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.
Elevage is a French winemaking term that The Oxford Companion to Wine defines as "the series of cellar operations that take place between fermentation and bottling, suggesting that the winemaker's role is rather like that of a loving parent who guides, disciplines, and civilizes the raw young wine that emerges from the fermentation vessel."
Every year we make a few investments to bring up the overall quality of our wine. Last year it was a cluster sorting table, and this year it is a new destemmer/deleafer, which our excellent winemaker Eric von Krosigk introduces in this short video:
We were blessed with wonderful planting weather as we got the last vines into the ground this season. The clouds and rain provided a gentle, nurturing environment for the vines to set root.
Planting out the new blocks of Gruner Veltliner has been an absolute treat compared to inter-planting established blocks. The ground has been freshly prepared, and we are working on a blank canvas, digging into soft dirt where we are not competing with established root systems. I am taking a particular satisfaction in setting up these new blocks. It is an opportunity to see the entire process through, and will serve as a great learning experience for the next few years, watching and engaging with these plants through the most critical stages of their development.
Late last fall, we tore up all the old posts, removed the wires, and dug up all the existing vines in a .8 acre block, leaving the ground lumpy and unsettled, holes and mounds everywhere. Once the ground had thawed in early spring, we prepped the earth by deep ripping and then discing.
Preparing a field is a very meditative experience, driving straight up and down the rows at a slow speed, carefully watching the tractor tires to ensure a straight line. As the soil is worked, the tractor is followed by a loyal bunch of blackbirds and robins, hopping behind, stuffing their beaks with worms.
As well as planting, we have been slowly chipping away at tucking and shoot thinning the older vines. It is a very slow pass through each row, as we are mindful of many things at once. It is a job that will greatly determine our yield and quality of fruit come fall. As a general rule, we try to leave one hand space between each shoot growing up from the tied canes. This allows for good airflow and more space through the canopy and fruiting zone to keep mildew down. We are also suckering the vines, removing new shoots on the trunk, and siting good options for next year’s canes. The catch wires are pulled over the chosen shoots and are clipped together on both sides of the row to make the familiar vertical shoot positioned (VSP) vineyard hedge. We are aiming to allow dappled light to come through the canopy, as congestion or clumps of growth will culture an environment ideal for mildew and bortrytis. A vineyard mentor once told me that in a perfectly thinned canopy, you would not know whether a naked person walking on the other side of the row is a man or woman. Upon sharing this information with the crew, it was suggested that we all work naked to ensure good quality control... Maybe next year.
At the end of March the first signs of life had started to show in the vines. Sap was flowing, and the canes that had been painstakingly pruned during the winter months started to soften and bend, ready to be tied to the fruiting wire. Pruning was a very cool experience, probably my favorite job last season. You see the vine completely differently when there is no foliage on the canes. Siting good options for next year’s growth, I was taught to choose canes that were at least the thickness of a pencil, as anything skinnier would likely not be able to push the required energy through the cane to produce enough leaves to ripen a cluster of grapes. I was also taught not to choose wood that was too thick, with buds spaced too far apart. This was referred to as 'bull wood.' Apparently growth from bull wood tends to be vegetative, focusing more of its energy on producing foliage than grapes. This along with proper positioning and considering the level of vigor appropriate for each individual plant made pruning a bonding experience with each individual vine. Though the job was slow and cold, it was definitely fun, and I am excited to go back to the rows that I pruned to see how my choices affect the vines this year.
After we finished pruning the vineyard, a small crew was assembled to pass through every row to tie down the chosen canes. This was very satisfying because it is one of those jobs where you can look back on what was accomplished that day and really see the results of your efforts. Over the two weeks that were spent combing through the rows, grasses and various other plants started emerging from the ground, and before long things went from brown to green. It never ceases to amaze me how fast seasons change in the Okanagan. One day it feels as though everything is still dormant and dead, the next day life springs forth from the ground and falls from the sky. Buds on the grapes had started to swell and we knew that we didn't have much time before we would be making our second pass of the spring through the rows to start dis-budding.
Through my time in the vineyard it has become clear to me that virtually every job with the vine serves to direct the flow of energy in the plant. Dis-budding is a process of removing buds from the trunks and crown to allow the plant to focus its growth on the buds that will bear fruit. Part of this job that I find very engaging is training next year's canes and replacement trunks. At Summerhill Vineyard we have a few blocks of older vines with thick gnarly trunks, and sometimes these plants don't seem to be able to push enough energy through the old wood to reach the desired destination. The process of training a new trunk rejuvenates the vine. We choose a sucker (a shoot that is growing from the base of the trunk) that is sturdy and growing straight up. If over the course of the season, this shoot is nurtured and trained, and all goes well, next season there may be an option to completely chop the old wood out, making way for a fresh start. It really is one of the more satisfying moments of pruning when you can take out a bunch of aged wood and allow the plant to breathe. I always felt that the vines were thanking me when I was able to rejuvenate them.
We got through dis-budding the vineyard just after May long weekend, which was absolutely perfect, because we are planting out many new vines on the farm this year and the planting weather has been ideal. We have started with inter-planting our blocks that are already established, just to fill in any holes there might be. So far we have planted Riesling and Muscat, and we still have Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to go. After this we will be planting two new fields that I am personally very excited about. We are introducing a new varietal into the Summerhill portfolio called Gruner Veltliner. This Austrian varietal is known for its strong minerality and distinct celery leaf note. The wines that I have had from this grape have been phenomenal, and since Austria's brother grape Zweigelt does so well here, I really wanted to bring it in and give it a go. It is fairly rare in the Okanagan, although I’ve heard that at least one other high-profile vineyard has planted it recently. I am eager to see what the Okanagan Valley can do for this varietal.
Before planting, we clip the ends of the roots to stimulate them, and soak the plants for several days to bring them out of dormancy. Once they are ready to plant, we inoculate them with mycorrhizal fungi to help the roots absorb nutrients from the soil, and to create symbiotic exchanges with other plants in the ground cover. We also supplement our planting holes with compost to ensure a healthy start. Unlike some annual crops, an immense amount of care must be taken when planting vines. If any of the roots are bent, pointing up in the planting hole, the vine is doomed. If the vine is not pressed into the soil just right, it will dry out easily and die. Growing grapes is truly a labor of love, as they are so sensitive and require so much care and patience, but it is so worth it when September rolls around and you are eating the tastiest fruit imaginable. It's no wonder people have stewarded these plants for so many generations.
This pretty well brings us up to speed on the activity thus far in the vineyard. Over the next few weeks we will be finished planting, and will be on to shoot-thinning and tucking. I will be following up with another update shortly to go over these activities and to talk a little bit about my experience with caring for young vines as well.
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: