Fourth-generation farmer and vintner Stephan Basson from Babylon’s Peak in the Swartland is a rare breed – an inspired dreamer with huge ideals that somehow still manages to keep his nose to the grindstone and both his feet firmly on the ground. It’s not very often that you find these qualities wrapped up in one human, let alone one that stands at the helm of an enterprise that generates up to 400 000 bottles of wine every year all by his lonesome.
That’s right – Stephan Basson is the winemaker, farmer, manager, and nursery caretaker at Babylon’s Peak all rolled into one. Between his wife Ina and himself they keep an impressive amount of balls in the air, while raising a brood of three children to boot. We recently caught up with this highly-regarded vigneron to find out more about the farm’s history and their plans for the future.
The Basson family: A legacy a century in the making
The Basson family has been the owners and passionate stewards of Babylon’s Peak since 1919, when Stephan’s great-grandfather first purchased the property to start a farming enterprise.
“At that stage they grew plums, citrus and vineyards, with a big focus on wine grapes,” says Stephan. “There was also a small little cellar on the farm. Before my great-grandfather bought the farm, it belonged to Trix Pienaar’s family – her father was the dominee in town, and after we bought it from them they would still come for Sunday visits, often with a bunch of interesting actors in tow.”
“At this stage all the farms at the foot of the Paardeberg used to have their own small wineries. We made wine from the start, but not under our own brand. It was sold as a table white and a table red to friends, family and local clients, since we weren’t permitted to export yet.”
At the end of the Second World War, the recession meant trying circumstances for everyone the world over, including the farmers in South Africa. Production and sales had plummeted. This is when the producers around the Paardeberg and other areas of the Swartland came together to found Swartland Winery in 1948, which was known as Swartland Co-operative at that time.
“My grandfather was one of the founding members of the Co-op and was active on the board for many years. Once they got involved with this combined effort, the winemaking in the small cellar on the farm ceased, and all of our grapes were delivered to Swartland Co-op. As such, my father Kobus, the third generation Basson on the farm, was mainly a wine grower and served on the board of directors,” recounts Stephan.
“At that stage our grapes went mainly to Swartland, but also to a few other wineries, including Fairview. They still make Fairview Pegleg Carignan from our grapes to this day – Charles Back named it for my father, who lost his leg when a tractor overturned in the mountain. Being a man of great spirit, he affectionately became known as ‘Houtbeen’ (Pegleg), and the name of the wine is an homage to him.”
Getting back to grassroots to lay the groundwork for sustainability
Stephan’s father Kobus was also the one who made the clever move to register the farm as a vineyard nursery with Vititec Vine Improvement Nurseries and started cultivating cuttings.
“At the time, Wellington was main source of cuttings in our region. As a certified cultivator, we had access to new clones and pristine genetic material. We’ve also established mother blocks for Vititec. This includes Mourvèdre, Grenache, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, etc. In the end, the nursery is more than just a supplementary income stream – ensures our farm’s sustainability.
“It has given and continues to give us access to the newest clones first, and that has made our business future-proof. You need to remain at the forefront of agricultural innovation in order to stay competitive in the industry, and the vineyard nursery has allowed us to do so,” explains Stephan.
Bringing the winemaking back to the farm
When Stephan’s turn came to choose a study field, he turned to winemaking in order to bring the family business back home.
“I grew up tending the vineyards on the farm with my father, and learned a bit about the winemaking process when I delivered our grapes to Swartland and spent some time in the cellar. This is where my interest was piqued. Vineyards and wine interested me immensely, and I always knew I wanted to make my own wine. So when the time came I went off to study winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College with the dream of one day establishing my own brand,” remembers Stephan.
“However, I needed to make a start first. After my studies, I found employment as Assistant Winemaker at Seidelberg, which has now been rebranded as Spice Route. When I came back to the family farm, my first foray into solo winemaking was pretty primitive. I started out with a few barrels and the minimal tools I could afford at that stage.
“We winged it at first – I retrofitted an old milk tank to be used as a cooling unit and froze Coke bottles full of water to have enough ‘coolant’ to keep my wine cool on those hot Swartland days. It certainly wasn’t glamorous, but that doesn’t mean we skimped on the quality of the wine – I always made sure that we spent our budget on the things that were really important.”
For the love of the craft – creating high-quality wines with accessible price tags
Today Stephan prides himself on creating high-quality wines with accessible price tags. “Our wines are affordable, and we offer value for money for the South African consumer. In people’s minds this often equates to a wine of a lesser quality, which is a sad state of affairs. When I started our brand, my goal was to introduce it to as many people as quickly as possible,” explains Stephan.
“The best way to do so is to make wines of a consistent high quality and to make it available at prices that don’t make people nervous. We also have volume on our side – we have 380ha of vines that yield an average of 3 000 tonnes of grapes each year, which allows us to come in at a more approachable price. Other winemakers have to buy in grapes at a premium; we don’t have that issue. Another way I keep costs low is by making the wine and managing the production myself.”
Stephan is very hands-on and traditional in his winemaking style, preferring to steer clear of excessive additives, pump-overs and blending after fermentation. He takes great pride in leaving his mark on the wine, and does so by being actively involved in the entire process, from the moment the grapes are brought in from the vineyards, until the moment the wine goes into the bottle.
“Because I am the owner of the winery and the brand, I can make bolder choices than winemakers who report to a boss – I don’t have to add the maximum levels of sulphur because my salary depends on ticking a certain set of boxes. Naturally, I still play it safe, but because I only report to myself I am able to take some chances to keep my additive levels low rather than having to play it straight down the middle at all times,” he explains.
“My winemaking style is not quite organic, but it’s close to dynamic. I use as little sulphur as possible and practice a minimum intervention approach throughout the winemaking process. I tend to keep the juice from separate blocks apart and like to keep the wine on the lease for as long as possible. If stabilisation is required, I’d rather cool down the wine than add any additives. Which of course, means that the repercussions of a little too much of our wine is not quite as intense as it might have been otherwise…” (Ed’s note: We can attest to this fact! If you don’t like lingering after-party effects, Babylon’s Peak is an excellent choice!)
“The day that I am no longer able to be involved in this hands-on capacity, or I no longer have the support of my wife and partner Ina who runs marketing, administration and logistics, I would rather just bow out. It’s as simple as that. I love the family bonds that underpin everything we do. When buyers or international agents come to see us, it’s Ina and myself who meet with them, not someone we employ. This is the way we do things at Babylon’s Peak.”
How to buy and taste Babylon’s Peak Wines
The reason you may not have come across Babylon’s Peak wines up until now is because 90% of their portfolio is exported. If you’re making your way to the Swartland and you have some lead time, you can contact Stephan directly on email@example.com to book a tasting. Alternatively, you can stop over at Druiwetros in Malmesbury, or The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel if you want easy access and the input of some local purveyors. Alternatively, there are restaurants in Malmesbury and Riebeek Kasteel where you can sample it alongside some delicious local fare. This includes Bill & Co, Barry’s Grill, Mama Cucina, The Royal Hotel, Alchemist, Eve’s Eatery.
QUICK LINKS >> Website: www.babylonspeak.co.za | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Telephone number: +27 (0)21 300 1052