Back to the Future in the Berg of Paarl
BACKSBERG ESTATE CELLARS
Friday 9 March 2018
The entrance signs to Backsberg – South West of Paarl and within clear sight of the granite domes – made it very clear. The Estate Cellars were the first South African vineyard to be carbon-neutral (since 2006). Better than that, Backsberg is one of only 3 in the World. As ever though, when I tried to determine which the other 2 wineries were, there are competing claims for the bragging rights. Just ask who is the oldest wine producer in Constantia (or is it the oldest farm that makes wine?) and you will get different answers. Grove Mill winery in New Zealand’s Marlborough wine region claims to be the first carbon-neutral wine farm. There’s Fetzer Vineyards in California and Stift Klosterneuburg in Austria, together with French producer Drappier as the ‘world’s first carbon-neutral Champagne House’…..
This is where modern meets ancient. A comprehensive carbon audit at Backsberg led to a range of practices to achieve carbon-neutral status: tree-planting, energy creation and conservation; bio and alternative fuels; conservation and set aside fynbos areas; packaging review, including fully recyclable plastic bottles; methane digester technology and much more.
It seems far away from the ancient, historic beginnings of 100 years ago. Backsberg began from humble origins. The farm was not granted to some Huguenot by Governor Simon van der Stel in the 1680s, or eldest son Willem Adriaan in the early 1700s. There’s similarity though to the origin in that the first owner was a fleeing immigrant. CL Back arrived in Cape Town as a political and religious refugee from Lithuania. He worked the docks as a bicycle delivery ‘boy’ until he bought a butcher shop in Paarl railway station. One morning a customer asked if someone wanted to buy a farm, so the story goes, and CL Back sold the butcher shop to buy the farm. In those days, the land was put to mixed use: grain, livestock, fruit and, later, wine grapes.
Second generation Sydney Back joined his father in 1936, to be joined by son Michael Back in 1976. It was during the 1970s that peach orchards were replaced by vineyards to be able to compete with the bigger wine producers. The Backs Wines brand name was sold and Backsberg was registered as the new name. It gave the farm a fresh start and the Cellar was opened to the public in 1970. Fourth generation Simon Back joined his father in 2008.
I was most struck by the obvious history of wine-making and the Cellar as I visited the gated and locked Vintage Rooms, containing wines in dusty bottles dating back to the Millennium and even earlier. Beyond, I ventured into the magnificent historic Vat Cellar. Inside, one of the longest tables I have ever seen (excepting in Buckingham Palace in my native England) was set ready with glasses for an enormous tasting. Huge oak barrels of between 5,000 and 10,000 litres in size, circular and oval in shape, lined both walls of the rectangular room.
My tasting unfortunately was elsewhere, in the modern Tasting Room past the current Cellar – the air damp with wet oak – and towards the front of the building. I glanced into the large indoor/outdoor Restaurant on the opposite side of the corridor. It was clear that Backsberg is well catered to accommodate both Red Bus and Franschhoek Tram tourists, who were already starting to arrive.
It was good that I arrived at opening time (9.00am) as it meant that I had the sole attention of Mildred, my tasting host. Marketing Manager, Bianca, stopped to say hello as she had heard all about the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society. Backsberg wines are grouped into a broad choice of ranges. The flagship Family Reserve Range contains a white and a red blend made from only exceptional vintages in the very best blocks. The well-known Black Label Range includes selected wines, each named after a particular place or person in the farm’s history, from the top performing vineyards. The Premium Range is a single cultivar selection of wines. There’s more too: the Tread Lightly Range, with wines bottled in recyclable PET plastic bottles; a Kosher Range for Passover and the Jewish community; sweet, fortified wines and Sydney Black pot-still brandy.
I found it difficult to pick out 5 wines for tasting (R30) as the wines were so interesting and inviting. I focused mostly on the Black Label Range and pleased that Mildred, who was both knowledgeable and engaging as my tasting sommelier, allowed me to sample more than the permitted 5 wines. The wines were all freshly opened and served at perfect temperature in small tasting glasses.
Mildred first poured the Black Label Brut MCC. The chance to compare with the Kosher variant – in matching white label – was too great to miss. Most countries produce Kosher wines to cater for all Orthodox Jews. Kosher food focuses on the source of the food but, for Kosher wine, the attention is on the winemaker. Religious Jews only may handle the equipment after the grapes have arrived in the winery. Yeasts, fining agents and barrels have to be prepared to high hygiene standards and certain items are prohibited if they are animal or dairy-derived or even come from non-Kosher fish (isinglass, for example, from Sturgeon). The Backsberg Kosher wines are mevushal (literally ‘boiled’) which means that they are flash pasteurized to 175°F/80°C. They are rapidly chilled back to room temperature after. The process affects the wine quality and ageing characteristics, notably due to changes to the tannins. As a result, the best Kosher wines are not mevushal. The most important factor with mevushal wines is that, once ‘boiled’, they may be handled by non-Jews (winemakers for sampling, waiters for serving etc) and remain Kosher.
I rated the two MCC the same. They were both pale straw in colour and with good moussante bubbles in the glass. The Black Label wine showed more complexity (but then it contained Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in almost equal amount) compared with the Chardonnay only Kosher wine. The Kosher wine showed a lower intensity on the nose and was dryer on the palate. I am unsure to what extent this was due to the mevushal winemaking and didn’t (but should have) do a second comparison with a red wine.
The John Martin, one of the rare examples of a blanc fumé or wooded Sauvignon Blanc, was my favourite wine of the tasting. John Martin was a former General Manager of the estate. The very pale straw colour gave no clue to the few weeks the wine spent in wood. This was a green style Sauvignon Blanc with aromas of green fig, asparagus, gooseberry, lime, green pepper and rhubarb. The complexity of aroma was excellent. The wine showed a softness of texture on the clean palate to make for a feel of slightly lower acidity than for many a Sauvignon Blanc that made for pleasant drinking.
Also lightly oaked (4 months in new oak) was the Hillside Viognier. The white peach, jasmine and light apricot aromas were subtle and less floral than many Viognier. However, perfumed flavours came through on the palate that was more creamy than oily, with medium acidity and a good length.
The final white wine of the tasting was the Sonop (‘sunrise’) Chardonnay. This was another decent wine. I could immediately tell it was wooded as it was oak-forwards on the nose. Bright vanilla, honey and nuts gave way to baked yellow apple beneath. The wine was well balanced between acidity, fruitiness and alcohol content on the palate, with a fresh and clean feel and decent length.
Backsberg has 110 hectares under vine, with some 70 hectares around the Cellar and the remainder in 2 satellite vineyards on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountains between Paarl and Stellenbosch. To confuse further, the estate is shown on the Franschhoek map in the back of the Platter’s Guide. Nonetheless, as I left after tasting, I could see the Paarl domes, one of the world’s largest granite outcrops and 500 million years old, on the horizon beyond the wines.
Red wines make up the majority of wines that Backsberg produces (65%) and so I was eager to taste. These are mostly sold under the Premium Range but I did enjoy the Black Label Pumphouse Shiraz. Wooded for 12 to 18 months, this was a classic Shiraz. Deep ruby red to purple in colour, I liked the intense balanced open nose with black peppercorn spice competing with aromas of black cherry, mulberry and bramble. Light in style on the palate, smooth and not too tannic (but with the flavours tailing off in the mouth), I was surprised that the alcohol content was as high as 14.5%.
Mildred insisted I try the Red Blend from the Family Reserve Range, the most expensive wine of the tasting. It was delicious. The vibrant Cabernet Sauvignon-led bouquet had depth and warmth of red and dark berry aromas, with Malbec adding weight and Merlot notes of forest floor. This was a definite food wine with good balance and smoothness on the palate that will only improve with ageing.
Another wine I could not resist, and the final wine of the tasting, was the Special Late Harvest from the Premium Range. It caught my eye as it was sold in full size bottle which is unusual as SLH are typically sold in 375 ml bottles. Special Late Harvest wines are made from naturally desiccated grapes that concentrate the sugar in the berries. They must contain at least 11% alcohol and are generally classified as a light dessert wine. The wine was shy until it warmed up in the glass to reveal rose petal, litchi, ripe apricot and Turkish delight aromas that made it unmistakably a Gewürztraminer. The sweeter floral notes eased on the palate to make a smooth, crisp, dry wine. I bought a bottle (superb value at R60) but didn’t quite know where to place it. The bottle size and alcohol level (a regular 13.5%) suggested a main course rather than a dessert wine. I would certainly be very happy to drink it with a lightly spiced Thai dish or even a Cape Malay curry.
Backsberg made for a fun and interesting tasting. I hadn’t tasted Kosher wines before (it would have been good to compare Pinotage and Merlot from the Kosher and Premium ranges too). The Black Label wines offered both quality and, at cR130 each, great value for money. Both the blanc fumé Sauvignon Blanc and the Special Late Harvest offered something different and that appealed. Mildred led an excellent tasting too in the beautiful, historic Tasting Room; sadly, wines served in fresh glasses and at the correct temperature are not guaranteed at vineyard tastings. In sum, Backsberg did the simple things well and didn’t try too hard or over-complicate – and so it didn’t surprise to read on the website afterwards of the KISS (‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’) approach to the winemaking. As I wrote at the start, its where modern meets ancient – or should that be the other way around as in ‘back to the future’?!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2015 Brut MCC (52% Pinot Noir, 48% Chardonnay) – R130
2016 Kosher Sparkling Brut MCC (Chardonnay) – R145
2017 John Martin Wooded Sauvignon Blanc – R100* FAVOURITE WINE
2017 Hillside Viognier – R100
2015 Sonop Wooded Chardonnay – R150*
2015 Pumphouse Shiraz – R130
2015 Family Reserve Red Blend (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Malbec, 20% Merlot) – R260
2017 Gewürztraminer Special Late Harvest – R60*