a worm in a bottle of Mezcal. At R109 for 500ml, this is real bachelor-party stuff. As it says under the drag-racer flames: "Xha Hel." The day after tasting it, my lips still remembered.
Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 8.30am-5pm; Saturday 8.30am-1pm.
Directions: 18km from Keimoes, 22km from Upington on the N14.
Tasting charge: Free.
Contact: Phone 0845125315 or visit www.bezalel.co.za.