Consciously Crafted: Backsberg Estate Sets the Standard for Sustainable Winemaking
The family-owned estate of Backsberg is committed to producing high-quality wine while making use of sustainable growing and production practices.
Anyone who has driven the Paarl Wine Route visiting its many estates will have seen the sign to Backsberg Estate Cellars. It's well worth taking this turn, because you can expect to be greeted with a marvellous wine farm, steeped in history, pride and an admirable commitment to sustainable practices.
A family-owned estate, the farm in Paarl was bought by a political and religious refugee from Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century. He set the tone for the Back family who, through the generations, have shaped it into the prosperous estate it is today. It's currently owned by Michael Back and his son Simon, and at Backsberg, the family continues to innovate, ensuring they remain at the forefront of high-quality winemaking practices, while being as sustainable as possible.
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Ahead of the Curve
Before the latest Western Cape drought, when sustainability was at the back of most people's minds, Backsberg was already forging a path as a conscious estate. In 2006, the estate was certified carbon neutral: this means its carbon emissions are balanced out by funding an equivalent amount of carbon savings elsewhere. At the time, it was the only farm in South Africa to be certified as such, and one of only three wineries globally.
This was achieved through years of meticulous research that led to an application of methods to reduce and offset the wine farm’s emissions. When we visited the estate, the amount of effort that went into getting the farm to this point is very evident. There are simple solutions such as using energy efficient lighting and downscaling to smaller tractors and vehicles. And then there are also the more 'hidden' practices that make a world of difference. These include using lightweight glass bottles and planting thousands of trees on the estate.
The trees make for a glorious sight when you are walking through the vineyards, and when you learn about the time, effort and intention that went into planting them, you appreciate them so much more.
Never a place to be complacent, Backsberg is now in the midst of a five-year biofuel project, with the hope of becoming an entirely off-the-grid operation. One of the ways it is working towards this is by creating its own compost on the farm using plant materials from their own and surrounding farms.
Protecting the Environment
Being carbon neutral is just one of the ways that Backsberg Estate Cellars cares for the environment. It's also a certified WWF Conservation Champion. This is the result of having several initiatives that work towards protecting the environment. The estate has set aside a portion of land to protect the endangered fynbos biome that thrives there, it has an insect predator programme to reduce the need for chemical sprays, and it has started a queen bee project to protect the local bee population and promote pollination.
As with many farms in the Western Cape, water conservation is a big priority for Backsberg, especially since the drought. It has taken careful measures to decrease its water consumption, including using borehole water, as well as drip irrigation and varispeed pumps to ensure minimal evaporation and better control of water usage. A mulching program has also been put in place to reduce weeds and evaporation, thus creating cooler soil and nurturing more microbial life.
Fourth-generation owner Simon Back says, 'Ultimately, our goal at Backsberg is to produce wines that are first and foremost delicious, while leaving our land, people and community better off than before. We hope, too, that our commitment to sustainability can inspire others to do the same.'
'For us, sustainability means operating under what we call an umbrella of care: care for the environment, for our product and for the people who work for us. South Africa unfortunately has a troubled sociopolitical past, and this is something my family has always acknowledged,' adds Back.
The complex sociopolitical past of the Western Cape is something that the estate aims to address through education. During the apartheid years, Michael Back ran a night school, which was illegal at the time. Since then, the company has funded over 100 years of tertiary education for disadvantaged students, some of them the children of Backsberg’s workers.
Running a profitable wine estate is difficult, and doing it consciously is even more challenging. But it is a challenge Backsberg says it is always willing to face head on.
'Although staying on the frontier of sustainable practices can be challenging, it is a challenge we gladly accept and we remain committed to doing what we believe is right,' says Back.
And all the work that goes into being sustainable has definitely not hindered the quality of Backsberg's wine. In fact, it elevates it. From the way the grapes are farmed to the bottles the wines come in, it's very clear that every step of the winemaking process at Backsberg is consciously thought and carefully crafted.