WHAT: To celebrate Earth Day next Wednesday, I thought I would look at something from a winery that takes conservation seriously.
The South African wine industry has stepped up its conservation efforts, so that seemed like a natural choice. Wineries throughout the country are cutting back on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and setting aside large areas for conservation.
Backsberg has become the first wine producer in South Africa, and one of only three in the world, to achieve carbon-neutral status by holding down carbon emissions.
Lucky for us wine drinkers, the conservation efforts have helped produce even better-tasting wines.
The Backsberg Chenin Blanc is a great example of one of the featured varietals from South Africa. When it is made properly, Chenin Blanc is an exciting, tasty wine.
It is a gorgeous pale yellow in the glass with powerful, complex aromas that include pear, green apple and cashew. The green apple also comes through on the palate, along with ripe citrus. A crisp acidity balances the fresh fruit and makes this a perfect wine for food.
The wine has a clean, almost chewy, texture that leads to a pleasant, lingering finish. It is a delightful wine, and it comes at a great price.
The grapes undergo a long, cool fermentation and are aged in stainless steel, so if you like oak-free wines, this is perfect for you. The cool fermentation and aging in stainless gives a fresh, crisp mineral flavor to the wine that is typical of the best Chenin Blanc.
Backsberg and the other South African wineries have put a lot of effort into conservation. They have worked to remove alien plant species and replant native trees. Wineries have set aside huge areas as nature preserves, never to be developed. Their commitment is to preserve the land for future generations.
Backsberg also uses lightweight bottles and recycled glass to reduce carbon emissions and to reduce oil use.
I also tasted a biodynamic wine from Reyneke, a 2012 Syrah. The winery had used Syrah as a blending wine, but they liked the spice, pepper and perfumed aromas and silky texture, so they decided to bottle it separately. I’m glad they did. The bright fruit flavors of plum and blackberry combined with the silky texture create a memorable wine. It sells for about $22.
No pesticides or artificial fertilizer is used on the vines, and no yeasts or enzymes are added when the wine is fermented. It spent 14 months in used French oak barrels, resulting in rich, complex flavors.
WINERY: Though South African wine is considered New World, the country has been producing wine for three centuries, since the Dutch East India Company established posts there to service India-bound ships. Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of what was called the Cape, planted vines in 1655.
The Backsberg family first came to South Africa in 1916, when Charles L. Back escaped persecution in Lithuania. He worked on the docks and as a bicycle delivery boy until he could save enough money to start a butcher shop.
The story is told that one day someone walked into Back’s butcher shop in Paarl and asked if he wanted to buy a farm.
He started with fruit, grain and livestock before planting vines in the 1920s. The first wines were sold to a national co-op or in bulk to European countries. In those days the farm was called “Klein Babylonstoren” (or little tower of Babylon) and the first wines were made and sold under that name.
Charles’ son Sydney joined his father in 1936 and began to focus on quality wine. The family upgraded equipment and techniques. Sydney sold the name Back’s Wine, as well as equipment. This allowed him to pay off debt and replant the farm with quality grapevines.
By the 1970s the farm was registered as Backsberg Estate Winery, and the emphasis was firmly on quality red and white wines. Sydney was voted champion winemaker of the year in 1978 and 1982.
In 1976, Michael Back returned home after graduating from Stellenbosch University to work under his father in the winery. He set about expanding the business and ensuring that Backsberg would become one of the most important family-farming businesses in South Africa.
Michael expanded production and bought more land before he decided bigger wasn’t necessarily better. He sold off some of the related businesses and ripped out some lower quality vineyards. The winery dropped some of the wines it produced to concentrate on raising the quality of particular wines.
Michael’s son Simon joined the winery in 2008 after getting his business science economics degree.
The 300-acre estate is set in the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountains just outside Paarl, the heart of the Cape Winelands. The winery produces an array of wines at several price ranges. The top wines are the Family Reserve red and white blends.
The Black Label Range features wines made from top vineyards: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé, Dry Red, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Special Late Harvest.
The Kosher Range include a sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Merlot and Kiddush. There is a new label called Tread Lightly, bottled in lightweight plastic bottles. Backsberg also produces fortified wines and brandy.
GOES WITH: My wife, Teri, and I had the Chenin Blanc with a chicken stir fry that included pineapple, red and green bell pepper, celery, green onions and ginger. It was heavenly and a perfect match for the rich flavors and texture of the Chenin Blanc.
I also used some red pepper flakes in the stir fry, but it didn’t throw off the wine at all. The fruit and acidity of the wine played nicely off the heat of the meal. This should be a good wine for all kinds of spicy food.
Chenin Blanc is versatile and could pair with salads, vegetables, fish and chicken. Dishes with cream sauces also should do well with this wine.