Wines of South Africa - SA Wine Legend: Michael Back

Simon & Michael Back
Simon & Michael Back
Michael, Jill & Simon
Michael, Jill & Simon

A recently published article from Wines of South Africa, about Backsberg's very own Michael Back.

“I’m a grandson of a refugee,” says patriarch of Backsberg Estate Cellars, Michael Back.  “C.L Back arrived in Cape Town at the beginning of the last century fleeing persecution in Lithuania. He got on the first boat he could, and only once it set sail did he find out where it was going.” 

That image of high seas turmoil seems very far away here in the graceful gardens of Backsberg in the Simondium ward just outside of Paarl. But the past is very much alive in the eyes of Michael, third generation of the farm. 

“When he got here my grandfather worked as a dockhand on a reclamation programme around what today is the Waterfront. He was then a bicycle delivery boy, which eventually led to him buying a butcher shop at Paarl’s train station,” continues Michael. “The story goes that one morning someone arrived at the shop and asked if he would be interested in buying a farm. He was. And so he sold up the butcher’s and bought the farm in 1916; and here we all are today.”

Michael’s son, Simon, the fourth generation at the farm has joined us at the oak table. Simon has taken over the running of the farm from his dad. 

“It’s very important for the head of the family to handover responsibilities and to show trust to the next generation,” says Michael. 

“I’m trying to get through the day without making a single decision,” he says laughing. 

“I have lived here all my life. It’s exciting place, nothing static, nothing stationary. We change and move every day.”

Michael is famous for challenging conventions. In 2015 he was awarded Lifetime Achievement Award at The Drinks Business Green Awards ceremony for his contribution to the environment, sustainability, ethical practices and education. At the same ceremony Backsberg was also awarded the Amorim Sustainability Award for Wine.

In 2006, Backsberg became the first carbon neutral winery in South Africa and the third in the world.

Not only has he always been a maverick in the wine business, but in life too. He grew up on Backsberg, and attended local school, Paarl Boys. Though top of the class for Maths and Science, Michael says: “I didn’t enjoy school. I don’t like anything that controls me.”

That being said, it was his adeptness with numbers that saw him in 1974 tutoring his future wife Jill in Maths; they have been inseparable ever since.

Michael joined his father at the farm in 1976, after graduating in Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University. Michael has great respect for his dad, Sydney Back, even though as he admits they were polar opposites. “I’m an introvert, dad was very outgoing, a big people’s person. 

His father was no stranger to awards either, earning the Jan Smuts Trophy for overall performance at the SA Young Wine Show in 1978. 

“He was an honest, decent man; a person without second agendas. He had a lot of vision.”

As has Michael. Along with sustainability, his major passion in life has been social justice. During the apartheid years he and Jill ran a night school in Kayamandi, an underprivileged area outside of Stellenbosch. “To be a teacher at our school the only thing you needed was passion. We had no money, no support. The only entity that gave us a bean was Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery.

“We had to meet exam invigilators incognito under bridges along the N1,” he shakes his head at the memory.

To this day the estate has an active bursary scheme, and has financed tertiary education for the children of employees as well as further afield.

“We’ve funded in total more than 125 years of tertiary education. Setting people free feeds the soul. And that’s what life for me really is about. To share and contribute to the betterment of others, that’s what success means.”

Another important moment was the Freedom Road wines housing project. The endeavour saw permanent workers of Backsberg moving off the farm and into their own houses. There were two wines released under the Freedom Road label in 1998 sold primarily to the UK supermarket group Tesco.

The name Freedom Road was inspired by the title of Former President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The first bottle released was signed by Mr Nelson Mandela at the Tynhuis in Cape Town. 

“Come see the bottle,” Simon enthuses. We leave his dad for a moment. Inside the thick walls of the cellar and tasting room, are various alcoves carved into the stone, filled with memories of time gone past. The over 100-years of farming can be felt here, lying densely in the atmosphere. He shows me the signed bottle. I take a walk further along, peering into the dioramas along the passage. In one there are pictures of C.L Back and Sydney Back at Cape Town harbour, in the process of loading tankers of Backsberg wine for shipment to France where there was a shortage of wine after the 2nd World War.

Back out in the sunshine I reflect it may have been his grandfather who planted the grapes, but it was Michael who sowed the seeds of sustainability in the Cape winelands, effecting massive change not only in his backyard, but also across the winelands. Backsberg is a pioneer in the WWF’s Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, playing a key role in conservation of fynbos in the Cape. 

“It’s hard to understand what sustainability is. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of how to do things differently,” he says.

For Backsberg it starts with viticulture. “Initially we used the vertical shoot positioning system, but we discovered the Lyre System was a much superior way to trellis vines,” says Simon.

He grabs my notebook and starts drawing the system by way of explanation.

 “The vines grow upwards, allowing greater air circulation and sun penetration. Importantly it provides greater canopy space, enabling larger yields on the same hectare of land. Added to the space saving there is less driving up and down between the rows, which in turn leads to lower fuel usage. With less driving there is also less soil compaction, which enables greater vine growth. Plus this system uses less drip irrigation, which cuts down on our water usage. 

“My dad’s always been about conservation of resources. He’s never been one to waste. Climate change was a hot topic for us in the early 2000s. I have a memory of my dad screening Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth for the staff.

“Everybody thought I was cuckoo, more cuckoo than usual,” laughs Michael.  

“What’s important is the concept of reducing ownership. I don’t want to own anything more than what is essential. At home if we have a big towel, we cut it in half. You can actually make a big difference with small incremental changes.”

He’s made changes both big and small. An important part of being carbon neutral has been the annual Tree Planting Programme. Thousands of trees have been planted at Backsberg and in the nearby Klapmuts community.  

“I like to challenge assumptions, ask yourself ‘why do we do it like this’? 

This thinking led him at one point to using the nearby dam to regulate fermentation temperatures. “I nearly stuffed up the tanks, there was sand in the jackets,” he laughs. 

More successful attempts at offsetting emissions has been through reducing fuel and electricity usage, such as a move to smaller tractors and farm vehicles as well as changing vineyard layout to reduce tractor mileage, reconfiguring winery cooling and fermentation control and LED lighting installations.  

Packaging has also been considered with the move to bottling in lightweight glass and using recycled cartons. They also have a range of wines called Tread Lightly, which is bottled entirely in PET. 

“My generation owns the problem of the environmental mess that we have created, and therefore has to come up with solutions,” says Michael. 

There’s a constant flux of ideas and initiatives at this historic Cape farm. Backsberg is currently in partnership with the German government around a biomass boiler, which has been installed at the winery. The boiler is connected to a heat exchange chiller, which allows for refrigeration. The boiler runs on waste wood chips. In addition they have started to grow biomass crops.

“This is not just a wine farm, but also an experiment in social justice and sustainability,” says Michael with a big smile. 

The fifth generation has now arrived, in the form of Elijah, Simon’s son. “As soon as my dad heard the news of the birth, he put a baby barrel up at the entrance,” says Simon. Simon is referring to the white arch at the entrance to the estate, topped with four barrels representing the four generations that have watched over the farm; now there is a mini barrel, alongside them.

From one grandfather to the next; Michael Back has ensured his grandson a future at Backsberg; safe in good, green hands. His generational debt paid.

- Malu Lambert

Credit: Wines of south Africa