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.”
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.
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.
Footnote: 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).