When Olive Oil Times reached out to the husband-and-wife team behind South Africa’s acclaimed Rio Largo Olive Oil, Brenda Wilkinson was 30 minutes from boarding a flight to Flos Olei. That’s the kind of year 2016 was for Rio Largo, after taking home the Best in Class award for their robust Premium Blend in the 2016 New York International Olive Oil Competition.
With only two prizes claimed by all of South Africa in the 2016 competition, the Cape Olive Route along the Breede River in Scherpenheuwel Valley, on the outskirts of Cape Town, is ready to take its olive oils to the world. With plantings and production more than doubling since 2004, Rio Largo feels the future is bright for this burgeoning Southern Hemisphere olive oil region.
In 2010, Nick and Brenda Wilkinson became olive growers when they bought a farm began in 2003 by Carlos Raposo. On a spread of over 200 hectares featuring more than 18,000 trees, Rio Largo produces upwards of 65,000 liters of extra virgin olive oil annually, still a far cry from their capacity of 85,000 liters.
In that first year, they began taking home prizes for their oil, scoring a double-gold award from the South African Olive Association. Soon, they invested in an Italian OlioMio processor and aimed to grow their market.
When pressed for what makes his oil stand out, Nick Wilkinson praised the terroir from which it comes. With just over a century of olive oil history in the South African Cape, it’s only recently people have realized how perfect the region is for growing olives. Nick chalks it up to its alkaline sandy alluvial soils with a northerly aspect that enjoys hot, 15-hour sunny days and cool nights.
The hero in the Cape Olive Route’s story is the “Cape Doctor,” a nightly southeasterly breeze, which helps keep pests and diseases at a minimum. Couple this with the Wilkinsons’ passion for bio-farming and their dedication to balanced nutrients and soil health, and it’s clearly a recipe for olive oil success.
Rio Largo features all Italian cultivars on its estate, which offer a balance of flavors between the varietals. The fruity notes of the Frantoio are contrasted by Coratina’s pungent, peppery bravado, while the Leccino’s smooth, mild balance plays well with all comers.
The result is a blend described by the NYIOOC judging panel as having a “grassy nose, great fruit on the palate with a very nice tactile perception, good bitter and lasting pepperiness; reminiscent of something gorgeous: creamed spinach and rocket leaves.”
Walking away with the 2016 NYIOOC Best in Class for Southern Hemisphere robust blends is a radical departure from Nick’s early days.
As a chartered accountant noted for his ability to balance the books to appease blue-chip investors in failing agricultural businesses, Nick one day realized he’d had enough of boardrooms and financial reports. He said aweh to his accomplished career spanning two decades for what he felt was a new calling — life on the other side of the agricultural equation.
For the Wilkinsons, this foray into the olive oil world isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle choice they’re thrilled to live daily. From early-morning strolls to visit the trees, through to routine pressing, it’s a day-to-day lifestyle they’ve grown to love.
When asked about Rio Largo’s secret to success, Nick said attention to detail is everything. The boss manages the processing facility himself, where fruit gets processed within six hours of being hand-picked. With a 12-hour pressing run each day, the plant is shut down and cleaned in entirety daily.
The life of any farmer can be a grind, but Nick attributes his new turn as an award-winning olive grower with a total life makeover, including new vigor and healthiness. “High cholesterol and hypertension are no longer the topics of dinner party conversation,” he said. Instead, his life as an olive farmer “has taught me patience and humility in working with nature to produce a health-giving food product, and that in itself satisfies my inner spirit.”
While Nick’s out there manning the presses and hand-picking the fruits of his labors, it’s Brenda’s job to make the world take notice. With a background in marketing and a passion for messaging and long emails, Brenda’s challenge is helping the world discover not only Rio Largo’s Premium Olive Oil Blend, but the Cape Olive Route’s strength as an olive-producing region, to bolster its already-growing agritourist appeal, thanks to a strong regional winery presence.
With Southern Hemisphere harvest dates, Rio Largo and the Cape Olive Route are cranking out fresh olive oil when much of the world’s supply is already seven months old. As a net importer of olive oil, even the domestic South African market is ripe to see more of its home product stake a claim on their shelves.
With the area boasting world-class beaches, top-quality wines, a budget-friendly economy, a harvest season when most wealthy countries are suffering winter, and incredible scenery, Rio Largo is banking on what they hope will become a thriving agritourism industry to sustain their Cape Olive Route success in the years to come.
That Southern Hemisphere harvest time also has the Wilkinsons hoping that 2017 sees more of their product landing Stateside when Northern Hemisphere products are nearing the end of their shelf lives. Rio Largo Olive Oil is currently only found at Grove & Vine in New York and the Healthy Gourmet in Atlanta, but they’re presently in talks with two major distributors for the American market, which they hope will allow them to increase their U.S. sales from 3 percent to 15 percent of their annual revenue. For now, their sales mainly occur at home in South Africa, Europe, and in a few other countries.
With markets to grow and capacity for greater production with their award-winning oils, along with the increasing agritourist appeal of South Africa’s Cape Olive Route and its winemaking acclaim, Rio Largo Olive Oil feels their success in 2017 is ripe for the picking.