Backsberg’s viticulturist Talitha Venter talks all things wine, work, vines and varietals..
At Backsberg, we take great pride in every step of production. We are therefore very fortunate to have the talented and dedicated Talitha Venter heading up our viticultural team. We stole a moment out of her busy schedule to pick her brain…
Where did you study and how did your career begin?
I gained a BSc in Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University, graduating in 2009, and started my career as viticulturist at Thelema Mountain Vineyards in Stellenbosch the following year.
In 2013 I took up a technical position at Stellenbosch University to facilitate finishing my MSc in Viticulture and joined the Backsberg team in July 2016. I’m very happy here and glad to be back in the industry
At what point did you decide you wanted to work in wine?
I heard a talk on a Saturday morning radio program about the first “lady winemaker” when I was about 10 years old. That sparked an idea and the combination of working in agriculture, breaking barriers as a female and harvesting wine became very appealing.
What is your favorite thing about working in the vineyard?
It is incredibly rewarding when, at the end of a season, the grapes are finally in the cellar and you can see the magical wine they’ve produced – under the careful guidance of our winemaker, Alicia Rechner. Right up until the crop has been picked, it’s difficult to tell what we’re dealing with and this can be exciting and frightening at the same time. With the large amount that can go wrong during the growing season and ripening period, bringing in a successful crop is hugely satisfying.
My team also make every day special. As a whole we have a great spirit and there is always time for a joke and a good laugh. We aim to make work in the vineyard a pleasure and I think we achieve that pretty well. My team are a very special group of people – we’re like a Backsberg vineyard family.
What does your day-to-day actually look like?
Hmmm… That’s a tough one! The only thing that is certain is the time period in which my team members arrive and go home – in between that, anything can happen! Generally, we meet each morning to get ready for our daily tasks. I’ll then lead smaller groups to the various vineyards they will be working in. A quick explanation and demonstration and they’re on their way. I do pop in during the day to check up on their progress and to see if there are any problems, but I’m by no means a policeman breathing down their necks every second. I like to give my staff space to work. The rest of my time goes into more precise planning of viticultural activities, vineyard rounds and general farm management.
What is your favourite Backsberg wine?
For something light (or just because) the Sparkling Brut MCC, and for something a little bit more full-bodied to enjoy around a braai or with a good roast, the Klein Babylons Toren for sure.
What are some of the challenges you face this year?
This season was a difficult one – weather and water wise. After not having much winter rain, Mother Nature kept surprising us with uncharacteristic bits of late rain and very high temperatures late into the ripening period. We also had a few mechanical issues which made getting things done on time difficult, but we managed!
Do you think people considering winemaking have to get a formal education, or are there other ways in?
I think some formal education is necessary because the process of winemaking and grape growing has an undeniable element of science to it. There are, however, other courses and diplomas available outside of a university education. It’s crucial to acquire both the hands-on, practical experience one gains after having worked in the industry, as well as the theoretical knowledge which helps you to understand the why, the how and the timing of the tasks that need to be carried out.
What are the benefits of growing one’s own crops, rather than outsourcing the fruit?
Growing our own grapes allows us to know exactly what goes into them and helps us to identify which grapes will potentially be problematic, thus allowing us to prepare accordingly. Each vineyard has its own characteristics, and learning what these are, means understanding your crop. This is the key to achieving consistency. Outsourcing grapes or juice is essentially like opening up a lucky packet.
If you were a wine varietal, what would you be and why?
I don’t think I’d be just one! I would say Chenin Blanc with a dash of Hanepoot. The versatility of Chenin Blanc depicts my hands-on, nothing-I-can’t-do approach to life and then, just like Hanepoot, I have my own unique character. But don’t let the sweetness of Hanepoot fool you; “stook” it and you get a “mampoer” with a kick!
From the recent harvest, what are you most excited about?
The reds. The fantastic colour coming through from pump-overs looks very promising indeed. I’m also excited to see how the Pinotage from the young block will perform.
Do you have any advice for someone who thinks he or she may want to work with wine?
Think about it carefully. It’s not as glamorous as many make it out to be. The work is physically demanding in both the vineyard and the cellar – so be prepared for that. If you are not 100% sure, try to get an internship at a cellar during harvest before choosing what to study. Vineyard internships are difficult because the season is long and will allow you to the get a full picture of what goes into the work. Some days are tough and you may feel like giving up, but keep a spring in your step, a smile on your dial and just keep going – it’s worth it!
We’re delighted to have shared a piece of Talitha’s world with you and look forward to offering you the fruits of this year’s hard work and harvest on your next visit to the farm.