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Blog for Third Street Wine Shop in La Verne. Wine tasting tips, buying guides and winemaker insights.

Winemaking in South Africa - Backsberg Cellars (part two)

Brief History of South African Wine

South Africa is 8th in wine production worldwide. The first wines were produced by Dutch colonists, made by wild grapes which produced less than stellar wines. The lackluster wines produced by native grapes led to the importation of European cuttings. The cooperative movement (KWV) was a result of phylloxera and the Anglo-Boer war, which led to overplanting, reduced grape prices and financial depression. The government funded cooperative helped regulate the production, sale and exportation of South African wine. With the end of apartheid, wine exports skyrocketed and the KWV was dismantled, and now produces inexpensive brandy.

The KWV wineries, like Backsberg Cellars, now focuses on quality. The major South African wines include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinotage, and sparkling wine. The highest quality of these wines is planted in the Western Cape’s Coastal regions: Constantia, Stellenbosch, and Paarl. The Mediterranean climate provides the perfect environment for winegrowing.

South Africa's Wine - Pinotage

Backsberg Cellars Pinotage. Image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars.

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.

image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars

image courtesy of Backsberg Cellars

Wine with a Conscious - Sustainability

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.

image courtesey of Backsberg Cellars

image courtesey of Backsberg Cellars

Wine with a Conscious – Social Responsibility

"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 conscious.

I'll raise a glass to that.