Interested in organic winemaking, meeting our growers and our visionary Stephen Cipes, in-depth tasting notes, or being tantalized by Chef Croy's mad cooking skills? Pick a category on the right to delve in.
Growing up around the winery, I have many fond memories that come flooding back when I work in the fields. They encompass all of my senses. Seeing the Okanagan sun pouring in through the lush green canopy of the vineyard, or recalling the smell of my dad's coat after he would come home from a full day out on the tractor, all covered in silty fine grey dust, and realizing that when I get home from work, I smell the same way. I remember watching the wheels of the Fendt compressing the soft dirt on the vineyard roads and finding a certain satisfaction in following the never ending pattern created by the tread. I would stomp my five year-old self around, up and down the rows followed by my German shepherd, Butler. Some days my dad would sit me on his lap and we would cruise around the perimeter trails in the tractor together for what seemed like ages. Inevitably I would fall asleep, either from the throaty diesel engine or the bumpy terrain, but probably both. It was always such a treat, and I never turned down the chance to go check things out with pops.
Though life has certainly spun me around in many directions, and I’ve followed different paths, when I recall these memories it is clear that my roots were set in my youth, and that there is grape juice in my blood. I am thrilled to be learning the language of the vine, and to have the chance to participate in this ancient ritual.
Though growing up on the farm instilled a love for the visceral experience of the vineyard, I did not develop an appreciation for wine, or what it takes to make it, until only a few years ago. I had worked as a cellar hand off and on through the latter half of my teenage years, working the bottling line, labeling, disgorging, and cleaning, but only developed a keen interest when I took a summer job several years later in the wine shop. At the time, my knowledge of wine tasting was somewhat limited, though I had picked up enough lingo to be passable. A large part of the job is being familiar with the product, like any job in sales, and the staff in the wine shop answered many primary questions over and over for me until I got the general feel for the job. Learning to recognize the expression of terroir in the glass, and observing the many nuances and layers of aromas and flavors, was truly mind blowing for an epicurean like myself, and when my interest in developing my pallet became apparent on the job, I was invited by my brother Ezra to participate in the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) Level 2 course. Here you are taught a systematic way to taste and assess wines through observing color, aroma, intensity, flavor, body, ripeness, acidity, etc. I became very excited as once every week, we tasted wines of varying quality from nearly every major wine making region on the planet. I suppose it is true of many things, but the wine world is one where the more you know, the larger that world becomes. The vast depth and cultural significance found in viticulture around the world is staggering.
I returned to the cellar that autumn to work crush, with a real desire to see the wine making process through from fruit to bottle. I will spare the details of scrubbing tanks and fixing pumps, but I will say that working crush at a winery is an intense experience that is absolutely worth doing in your life in my opinion. I conquered my fear of heights and confined spaces, learned a heck of a lot about the broad strokes of wine making, and learned that I can work almost a twelve hour shift five days in a row in the freezing cold through the middle of the night and survive. Never have I drunk so much coffee in my life. The most amazing part about working crush for me though, was tasting the grapes when they came off the truck and onto the crush pad. Noting where each load of fruit came from, and tasting the same variety of grape from one part of the valley and then from another part of the valley was truly amazing. The range of flavors, colors and intensities were so diverse that I really understood why I have always heard so many people say: "great wine starts in the vineyard".
Last spring I entered the vineyard for the first time as a daily job, doing grunt work and learning the basics of what it is to work with the vines. I had spent a few seasons traveling around the coast and interior of BC interning on organic farms and had nurtured a deep love for plants and a keen interest in Permaculture design, which allowed me to feel at home even more so in the vineyard. After spending a full season from suckering to pruning, I knew that walking the vineyard rows was going to be a must for me for years to come. This year I am very fortunate to be apprenticing under Summerhill's winemaker/viticulturist Eric von Krosigk and vineyard manager Willem Semmelink to further my education in vineyard management. My intention for this blog is to document my journey into the world of wine growing, and to entice others to join this wonderful industry. I hope to bring a fresh perspective in organic management to the current paradigm and to share my findings and collaborations.
Stay tuned for updates, insights, stories, and anecdotes.
Here's to grapes!
We are very excited to begin using a nitrogen generator this vintage in the Summerhill production cellar. We have plumbed the nitrogen directly into our tanks with the goal of reducing or eliminating preservatives/allergens (SO2) used in winemaking, while reducing the need for climate control in the wine cellar (thereby saving energy). Also, we will now be able to use nitrogen liberally in various other winemaking processes to eliminate oxygen pickup at every step that we desire.
Although use of inert gasses to cap tanks and prevent oxidation is common in the wine industry, plumbing a renewable nitrogen generating system directly into the tanks and applying constant low pressure will be, as far as we know, a first for a BC winery. This system’s demonstrated success will pave the way for improvement in all winemaking, organic and conventional, both in terms of wine quality and in environmental sustainability, and enable possible production of no-sulphite-added wines.
We will be conducting research with the 2012 vintage of wines, which we have just begun to crush, and we will be sharing our research and experiences here on this blog, as well as in a report that we will share with the industry in early spring, 2013. Here are the parameters of our research:
- Using a control, we will collect data on current baseline levels of SO2 additions both on monthly tank maintenance levels and total ppm levels at bottling. We will map out the effect of low pressure nitrogen atmospheric control
- We will monitor dissolved oxygen, and look for any relevant analytical differences, in tanks with and without atmospheric control
- We will conduct blind tastings of the same wine made with and without atmospheric control
- Once bottled we will check SO2 levels and quality/aroma levels monthly
- We will map out the shelf life from data derived over three years, and determine any other analytical differences and sensory differences
Funding for this project has been provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the BC Ministry ofAgriculture through the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program under GrowingForward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The program is delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.
Agriculture and Agri-FoodCanada (AAFC) and the BC Ministry of Agriculture are committed to working with industry partners. Opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and not necessarily those of AAFC or the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Dirt on Dirt part 3:
Terroir and Organic/Biodynamic Viticulture
For all of its mystical associations, biodynamic agriculture also has a practical side. The soil on a biodynamic farm is alive with a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, earth-loving creatures, and root systems, all feeding on each other, sharing nutrients, and performing vital immune functions for each other. Soil is a major component of terroir; that quality in great wine that is of nature’s doing, and that no winemaker can impart in the cellar or laboratory.
Ann Sperling, a pioneer of Canada’s modern wine industry, was making wine and overseeing vineyards for Andre’s in the 1980s, and then CedarCreek through the 90s. She is now one of Canada’s pioneering biodynamic and organic winemakers. In 2005 she became the founding winemaker-viticulturist at Ontario’s Southbrook Vineyards, gaining Organic and Demeter (biodynamic) certification for both the vineyard and winery in 2008. She is now transitioning her family’s historic Kelowna vineyard to organic/biodynamic management, while releasing estate grown wine under the Sperling Vineyards label.
Ann can chart a long history of Okanagan viticulture on her family farm. Her mother’s family, the Casorsos, immigrated to Kelowna from Piedmont, Italy in the 1880s. The family vineyard began with experimental plantings in 1929 followed by commercial plantings of Labrusca vines during the ‘30s. These were replaced with hybrids during the ‘70s, and in 1978, her father Bert Sperling planted Riesling vines that today are producing wine for Sperling’s flagship “Old Vines Riesling”.
Ann’s earliest memories of the family vineyard are of wide, furrow irrigated rows fertilized with manure, and managed without herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides. Growing up, her father and grandfather made wine, and the family life revolved around the industry. Right out of high school, Ann knew what she wanted to do, and after attaining a food science degree from UBC in 1984, she went to work for Andre’s (now known as Andrew Peller LTD), one of a handful of BC wineries in existence at the time.
In the 1970s, consultants acting on behalf of the commercial wineries advocated replanting the valley’s vineyards to high-yielding hybrids and the adoption of the voguish viticulture regime of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, soon followed by insecticides and fungicides, that became known as ‘conventional’ viticulture, which is still by far the most widely used vineyard management regime in the valley and in the world. Ann remembers the changes the new methods brought. Herbicides pushed out virtually all biodiversity and left a monoculture of vines. Gone was the abundant wild asparagus that formerly grew amongst the vines, which her family would harvest by the bucket and freeze for winter consumption.
These days, the historic 45 acres on Casorso Road is transitioning to organic. Ten acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were added in 2008, and Ann is focusing on increasing organic matter in the soil with manure, compost, and green manures. Looking back, Ann is philosophical: “All types of commercial farmers today are pressured into high yields and low prices, facing the challenge of needing to produce a bumper crop every year. This approach along with tractor traffic and chemicals definitely took its toll on our arid limestone soils. We’re transitioning the soils to greater health and sustainability. We haven’t used chemical fertilizers since 2009, and we stopped using herbicides in 2010. Our goal for organic certification is 2015 or 2016. When we took over running the vineyard in ‘08 the vineyards were over-cropped and then got frosted out. They went into the winter without shutting down, so we had stressed vines that are now being rehabilitated. The soil is turning around with improvement in microbial life becoming evident, but there are still some weak vines. The crops are now balanced with the health of the vines and are producing wines with more substance, weight and mouth-feel. When comparing the ‘08 Riesling, you can taste that it comes from a cool climate site. The wine has elegance and purity, good flavours and minerality, but the extract isn’t there. Contrast this with ‘09 and 2010, and each later vintage shows improvement in body and texture while maintaining elegance and minerality.
“Organic/biodynamic is the fast track to terroir expression because the practices tune the vines and the site into its place on the planet. Contrast this with conventional vineyard management, where the practices dominate the site and the vines. With conventional, you will definitely harvest something, and it will be sweet and possibly ripe, but it will not necessarily demonstrate terroir. More often, you will need additives to shore up the structure of the wine and new oak to improve it. With each intervention, the terroir drifts further from view.”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Savour Magazine.
Recently I agreed to help FortisBC promote their new Renewable Natural Gas program. This was met with some derision by my more revolutionary friends, but I applaud FortisBC for this project. Basically what they have done is build two large, industrial composters. They are harvesting bio-methane from the decomposing agricultural waste. Apparently it costs a little more to make natural gas this way, and FortisBC is charging slightly more for it, hence the need for business leaders to help promote the program.
There is a lot of agricultural waste in the province of BC, and indeed the world, so this simple technology has the potential to produce a lot of renewable energy if more widely applied. If we are harvesting valuable energy, this project may also help increase the amount of waste that is properly composted and provide more valuable organic (hopefully) fertilizer.
Here's the video FortisBC made of me pitching the program to other business leaders:
The Dirt on Dirt Part 2:
Scratching the Earth on the Golden Mile and Black Sage Benches
Sandra Oldfield is CEO, winemaker, and co-founder of Tinhorn Creek Winery, which has vineyards on both the Black Sage Bench and the Golden Mile Bench. Both are important sub-regions in the Okanagan, and although they are within sight of each other, they are very different. Sandra is one of the vintners currently discussing an application to define the Golden Mile Bench as an officially recognized sub-geographical indication for BC VQA wine labeling. She was reluctant to be interviewed. She is aware of the political issues involved with drawing a line on a map, and stressed to me that she is not an official spokesperson for the group.
Ezra Cipes: My angle in writing this is to bring awareness to it; to make sure that this ends up being good for our industry long term. If we're labeling terroir, we have to be delivering terroir, and not just empty marketing BS.
Sandra Oldfield: We’re defining our bench because of the uniqueness of the geography, but in the end you can’t escape that this is about marketing. I mean, French appellations are about marketing. It's about making your land more important than your neighbor's, or really just unique from it. The tricky part is where you draw the line. With the Golden Mile, where we draw the line is solely based on science. The primary dictator is soil, and the second is elevation. Alluvial soil spreads right out across the valley floor. The crumbling of Mount Kobau lays out fans of primary material down the various creeks, and they formed these shelves - this elevated bench.
EC: What’s the soil like?
SO: The soil is very rocky with a gravelly loam. It is on the East facing slope of Mount Kobau so it receives the early morning light, but is in shadow hours before Black Sage on the other side of the valley. Tinhorn’s plantings on the Golden Mile Bench are almost all white grapes. We’ve got Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, and Chardonnay planted here, as well as small plantings of Syrah and Pinot Noir.
EC: What about Black Sage?
SO: This is where more and more of our reds are planted. Black Sage Bench is at a lower elevation, and the aspect is South-West. It get more extreme heat in the summer, and cold in the winter. It’s pretty much pure beach sand, and growing grapes there is almost hydroponic farming. My winery is on the Golden Mile, so I won’t be the one to drive Black Sage as an appellation, but that is where all my Merlot and Cab Franc is. Black Sage is harder to define and draw a line around. How big is it? Does it go all the way from Inkameep Vineyards to Osoyoos, or is there some historical precedent for what is defined as the Black Sage Bench?
EC: When you first planted Black Sage, how did you choose what to plant?
SO: It was based on the wines that we wanted to sell. We had everything planted there. We are now slowly replanting, and varieties are finding their home. The Merlot we had on the Golden Mile was always the weakest Merlot, every vintage. We are little by little replanting the Golden Mile to aromatic whites, and reds are going to Black Sage. Once our canopy was established on Black Sage, and the vines were established, the flavours became much more developed and deep. We generally get lower acids on that side, so we often acidify. Golden Mile has higher acid, good fast flavour development, but not as much heat. Having Gris grown on both sides balances out the wine. I don't have to do anything! One side has the sugars, the other has the acid.
EC: You have Syrah in both vineyards. What about that?
SO: Syrah is better on Black Sage from a ripeness perspective. It's more meaty/bacony on Black Sage, more white pepper on Golden Mile. Frost is a major consideration on Black Sage, though, so we’re going to experiment with planting later ripening but frost sensitive varieties like Malbec on the Golden Mile side. Bill Eggert from Fairview somehow manages to make good wine from late ripening reds on Golden Mile.
EC: What has it been like bringing all the Golden Mile vintners together to make this application? I understand that you're not a spokesperson for the group, but are you personally in favour of adopting specific production practices for the sub-region?
SO: We're not talking about any restrictions on varieties, but migration of varieties is inevitable over time. We're not talking about any production limits at the out-set, like max tons per acre, but it may be discussed in the future. I would not advocate stylistic restrictions in regards to production practices.
EC: What about ingredients?
SO: Should processed ingredients be allowed? We haven’t talked about it. I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point. If we had a sub-appellation, I would really like to have a third party accounting for where the grapes grown here are going, to make sure labeling is legit and 100% from the sub-region. A lot of wineries have grapes grown here, and they end up all over. If we get to use Golden Mile on the label, the wine’s got to be 100% from Golden Mile.
Ultimately, just like every growing region, the two benches have their own advantages and challenges. Terroir is complex, and cannot be simplified by comparing soil types or sunlight hours. This is just scratching the surface. The real trick will be for the vintners on both benches to come to terms with the challenges of their farms, and to figure out how to make best use of the advantages. The Black Sage Bench has the heat, but because of the coarse, deep sand, and all the human intervention needed to grow here, can the wines really be said to have terroir? The soil here must be considered in more detail, as it is a complex subject, and Black Sage has many good qualities aside from the soil. Certainly many fine wines have been grown on Black Sage. The Golden Mile is blessed with a finer textured but stony soil. It is likely that the Golden Mile Bench will be the first sub-region to apply for a sub-geographical indication, and if it is successful, it will then be up to the vintners to make good on the promise of terroir, and to develop the special reputation that the fulfillment of this promise will entitle them to have.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2011/12 issue of Savour Magazine.
The Dirt on Dirt Part 1:
Why is it that wine is so variable depending on where, when and how it is made? Wine marketers give all sorts of vague answers to this question. "It's all about the dirt," says Road 13; Tinhorn Creek is “Naturally South Okanagan,” and at Summerhill we "Celebrate Nature's Perfection.” All of these statements point to the same thing: that the wine is made in the vineyard, and expresses terroir, a sense of the land on which it was grown. But is it? And does it?
Certainly wine is made both in the vineyard and in the cellar, but to a varying degree that is based on the quality of the fruit and the sensibility of the winemaker. And terroir... what is that again? Well it kind of depends on who you ask. In Europe the definition of terroir is stricter. There, the labeling regulations imposed by the appellation systems (legally defined, protected geographical indicators) are in place to ensure that the noble ideas about terroir are not reduced to platitudes and slogans. In many European countries, even watering the vineyard is considered an intrusion into "letting the land express itself," and irrigation is not allowed for wines that state the appellation on the label. If we eliminated irrigation in the Okanagan, our terroir would express bunchgrass.
But we do have our own concept of terroir, somewhat more liberally applied than in the French definition, and we are lucky that our dry climate allows wine growers to restrict water and create grapes to their own specification (be it for fat, watery ones or small, flavourful ones, as befits the preference and price point). From this example of controlled irrigation, which is just one intervention wine growers and wine makers make, one can see the difficulty in defining terroir within our province when compared to the stricter standards and definition of the word in Europe. One may ask whether the concept is even relevant to New World wine.
But there is a trend for marketing vineyard origin. Just look at Sandhill’s single vineyard program, or at the aforementioned marketing statements of various wineries. So the British Columbia Wine Authority (BCWA) is attempting to give our industry the opportunity to define our terroir, and hopefully make good on our lofty and idealistic promises, with a program for the introduction of sub-geographical indications that could be proclaimed on the front label as part of the statement of appellation.
Currently the only recognized geographical indications in B.C. are larger regions where wine grapes are grown. These include the Okanagan Valley, Vancouver Island, Similkameen Valley, and Fraser Valley. You may recognize these regions on the front labels of your favourite B.C. wines stated as, for example, “BC VQA Vancouver Island” on Rocky Creek’s Pinot Gris. As of now, no sub-region has applied for the special sub-geographical indication status, though a number have considered or are considering applying, including Naramata, the Skaha Bluff, Cawston, the Shuswap, Black Sage Bench, and the Golden Mile. If one is successful, you may see, for instance, “Golden Mile BC VQA” on a bottle of Tinhorn Creek Cab Franc in place of the current “Okanagan Valley BC VQA” geographical indication.
According to the BCWA’s Wine of Marked Quality Regulations, to gain an officially recognized sub-geographical indication these sub-regions must be “geographically distinct areas with clear, defined borders and commercially viable levels of production,” and the wines produced must “consistently demonstrate distinctive characteristics related to shared soil, topography and climate, enhanced by the adoption of specific production practices.” These specific production practices, as well as the distinct borders, would be defined by the producers of the sub-region; in fact, the regulations state that two-thirds of the producers (by production level) have to agree on all of these fine points in order for a sub-geographical indication to be officially added to the regulations. This is probably the reason there are not any recognized yet.
In the articles that follow in this Dirt on Dirt series, we will investigate various sub-regions for the uniqueness of their terroir, and the prevailing wine making styles that predominate in them. My aim is to illuminate various realities of wine making in British Columbia, so that the noble concept of terroir is not bastardized here, and for the sake of helping to realize the magnificent opportunity our industry has to be recognized on the world stage of wine.
This article was originally published in the Fall issue of Savour Magazine.