Back to the future

Fairview-SpicerouteShould I have been aware before last Saturday of what is going on at “Spice Route Paarl”, the latest incarnation of Charles Back’s remarkable cultural and marketing imagination? Feebly and inadequately, I did know that the Back empire, based at Fairview, had bought the neighbouring Seidelberg estate and was using it as a tasting room for the Spice Route Wine Compnay – given that people were more likely to sample its vinous delights there than on an obscure farm near obscure Malmesbury.

So my visit was a learning curve for me in that regard too – one to which I’ll return, after starting an account of my morning with Charles where it began, in the Fairview winery, with him, his winemaker (Anthony de Jager who’s been there for approaching two decades now), Anthony’s assistant winemaker (the impressive young Stephanie Betts), and an equally young French technology whizz (Pierre Maisonnave: dark and serious, with deepset eyes).

Charles had invited me out to show me the technology they’ve introduced over the past year or two to optimise ripeness and (as I understand it), help them to appreciate their different vineyards and what they can offer. The wine technology company is French – Vivelys Group – with an international spread (perhaps a branch in South Africa soon), and different sub-companies: the one called Dyostem is that working with Fairview.

I can’t pretend I understand all that Pierre and Stephanie showed and explained – the different computerised analyses they make and how they’re interpreted, and exactly how they complement traditional methods, above all experience, in understanding wines and vineyards – but it was interesting and convincing even to me. And if it interests and convinces someone with the experience of Anthony de Jager, and Charles Back who’s paying a lot for the privilege, that’s rather more significant.

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Charles among the fynbos and the grenache

This concept is really interesting to me: the idea that ripening is not a simple continuum from green to over-ripe, but that there are various “sweet spots” – which seem never to occur in the middle, grey area. I want to find out more about this.

There are winemaking as well as viticultural implications of the whole system being explored at Fairview – including the controlled use of micro-oxygenation (sending bubbles though the wine, basically) in some cases. It can apparently be useful even in some less-than-perfect sauvignon blancs, to improve the texture of the wine.

For me the most interesting part of it all was the breaking up of the ripening process into three “windows”: with the “fresh” phase at one end (less-ripe grapes: Craig Hawkins of Lammershoek is perhaps the local winemaker most interestingly involved at this end, I’d guess), and “ripe” at the other end (including the transition to over-ripe; and you don’t need to look hard to find winemakers everywhere pushing their luck in this area). In between is a grey zone, neither one thing or the other, and this French technology regards it as an area to be avoided, if possible (some vineyards can’t move beyond it, of course – but it’s important to know that).

Incidentally, mentioning that Charles is paying (as he says with a smile) Porsche-price for the Dyostem technology (the machinery itself is pretty unimpressive, really – basically a computer and a chamber in which 200 whole grapes at a time are analysed) reminds me of a part of my later discussion with him. He agreed with my suggestion of the usefulness of Fairview (in this case) being rich and successful enough to be able to afford to experiment – with always the possibility of failing and having wasted money that could ruin a less robust concern.

Fairview-vinesThis bit of discussion was prompted, in fact, by something very far from gee-whizz technology. Charles had been showing me a vineyard of which he’s particularly proud – mostly grenache, failry young (pics above & right). The rows of vines are interplanted with natural fynbos, which also creeps between the vines of course. The purpose of this is to encourage useful insects to thrive – insects which will prey upon enemies of the vine, thus avoiding the use of insecticides. Of course, herbicides are also. Fairview is pushing an organic approach in some of its vineyards more than I realised.

Another interesting fact I learned as we drove about, which didn’t surprise me given Charles’s longtime ethical concerns, was that all of his vineyards are Fairtrade-certified, although he doesn’t use the certification on most of his labels.

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But I’ve got sidetracked, and am about to exceed my self-imposed guideline of a maximum of 800 words. Briefly let me return to “Spice Route in Paarl”, which complements the extraordinary tourist success of Fairview – where, last Saturday, hundreds of people were tasting wine, sampling cheese, eating lunch, photographing the nonchalant goats on their  tower…. No doubt many of them will be going on – or had already visited – the Spice Route centre.

Forgive me for sounding like a guide book. If I do, I should sound like a rather amazed and impressed one. Spice Route is a sensual feast. Strung out in a large number and variety of buildings, so there’s never a crush, are an artisanal chocolatier (DV Chocolates); a craft brewery (Cape Brewing Company); the Barley and Biltong beer garden offering what you’d expect; a glass-blowing studio (Red Hot Glass); and Wilderer’s Distillery – where the best (in my opinion) range of grappas in South Africa is made, along with Helmut Wilderer’s other eaux de vie. There’s a restaurant there too. In all of these places, all the processes as well as the products are exposed. A larger craft centre is due for opening … sometime. Already it strikes me as a great place for an adults’ day out. More info here.

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Even a modest man couldn’t easily run an empire with this any more

Last time I spent time with Charles Back was four or five years ago, and I remember marvelling in an amused way at how he ran his empire from a small, old, decidely un-smart cellphone (I’ve just found the photo of it in his hands!). The empire has grown since then, and the phone is now decidedly smart. But Charles is the same quiet, unassuming, friendly presence containing a notable energy, imagination and attention to detail. And always with plenty to surprise.

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