Back to the future

When Charles Back says that something is “the most exciting thing to happen in 30 years” I feel obliged to pay very respectful attention, because any considered thought of Charles’s is almost by definition worth it. Even if I was a bit surprised. I might have expected him to say it about his re-discovery (my description, not his) of the Swartland when he established Spice Route Winery in the late 1990s. (And employed a little known young winemaker named Eben Sadie who was to take the Swartland and run with it – Charles too generously gives Sadie the credit for the “re-discovery”.)

But it wasn’t this, nor even the continuing achievement of building one of the (surely) most substantial private wine businesses in the country, centred at Fairview. It was petite sirah that he singled out. “We’re going for it in quite a big way”, he says. Petite sirah is generally taken (as it is in South Africa) as a synonym of durif, itself a late 19th century French crossing of syrah (shiraz) and peloursin. In California, where it is a much more important name than it is in France, petite sirah in fact seems to refer to a small group of associated and related varieties of which durif is the most important.

There’s also quite a bit of it in Australia, where it makes, apparently, wines of good quality. And in recent years it’s been growing at both Fairview and Spice Route, brought into the country by Charles Back – legally, he’s quick to insist. And more is being planted by him all the time, as he says the quality of the wine it produces grows better and better as the vines mature.

This was just one of the things I learnt about in a few hours I happily spent talking with Charles about wine (but drinking coffee). The immediate prompt of the visit was that many of the Platter Guide tasters are this year writing the little descriptions of the wineries that precede the tasting notes – in the hope of avoiding the blandness or the desperate resort to describing winemaker’s sporting interests that have characterised quite a few of the descriptions in recent years. Let’s hope indeed. I have been allocated Spice Route, so I wanted to find out about what’s happening there, and it seemed a good excuse to try for a wider-ranging discussion (serving a few other purposes too) with the man whom many consider perhaps the leading figure on the Cape wine scene.

Plenty is happening in his empire, as was to be expected. Quite apart from petite sirah, and the other innovative varieties being planted at Fairview and Spice Route (tannat, sangiovese, tempranillo, roussanne and barbera among them). Expansion continues apace. New vineyards are being planted every year; Spice Route recently acquired 50 new hectares of vines in its Darling outpost; Fairview has just bought not one but two ajacent farms with good hillside slopes: slowly, says Charles, Fairview is being dragged up the hill, with new higher vineyards and the lower riverside ones being abandoned. Etc.

With all this vast expenditure of money and imagination and skill, it was rather heartwarming to suddenly notice, when Charles made a phonecall to arrange for a few bottles with new labels to be brought over, that this mighty eminence who claims to not have an office but to rely instead on his cellphone, makes use of just about the most modest little old phone to do it all on. It’s one of the many signs that glitaz and glamour is not what Charles Back and his business is about. “I’m in the service of wine”, he insists, and though it is undoubtedly rather more complicated than that, I’m sure that that simple credo is behind a good deal of his success.

The new labels he sent for, incidentally, were for a repackaging of the three basic Goats do Roam wine (Red, White, Rosé). Inititially the rather more serious, less jokey look will be confined to the American market, where, I believe, the Goats wines are the most successful of the South Africans there. So this was, said Charles, the first time that the labels were being shown off in South Africa. I felt pleasantly honoured by this modest scoop (especially as they are rather good labels), so here’s an amateurish pic of them alongside.

Very soon there’s going to be another new label – this time for a new range or varietal wines, essentially designed to work alongside the Goats do Roam wines which are all blends. But I saw only the plans and designs for that label, and wont even try to pre-empt the launch in August. There’s always something new out of Agter-Paarl.

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