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Winemaking in South Africa

Entrance to Backsberg Cellars, South Africa. Image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars.

Backsberg Cellars of South Africa has been making wine for over one hundred years: witnessing the revival of South African wine after the phylloxera pandemic, the rise and fall of the KWV (Wine Growers Association of South Africa) Cooperative and the fall of apartheid. Despite the long winemaking history in South Africa's Coastal Region, Michael Back, and son Simon, are embracing the future of South African winemaking with a commitment to quality, and a mission of sustainability and social responsibility.

History of Backsberg Cellars

Backsberg Cellars was born of humble beginnings. Simon Back's (current winemaker) great grandfather came to South Africa as a Lithuanian refugee, working the docks and then eventually owning a local butcher shop. That butcher shop eventually led to the purchase and establishment of Backsberg Estates in the Paarl wine district. The first wines were either sold in bulk or to the KWV, however, in 1970 Backsberg Cellars opened its doors to the public.

Winemaking – Striving for Seamless Wines

Simon Back, current winemaker of Backsberg Cellars.

Since opening in 1970 the core of Backsberg Cellars has been quality; their philosophy: "[…] Providing pleasure and enjoyment to a broad range of wine lovers by producing wines with structure and finesse, high levels of drinkability; we're aiming for seamless wines." After a rapid expansion they took a step back and truly applied this philosophy by adopting a zero tolerance quality policy--rip out underperforming vineyards in conjunction with focusing their production on wines that expressed the unique terroir of South Africa.

Simon Back, current winemaker and the latest Back to join the family business, describes the winemaking style as "balanced":

"Our winemaking style is all about balance. Balance between acidity, tannin, alcohol, and fruit. One element should [not] stand out above the others. As we like to say, 'if you find our wine easy to drink, then we [are] doing our job.'"

Easy to drink wines is the Backsberg Wine Experience. Backsberg wines are meant to express "varietal character with a sense of place in an elegant and harmonious style."

Great Wine Starts in the Vineyard

Vineyards of Backsberg Cellars with Simonsberg Mountain vistas. Image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars.

With the estate located in Paarl, 40 minutes from Cape Town, along the majestic slopes of the Simonsberg Mountains and among historic wine estates, grapes benefit from sunny summer days and cool wet winters. This ideal climate leads to high quality grapes that have an incredible balance. Backsberg's commitment to quality extends not only in winemaking practices, but also in vineyard management, from site selection, trellis style, canopy management, and irrigation practices, "all aspects of the vine must show ripeness."

The importance of site selection for specific grapes only heightens the quality of the wine. One such grape well suited for South African terroir is Chenin Blanc, Simon Back's favorite wine right now: "I've always been a big Chenin Blanc fan. Such a versatile grape and perfect for our warm summers. It also grows beautifully here in South Africa."

This holistic approach to winegrowing also continues in winemaking (vinification). Keeping it simple is the key. Despite being considered "new world," Backsberg's practices are very "old world" in style --they let the grapes speak for themselves. Healthy grapes in the vineyards lead to high quality wines in the cellar with as little intervention as possible.

When asked what he was looking forward to pressing and fermenting this year, Simon Back responded:

"Having just completed our 2017 harvest, we [are] really excited about the quality. Unfortunately, due to a rather severe drought, our yield is down […] However, the resulting stress on the vines was a contributing factor to the high quality of fruit of the 2017 vintage. Right now I [am] super excited about our John Martin Sauvignon Blanc and our Pumphouse Shiraz."

South Africa's Wine - Pinotage

Backsberg Cellars Pinotage. Image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars.

One particular wine grape that can be considered “native” to South Africa is Pinotage, one of the “super grapes” of the 1920s. Designed by Abraham Perold in 1925, Pinotage is a cross between the grapes Pinot Noir and Cinsault (also known as Hermitage). In an effort to produce a Pinot Noir in South Africa, Perold crossed the fickle Pinot Noir grape with the hardy (and productive) Cinsault grape, producing a wine that was tasty and easy to drink as Pinot Noir, but had the durability of Cinsault. It is the second most widely planted grape in South Africa, a grape perfectly paired for the South African terroir.

Matching the land and climate to the types of varietals is one major facet of Backsberg winemaking, but another tenet of the Backsberg winemaking philosophy is a care for the land and care for the people who work their land.

Wine with a Conscious - Sustainability

Image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars

Backsberg Cellars has had a mission of sustainability for over 30 years beginning with Simon's father, Michael Back.

"The truth is that it was not sudden, but rather a long-term project (that is still underway), implemented by my father many years ago. [Since] it is a costly endeavor, […] we approached it in increments. With wine being our main concern, quality was always assured and every move was made to ensure that production would not be adversely affected." - Simon Back

The biggest project in Backsberg's future is becoming 100% energy sufficient: "We're always chasing innovation. Potentially our biggest project in the works is to become 100% energy self-sufficient. We are carbon neutral as we offset our carbon emissions." -Simon Back.

Backsberg Cellars is ONE of THREE wineries in the world to earn the title of "Carbon Neutral" meaning that carbon emissions are a net zero; emission being offset through various practices and efforts. In order to achieve a net zero carbon emissions, Backsberg plants trees, reduces the size of farming vehicles, recycles waste, employs a biomass boiler to fueling the winery cooling system, trellises their vines via Lyre trellising system to reduce distance travelled by vineyard machinery, using lightweight glass bottles, among numerous other practices.

In addition to the carbon neutral practices mentioned above, Backsberg also maintains a pioneering partnership between the South African wine industry and the conservative sector, uses an environmental management plan, participates in a Biochar experiment, and sets 10% of their land aside for the conservation of the endangered Fynbos.

Wine with a Conscience – Social Responsibility

image courtesey of Backsberg Cellars

"Giving back more than we take" is part of what drives Backsberg's sustainability initiatives, but it also reaches beyond conservation efforts and giving back to the earth, but also investing back into the people who take part in producing Backsberg wines.

The Freedom Road label, was first produced in 1998, inspired by the title of Former President Nelson Mandela's autobiography: Long Walk to Freedom. Freedom Road wines supports the Backsberg housing project. Historically, in South Africa, if a farm worker lost his job, he or she was no longer allowed to live on the farm. Backsberg's Freedom Road initiative is based on the concept of "freeing" people from tied housing. Backsberg staff can choose where to work without conflicts related to housing. In conjunction with the South African government, workers, and Backsberg Cellars, it is a means of wealth distribution in an otherwise financially divided society. The first bottle released was signed by Nelson Mandela at The Tynhuis, Cape Town. While Simon Back was not there to meet former President Nelson Mandela, his father, Michael Back, did.

Backsberg Cellars has been producing wines throughout the constantly changing political, economic, and social climate of South Africa. From the humble beginnings of a political refugee to the full fledged Backsberg Estate, Backsberg proudly remembers its history. With an attitude of gratitude, Backsberg seeks to give more than it takes both to the environment and to humanity.

Despite traveling all over the world in the off season pouring Backsberg wines, Simon Back admits his favorite wine region is still South Africa. The best way to wind down after a fulfilling day at the winery, according to Simon Back, is with a good wine and a good book. Upon reflection, Simon reflects that he thinks his great grandfather, C.L. Back would be amazed at how far the winery has come since he established it.

Wines with a sense of place, with a sense of history, and a conscience.

I'll raise a glass to that.


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