Charles Back takes over Piekenierskloof grenache

You have to laugh – bitterly, perhaps – at some press releases. Take the one that’s just gone round on behalf of Charles Back (of Fairview, Spice Route, etc). It announces Back’s involvement with farmers in the Piekenierskloof area in a deal to provide grenache grapes to be vinified under the Back-owned Citrusdal Wines label – he bought the erstwhile co-op in 2006 – for Fairtrade-certified wines.

The statement is titled “Charles Back – the real revolution”, odd wording, but I presume it’s intended as a dig at the Swartland revolution, which Back in a sense inaugurated with Spice Route but has sadly failed to keep up with. The opening sentence runs thus:

“Known as a visionary and one of the most influential individuals in the South African wine industry, Charles Back is leading the way in the development of a largely undiscovered viticultural resource, the old vine Grenache from the Piekenierskloof region.”

neil ellis grenache

Largely undiscovered?

Indeed, Back has been a visionary in his time, and a highly influential “individual”, and remains important (and rich!) but the rest of the sentence is doubtful in the extreme. To speak of “leading the way” is a travesty of the truth. What is happening here is that Back has persuaded the local farmers to abandon (from next harvest in most cases, rather than the current one, as far as I can work out) the contracts they have had with some leading producers for  grenache grapes.

Far from Piekenierskloof grenache being a “largely undiscovered viticultural resource”, for a decade it has been vinified by such well known producers as Neil Ellis, Ken Forrester (with grenache a major component of the Gypsy and Three Halves), Vriesenhof, Sadie (Ouwingerdreeks Soldaat), Solms-Delta and Boekenhoutskloof! Quite apart from the Tierhoek estate, which is not being taken over by new contracts with Charles Back. There have been at least three Platter five-stars forthcoming for wines all or partly composed of Piekenierskloof grenache.

Ken Forrester, one of the real pioneers of modern exploration of grenache in the Cape, tells me that he “first helped manage a vineyard and harvested Piekenierskloof fruit with Billie and his brother Erasmus van Zyl in 2004/5”. Charles Back is a newcomer to the area and taking over the grenache that some fine winemakers have already made famous.


Largely undiscovered?

We can hope that the wines made in Back’s cellar will be good, however, given the quality of fruit delivered by these fine vineyards (unless the yields are pushed higher), though whether as good as those of Sadie, Ellis, Forrester et all, is hardly to be guaranteed. I’d guess that they will be cheaper, though. In fact, it would be most interesting to know the new deal with the farmers who seem to have abandoned those who’ve had contracts with them for quite a few years – and who have been getting (from at least some of those producers) extremely high prices for their grapes, that I’d be surprised to find that Back is matching.

Exactly what is going on up there is as yet unclear – but it looks as though there are going to be some sad omissions from the Cape’s list of grenache wines made in 2015.


Grenache in Piekenierskloof – pic from

In case you don’t know where Piekenierskloof is, it’s a most beautiful area a few hours’ drive up the West Coast, between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam. According to Charles Back’s press release, “The region took its name from the piekeniers (foot soldiers) who were located at the top of the pass of the mountain to protect the livestock in that part of the old Cape Colony from theft.” A different political perspective would say, of course, that the piekeniers were the military force supporting the settlers who were were occupying the land that had long been home to hunter-gatherers and pastoralists (ie, the “thieves”, many of whom suffered major losses of their own cattle, as well as space, to the settlers).

19 thoughts on “Charles Back takes over Piekenierskloof grenache

  1. Dear Tim

    The use of the word revolution in our press release was intended to add some spice to our heading. The intention was to elicit response. Thank you for obliging.

    The only accurate part of your blog post is your reference to the origin of the name Piekenierskloof. I know your version well, but my PR representatives got their facts muddled and I didn’t check the release before distribution.

    As I’m sure you and most others in the industry know, I’m a ‘backroom boy’ who tries to avoid the limelight and simply get on with the job. Normally I wouldn’t respond to articles like yours, but for the sake of clarity I would like to set the record straight.

    The press release included a paragraph stating my credentials. These are drawn from articles written by the likes of Tim Atkin, James Molesworth and Michael Fridjhon. In no way do I see myself in this light. The claim I can however make is that I discovered old vine Grenache in Piekenierskloof in 1998 when we included it in our first bottle of Goats Do Roam. This can be verified with the growers or with SAWIS. ‘Leading the way’ is clearly not a ‘travesty of the truth’. I’m sure you have misquoted Ken Forrester, as he surely would have known that I was there six vintages before he arrived.

    Just for the record – we’ve included the same Grenache in our 2002 Spice Route Malabar. It has also been an important component in our Spice Route Chakalaka blend from its inception in 2007. As far as our ability to extract quality, I’m not going to bore you with all our accolades, medals and star ratings – the importance of which I usually downplay.

    Since its maiden vintage, the Spice Route Chakalaka has always scored 90 plus in Wine Spectator magazine, as well as a five star rating in the Decanter. There is no need for me to list the accolades of the Malabar. The reason I always downplay ratings is that, although they can be an indication of quality, they can also be so subjective. Take for instance the five star rating that the Fairview La Capra Chenin Blanc obtained in the Decanter’s last feature on South African Chenin. This is our second label and it beat all other Chenin producers.

    I bought only 50% of the Citrusdal co-op in 2006. This has been quite a revolution. It has reinvented itself from an almost bankrupt facility to one of South Africa’s leading exporters of Fairtrade wine. The remaining 50% is held by the farmers. It has always been our intention to utilize our biggest viticultural resource, old vine Grenache, for the benefit of the region and its people.

    To protect the vineyards, we have to ensure that the farmers are adequately remunerated, or the treasures will be uprooted to make way for higher yielding vineyards or citrus.

    We decided that all old vine Grenache should not sell for less than R8000 per ton, irrespective of who the buyer might be. This includes Citrusdal winery.

    I can understand why some wine producers are unhappy, as they were paying as little as R4500 per ton which, if converted, would equate to approximately R4.82 per bottle for the raw product. Most of our farmers on Piekenierskloof are Fairtrade accredited. We are working tirelessly to get all the producers on board. Personally, it has been very rewarding to see the tangible benefits, which filter through to the community. The challenge facing Fairtrade is that it is normally equated with inexpensive quaffing wine. Our mission is to change this perception, and the only way we can do this is by improving quality and promoting our USP. Old vine Grenache certainly fits the bill.

    We recognise the contribution that the other producers have made in showcasing the inherent quality of this region and of Grenache. These producers also help build the value of the region, and we therefore did not cut the supply of the grapes to them. The raw product will now cost them approximately R8.50 per bottle – granted a small increase but a small price to pay to sustain a natural viticultural heritage.

    Sorry, you were right on one other score – these grapes are cheaper in my hands. Realistically, what would I charge for a bottle of wine if the juice, the most important component, only cost R8.50?

    ‘Rich’, as you refer to me, would make me a true revolutionary – most probably the only person who could have become so out of wine. It is this remark that really annoys me, as my lovely wife Diane has spent a very disappointing day shopping as my credit card maxed out on her. She certainly would have got a lot further if I bought juice at R4.82 a bottle and sold it for between R250 and R300.

    I trust that you will be joining us at our Spice Route shindig next month, where you can taste that we are indeed post-revolutionists, as far as the Swartland is concerned. We’ll let the wine do the talking.


  2. Thanks Charles. I see I must (and do) apologise for calling you a “newcomer” to the area – I should have checked, and found out about your previous use of grapes from here. Nonetheless, the main point of my article was to challenge the statement that this is “a largely undiscovered viticultural resource”, which it very clearly isn’t. The press statement says that you are now leading the way, not that you did once led the way, which is a very different thing. I congratulate you on paying well for these grapes (as some of the current buyers do too).

    If grapes are still going to be available to other producers, I will be pleased, and perhaps we will not lose some lovely expressions of Piekenierskloof grenache. I have been informed, however, that other buyers may no longer deal directly with the farmers, but have to make contracts with you! (with Citrusdal Wines, that is). And furthermore, these producers will no longer be able to control the viticulture of the blocks they wish to contract,as has been the case in the past. It will be all round interesting to see what happens.

  3. By the way, Charles – I was distressed to hear of your wife’s shopping failures and your poverty. Perhaps the correct credit card was left in your other Porsche? In fact, I didn’t even know you used credit cards at all – I’m sure I’d heard that the Porsche, for example, was paid for with cash? And probably at least some of your farms were too….

  4. The real question is this, are you ,Tim James taking Charles Back up on his invitation to be at his shindig next month ? This is where the rubber hits the road. Step up or shut the fuck up is the way I see this ”call out” by Charles Back. I would love to read your assessments on these old vine Grenache from Piekenierskloof ,do us proud and go and taste these wines .

  5. Riaan, I will look forward to getting an invitation to the shindig, but I think it’s a Spice Route affair that Charles is referring to, and that he thinks will persuade me that they’re relevant to the revolution in the Swartland. It’s a few years since I’ve tasted all the Spice Route wines, so I would hope to find that interesting – I’ve always admired the Chenin Blanc.

    And I shall certainly go out of my way to try the Grenache wines that the Citrusdal Winery will produce – as well as the other ambitious products of that cellar. It will be a very worthwhile project, of that I am sure, (especially as it will be accompanied by the social commitment that Charles has always genuinely shown), and if it doesn’t come at the cost of some other great wines from Sadie et al, much to be welcomed.

  6. I don’t feel the love. First you got Di to believe that I was ‘rich’, and now you’ve got her looking through Fairview’s stores for hidden Porsches.

    You’re really making my life more difficult that it ought to be, as I am just in the process of buying another farm. The seller and I have gone through a considerable negotiation process and I’ve managed to secure a very favourable structured payment plan with him. I hope he doesn’t pick up your blog, in which it states that I am supposed to have bought farms with all this cash of mine. I can’t tell you where the farm is yet, as I see that there are many dangers involved in starting a revolution.

    Back to old vine Grenache on Piekenierskloof – what this whole story is supposed to be about. Neil Ellis set the tone with the price he pays for the grapes for his Grenache. Using this as a benchmark, the producers at our last board meeting agreed to standardize the price at R8000 a ton. I am happy to hear that Eben Sadie, Neil Ellis and Solms Delta are still using these grapes.

    The beauty of old vines is that they require minimum manipulation, and they are currently being treated in the same way as they always have been in the past. All that is required of the other winemakers is that they pay the fair price of R8000 a ton. They can obtain their grapes by contacting Jaco at Citrusdal Cellars to make the necessary arrangements.

  7. Mr Back can blah blah blah away but revolutionaries like Sadie et al will keep on pushing the envelope… why, because their feet are firmly on the ground. just by looking at the spice route monstrosity one can get a sense of what this man is about.

  8. ..and by the way, by writing this blog Tim James has done his job, and he has done it darn good.
    Riaan, waar het jy so lelik leer praat?

  9. On the matter of prices. Aren’t farmers price-takers? and not price-makers? I known that to be case in the stone fruit industry. Does it work differently for the grape producers?

  10. Interesting point, Hennie. Some of the keen buyers of old-vine grapes pay a lot to persuade the farmers to keep their uneconomic vineyards, or pay more to prune for reduced yields, have an influence on other aspects of viticulture, take the particular rows they want, etc. To an extent it is this process that allows farmers to join together and make a minimum price – like here, though it remains unclear exactly what is going on in Piekenierskloof.

    • I guess money talks. But if I was a farmer and my grapes went into Soldaat or Vriesenhof, I would feel pretty good about that, and would stay loyal to my winemaker. and not let a few Rand more or politics spoil everything. Perhaps im being idealistic.

  11. I don’t even want to know what those grapes would go for in Napa or Oakville or any other major wine region[land prices going for 1-2million $ per acre, half hectar, in California these days] . In Mr. Backs defence,paying more might help sustain these old sources, otherwise no grapes eventually for all.

    Why do some of these small producers not have contracts in place to prevent these troubled times to secure their grape sources especially rare old vine Grenache in South Africa.? I do believe that these vineyard owners are laughing all the way to the bank, less than 20 years ago they couldn’t give these grapes away for free ,or more than likely hidden under Cinsaut oppie parsbak Kooperasie to vir R1500.What a turn of faith. Today it’s a peasant grape but tomorrow it’s La Crau en Henri Bonneau is neighbor.

  12. Hell what a PR and Blog….and the only thing remaining is…….the producer still for 8000/ton is paid to little!……old vines require a hell of a lot more attention! Believe me, those that farm old bush vines are of a different nature an dee do believe they are worth a whole lot more, but that can only go as far as cashflow goes…..on a farm government eats what you do more, and your workforce needs to be well look after, they work extremely hard! So cheers to the guys selling their wines for over 250 / btl and only paying the producer less than than 10 rand per btl… guys should start paying 20 – 30 rand a btl and more to sustain your sources, forget the fancy and expensive packaging, where you will always be willing to pay a hell lot more. Start protecting your sources!!

  13. Dear Tim,
    Signal Hill was the first to release Grenache from Piekenierskloof. We released our white and red grenache from this ward since 2002, giving us a unique insight, along with Citrusdal cellar, because we had to get the grapes through them. In the old days I paid R4500 per ton for old Grenache, and some might say it was cheap but marketing South African Grenache then was more than a mission. When prices for old grenache moved much higher under the demand from other newcomers in the Grenache game, I decided to withdraw and focus on my French grenache that I was then paying R3500 per ton. It made more sense to me at that time. To make great wines Grenache has to be old, and the price of 8000 rand per ton is probably barely covering the cost of these low yield vineyards. As the first historical advocate of this grape in South Africa, I can only rejoice myself to see that the market is slowly opening itself to a grape that can be a real answer to quality sustainable viticulture in SA, due to local conditions and global warming. Winemakers should not complain if the farmers get paid a little more for having protected our patrimony. We all benefit from it.

  14. Dear Tim

    “People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbours”,thus Mariann Evans maintened a almost two centuries ago.
    Writing is a way of enlarging our sympathies and of challenging boundaries and preconceptions.
    This to say: would you accept Charles’s invitation and take a closer, humane look into what you have been so writing about, you would perhaps amend a few amongst your assumptions…and your article wouldn’t leave a bitter after taste, but the challenging awareness of what change and revolutions of any kind entail.

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