In It For The Long Run | Backsberg Family Wines Harvest Report 2023

Behind closed cellar doors, the efforts of our recent harvest are almost at full circle, with wine now going into barrel and soils being replenished in the vineyards, allowing for slight pause – a moment to catch our breath and reflect on all things harvest 2023.

Harvest is not for the faint-hearted.

It takes grit, late nights, and unlike some may think, more cups of coffee than wine to get through. Unlike most jobs, where work is a steady marathon, winemaking is like a 100-metre sprint. You train all year to be the best, and when the starting gun goes off, you have to give it your all – and then some. For Alicia Rechner, Winemaker at Backsberg, this year was a true test of her – and her team’s – metaphorical fitness.

The Run Up

Ask any winemaker: there’s certainly no denying climate change is happening in the vineyards. The weather leading up to harvest 2023 included a huge spectrum of conditions, including unusual late summer flooding at the end of 2022, intense heat waves in January and cool days in February. “Luckily, South African winemakers are a resilient bunch, and the vineyards actually benefited from the mixed bag of weather arriving at just the right time to ensure perfectly ripe grapes,” opens Alicia.

The start of harvest season is always an eagerly anticipated moment, and this year was no exception. With a particularly hot December in the Winelands, the team braced themselves for an early start to the harvest, preparing to begin on the 24th of January. However, Mother Nature had other plans, surprising everyone with downpours that caused a one-day delay. This meant that harvest o

Alicia reflects: “It was a joyous occasion as the team gathered together to begin the long-awaited process of transforming our hard-earned grapes into the wines that will grace tables and palates across the world. The early start to the harvest also bodes well for the quality of this year’s vintage.”

Secateurs & Stamina

The first vineyard to be harvested was an exceptional block of Chenin Blanc grown along the slopes of the Helderberg mountain. Backsberg is developing more cool, high-elevation sites like this, where the vines yield beautifully concentrated berries that deliver a powerful flavour punch. Together with our head viticulturalist, Alicia has been working closely with partner growers across a range of mountain vineyards:

“High-altitude vineyards are excellent because as the vines ascend, they encounter cooler temperatures. Take the 2022 Backsberg Pumphouse Shiraz, for example. The vines benefit from the cool Atlantic breeze, which ensures optimal ripening of the berries. Plus, the trellised vines are positioned for maximum sun exposure, and carefully considered drip irrigation helps develop ideal flavour,” she explains. This combination of factors can lead to more concentrated flavours, higher acidity, and more tannins in the grapes, resulting in wines with greater complexity, structure, and ageing potential.

As the harvest progressed from late January into February, Alicia and the team rejoiced for the reprieve from the sweltering temperatures. “You never know what may happen. Hail, frost, heat waves! Luckily, the moderate temperatures of February stabilised the acidity and sugar levels in the grapes, making them ripe for picking,” smiles Alicia.

As she reflects on the harvest that was, she shares an anecdote that occurred on Valentine’s Day. “Our Smuggled Vines Chardonnay arrived in a golden-ripe state on the 13th of February. I couldn’t wait to work with it!”. Yet, in a rather unromantic moment, the cellar team encountered an unexpected problem with the press. “The vacuum pump failed, so we had to turn to a traditional basket press, which required many hours of labour. While the experience was certainly one that I would never wish to repeat, you can’t argue with the fact that wine is my one true love!” laughs Alicia.

The Finish Line

The last lug box of grapes were brought in at the end of March, with pressing continuing into mid-April. Overall, the average yield for the white grapes was 10T/ha, while the red wine yields were lower this year at 8T/h. Despite load-shedding causing disruptions in irrigation schedules, the team worked tirelessly to accommodate the influx of fruit and maintain consistent quality.

“Due to the fast-paced nature of the fruit ripening process and the unpredictability of the volumes, it’s always a juggle to find enough space to accommodate the fruit while keeping the cellar operational at all times!” shares Alicia. To overcome these challenges, the team had to plan well ahead and work hard to crush, press, and pack finished wines together in full tanks as soon as possible. “Overall, it was a labour-intensive and creatively challenging harvest season, but I’m excited to see how the wines develop over time,” ends Alicia.

The truth is that no race is easy. Whether it’s your first time out or you’re a seasoned runner, every run is a challenge. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Yet, as the results start to come in, it’s already clear that Alicia and the Backberg team, like all good athletes, took deep breaths and maintained a steady pace.

Adding to the harvest highs, in a recent achievement, Backsberg has just been awarded the world-renowned PAS 2060:2014 specification for carbon neutrality. This means that all wines from the 2022 vintage onwards have undergone a rigorous third-party verification process to earn this significant accreditation. Another first for the South African wine industry and true testament of the dedication towards sustainable farming and reducing carbon footprint.

Here’s to harvest 2023, creating wines for good and crossing the finish line like champions.

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Sharese Hunt

Love all things wine-related.

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