Winemaking in South Africa - Backsberg Cellars (Part One)

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

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

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 of Backsberg Cellars.

Simon Back, current winemaker of Backsberg Cellars.

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

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."

Up Next - Part Two: South African Wines and Backsberg Cellars' commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. 


Taste a bit of South Africa next Wednesday evening when Third Street Wine Shop welcomes Backsberg Cellar’s Simon Back, the latest generation and current winemaker.