Backsberg Winemaker nominated for the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year

Backsberg Winemaker nominated for the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year

[I am guilty of not having written this up sooner! Tomorrow sees Alicia being interviewed by Wines of South Africa’s New York Office – which you can follow here – so that was good ‘inspiration’– SB.]

Everyone at the farm was thrilled with the news that Alicia, our winemaker, was nominated for the prestigious Diners Club Winemaker of the Year 2014, for the Family Reserve White Blend 2014. This unique blend is something really special: it is made up of Roussanne 34%, Chardonnay 33%, and Sauvignon Blanc 33%.

We only produced 150 cases of the wine, so it is seriously limited. Alicia vinified each cultivar seperately in new, French Oak Barrels, before blending. Fermentation took place in barrel, and the lees were stirred for 6 months. The final wine was then bottled directly out of barrel.  The wine delivers a wonderful medley of apricot, peach and aniseed aromas combined with vanilla undertones on the palate and a creamy, long-lasting finish. Delicious! (email us for more information on purchasing this wine.)

Backsberg has had a long history with the Diners Club awards, with my grandfather Sydney winning the award in 1987 for his Chardonnay 1986. So, it is great to be in the mix again.

Getting back to Alicia, when the awards were announced late last year, scarcely a day went by without someone calling or mailing to congratulate us on the news. Diners Club were running a number of TV spots, so Alicia was headline news.    

Diners Club ran a number of interviews with Alicia, and below I have adapted one such interview:

1. How/when did you first become interested in winemaking?
Growing up, we had Portuguese neighbours with this incredible underground cellar. There was always an amazing smell of wax and wine with old barrels inside. I was fascinated. During my first year at university, I was reminded of this experience when I stumbled upon Oenology. The rest is history.

2. Tell me a little bit about your career in the wine industry?
Twenty years ago I started Oenology studies at Stellenbosch University. My first harvest, in 1997, was at Rooiberg Cellars in Robertson. My second harvest, in 1998, was at Stellenzicht in Stellenbosch. These two vintages gave me a very good idea of wine areas in South Africa in two very different-sized wineries.

In 1999, I had my first harvest in Australia. I spent the next 3 years working between Australia and Germany, doing 2 vintages a year. This gave me incredible experience in wine making and learning how to deal with different climates, fruit and cultures.

In 2002 I had my first harvest in Backsberg’s cellar. I had to learn to not just manage a harvest, but a pack store and budget! In 2008 my family and I decided we needed a change of scenery, and we moved to Australia, as my husband is Australian.

The move turned into more of a visit, and soon we came back to South Africa. On returning we made our own wine, produced in a fancy garage, and I worked for wine giants Douglas Green Bellingham and Fairview, before returning to Backsberg in 2012.

3. You took a 4-year break from Backsberg from 2008 – 2012. What made you return, and had the winery changed at all in your absence?
I was asked to return and simply could not say no. It was like walking into a complete different place. There had been some major renovations. It took me a while to sort out the ideal cellar team and for us all to understand how to use the “old cellar gone new”, to its best advantage. Now, however, we are in a great groove.

4. You spent some time working overseas – how, if at all, did this change your approach to winemaking?
Working with inconsistent and varying weather conditions and vintage situation was great experience, and gave me the tools to work with curveballs!

5. What is your philosophy when it comes to winemaking?
Fundamentally, wine needs to taste good. When you taste it, you must want to enjoy the whole bottle. Wine must be made faultless, without mistakes.

I like to hear what people that only drink wine to enjoy it say about a wine, I always know what they mean when they describe what they do or don’t like and most things a winemaker is able to change. I love making wine people enjoy to drink.

6. Has anyone (or perhaps a place) been a significant mentor/inspiration to you in your journey as a winemaker?
I have great memories of at least one or two people in every place I worked that made it possible for me to learn. When I initially came to Backsberg in 2002, I was very fortunate to work with some of the smartest wine-knowledgeable people I have ever met. The combination of Zelma Long, Rodney Easthope and Michael Fridjhon, set a high winemaking standard for life. When I was moving around between 2008 and 2012, I had some significant encounters with top winemakers. I think I actually suffered from information overload, but loved every minute of it. I am quite easily inspired, but very, very lucky to have known and worked with some great people.

7. What do you enjoy most about the winemaking process?
Deciding when to pick the grapes and how to handle them once they arrive. I can make all these decisions while I am looking at the grapes on the vine. Then I also love fermentation, standing in a quiet winery at night, and hearing the tanks bubble. I absolutely love bottling a wine that I am pleased with.

8. What are some of the challenges when it comes to creating a great white blend?
You have to work the cultivars individually for quite a long time. Working in small batches is often hard in a bigger winery. The wine changes so much from harvest to maturation that it is very hard knowing how your blend would turn out if you blend too soon. I tried many blends and kept them in oak as a blend, but we still ended up blending a “new blend” from individual barrels. I don’t think you can make a proper white blend until the wine is not at least 5 months old in the oak. The patience to wait… this is the biggest challenge.

9. What makes the Backsberg Family Reserve 2014 special?
It is a very unusual blend. Cultivars were made separately and the blend was decided on in a blind tasting / blending. Once we worked out what actually went into the blend, I was surprised about the way our Rousanne turned out. We usually lead blends with Chardonnay. I also left some Sauvignon Blanc longer in oak for this purpose, something I would not usually do. So I was surprised at what made it into the blend and what did not. It is not obvious when you look at the separate wines, but once you start blending them, the whole structure can change. You can never tell what would happen before you start mixing and matching. It was just 6 barrels that were chosen. This is very special.

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