Review of two kosher wines from South Africa’s Backsberg Estate Cellars.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week April 1, 2015
The most widely seized upon message or theme of Passover is freedom from oppression. During the seder meal we recount the story of the Jewish Exodus, how G-d laid low the most powerful ruler on earth and liberated the Jewish people from slavery. Indeed, the story, particularly in its Biblical form with the central figure of Moses (whose prominence is massively relegated to nominal mention in the Passover Haggadah), has been a blueprint for others seeking relief from oppression the world over.
In some sense the repeal of South African apartheid is a related modern example of national liberation. Defined as “the state of being apart,” apartheid was a system instituted by the ruling white minority in the late 1940s in order to maintain political and economic control over the country and its black African majority. Decades of internal resistance and external financial and political pressures led to the repeal of apartheid in 1994.
So with such themes as freedom and liberation in the air, as we considered what wines to review for possible recommendation this Passover our thoughts turned to South Africa. The country’s wine industry has bounced back dramatically from the woes induced by the economic boycotts of the apartheid years, during which they lacked access to markets and the resources to modernize. Now the South African wine industry is considered by some to be poised for great things, particularly due to new investments and the willingness of their winemakers to incorporate up-to-date techniques.
The Backsberg Estate Cellars began as a South African farm growing fruit and grain, and raising livestock. Backsberg is located in a town called Paarl in the Western Cape province of South Africa. It was purchased in 1916 by Mr. Charles Back, the current owner’s grandfather. Back was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who arrived penniless in South Africa in 1902, but through hard work and determination made something of himself. Before long he began growing grapes and making wine, reputedly good wine too. At the times the farm was named “Klein Babylonstoren,” and the wines were sold under that name and also under the label “Back’s Wines.”
In 1938 Charles was joined by Sydney, his son. During the post war period, the father and son team expanded and improved the vineyards, and also began to adapt to new trends in winemaking technology. Success followed. In 1969 they sold the label, the existing equipment, and the remaining stock to a larger company. This was done mostly to retire debts, earn some real profit, and to restart on a surer footing. They kept the land and the vineyards. In 1970 the farm was registered as the “Backsberg Estate Winery” and production began anew, with new equipment. Sydney Back was voted champion winemaker of the year at the South African National Young Wine Show in 1978 and then again in 1982, and his wines have won numerous awards. Sydney’s son, Michael, joined the company in 1976 and eventually took full ownership as his father retired. Michael’s son, Simon, joined the company in 2008, and is now the marketing manager. Alicia Rechner, the winemaker, joined in 2002 (left in 2008 to become a “flying winemaker”, before returning in 2012).
Most of their wines are not kosher, but in 2005 Backsberg began to produce kosher wines. Two recent releases in the kosher line are both interesting and value-priced. The Backsberg Chardonnay 2013 ($15; mevushal) begins with a hint of smoke mingled into the peach aromas. The stone fruit and melon flavors are big and rich and nicely balanced by lime accents with some vanilla oakiness in the medium finish. While the Backsberg Merlot 2013 ($15; mevushal) opens with scents of plums and red fruit, offers complex raspberry, dark cherry, cocoa, and savory notes along with medium tannins and a bit of smoke and spice. Pair with your favorite brisket recipe. L’Chaim!