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south african wine, part 8
Charles Back and Fairview

I reckon Charles Back (above) is one of the heroes of South African wine. With his Fairview, Goats du Roam, Spice Route and latterly Charles Back wines he’s managed to make popular, flavour-full wines that have a strong brand identity, are made in reasonable quantities, and which don’t sacrifice quality.  

Charles was raised on the Fairview farm, which his family had bought in the late 1930s. He was trained in oenology and vitictulture at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch, and then he returned to Fairview in 1978. It was in 1981 that he built the trademark goat’s tower (right) that has become Fairview’s symbol, and which in time was to lead to the wonderful Goats du Roam name.

One of the keys to Fairview’s vision was to break free of the predominant estate model for quality South African wines. By owning vineyards in Stellenbosch, Darling and the Swartland Charles has access to a wide range of climates and soils from which to forge his wines. He’s also made a shift away from the typical South African focus on Bordeaux red varieties towards those of the South of France, which he thinks are better suited to the Cape’s various terroirs.  

Fairview’s Paarl property has a sizeable 125 hectares of vines. In the warmer, drier Swartland area he has another 125 hectares (the farm is called Klein Amoskuil), planted with varieties such as Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Grenache and Viogner. Much of this is used to make the Spice Route wines, although some of their grapes find their way to Fairview.

The 'view' in Fairview

Spice Route is an interesting project. Initially conceived as a partnership between Back, along with Gyles Webb (Thelema), John Platter (wine writer) and Jabulani Ntshangase, it is now fully owned by Back. The first winemaker, from 1998–2001 was Eben Sadie (who we’ll meet later in this series). Current winemaker is Charl du Pessis.

Back also has 40 hectares in the cool-climate Darling hills, focusing on white varieties. Finally, there are another 50 hectares in the low-lying foothills of the Helderberg Mountain in Stellenbosch, mainly planted to Bordeaux-style red varieties. In addition to these vineyards, Back also buys some grapes in from here and there.

The team at Fairview: Anthony Jaeger (winemaker) is left, with Charl du Plessis (winemaker
at Spice Route third from left, talking to Charles.

I don’t know whether it was for the cameras, but despite his evident success, Charles Back seemed quite negative about the way wine was going, with the increased dominance of cheap, big, mediocre brands in the marketplace.

He says that in the UK he’s decided to pull his Fairview wines from the supermarkets, reposition them with Liberty and aiming them at the on-trade. He’s taken Goats du Roam out of this package and he’ll be handling these himself. The current biggest customer is Majestic; he may target the chain restaurants.

Spice Route Sauvignon Blanc 2005 Darling
2nd year vines. Very full, grassy nose – full, vivid and with green pepper notes, and a hint of tinned pea. Quite rich herb-tinged fruit on the palate which is pure and full with a grassy edge. A nice modern style. Very good 82/100

Fairview Viognier 2005 Paarl
Some tank-fermented, some in barrels. Lovely nose of ripe tropical peachy fruit with a nice melony character, together with a hint of vanilla. The palate is quite full with lovely plump fruit but it’s not over the top. Peachy and full with some citrussy freshness on the finish. Very good+ 89/100

Fairview Rosé 2005 Paarl
Half Syrah from saignee (vat bleeding), half Gamay that was dedicated to rosé production and picked greener. Full with a touch of freshness to the fruit. Nice weight. Dry with a bit of grip and quite food friendly. Very good+ 86/100

Spice Route Mourvèdre 2004 Malmesbury
From unirrigated vines in Swartland. Spice Route’s 18 ha Mourvèdre vineyard is the largest planting of this useful grape in South Africa. Lovely vivid intense nose which is spicy, with dense jammy raspberry and blackberry fruit. The palate is generous, open and fruity with an interesting spicy character. Accessible stuff with lovely fruit. Very good+ 86/100

Charles Back Cool Climate Shiraz 2004
From a new cool-climate site, this is seriously good. Lovely nose of beautifully pure black fruits – sweet, pure and spicy. The palate shows wonderfully defined black fruits with good structure and acidity. Very good/excellent 92/100

Fairview Solitude Shiraz 2003 Paarl
Fine, expressive nose with warm, spicy, perfumed dark fruits. Complex and savoury. The palate is ripe and generous with supple red and black fruits, great concentration, and sweet fruit. Spicy, fine tannic structure. A really impressive wine that bears its weight and ripeness without every going over the top. Very good/excellent 93/100

Spice Route Petite Syrah 2005 (cask sample)
Vivid bright fruit. The liqueur-like palate has lovely purity of dark fruits. Savoury, grainy, smooth tannins and a lovely smoky finish. Lovely. 89–91/100

Spice Route Malabar 2002
This is the top wine, and the blend changes with each vintage. This year it is Merlot, Syrah and Grenache. Sweet, pure, elegant ripe fruits on the nose. The palate is concentrated and sper-smooth with pure liqueur-like fruit. A big, accessible style with lots of weight: not for wimps. Very good/excellent 91/100

Fairview La Beryl Rouge 2004
This is made from Syrah grapes which have been dried on racks for a few weeks. The normal yield of wine from a ton of grapes is about 700 litres, but here it was 125 litres. Perfumed nose is quite delicate with sweet fruit. The palate is sweet and full with lovely spicy, chocolatey rich fruit, nice tannins and good acidity. Unusual and delicious. Excellent 95/100

Wines tasted 12/05
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