Africa / Middle East

Future Looms Large for South Africa's Rio Largo

After taking home the Best in Class award for their robust Premium Blend in the 2016 New York International Olive Oil Competition, South Africa's Rio Largo is ready for a promising 2017.

Brenda Wilkinson among her olive groves at Rio Largo
Dec. 21, 2016
By Steffani Cameron
Brenda Wilkinson among her olive groves at Rio Largo

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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.

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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.

Nick Wilkinson

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.

Morning light on the shed’ at Rio Largo

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.



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