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Summerhill bought itself an early Christmas present... 90 000 L of French oak storage capacity. These nine 10 000 L tanks actually function as both fermenters and maturation barrels.
This is part of winemaker Eric von Krosigk's Biodynamic program. Wood is a natural home for yeast and malolactic bacteria, or in other words, for the micro-biology that transforms grape juice into wine. These beneficial organisms will colonize the wood, and allow us to make consistently delicious wine without relying on packages of winemaking yeasts and bacteria that are made in laboratories. Although there is nothing wrong with the store bought yeasts (in fact, they are a big reason there is so much consistently good quality wine made all over the world these days), there is something almost magical about making wine with your own colony of yeast. The tiny organisms naturalize, and mutate slowly over time, creating a unique formulation that adds complexity and depth to the resulting wine - and importantly, it helps to translate a unique sense of place.
This will also change the style of the red wines made in these tanks vs the 225 L barriques which are currently used for all of our reds. The fruit will be better expressed in these larger vats because of the smaller ratio of oak surface to wine, so that the resulting effect of passive micro-oxygenation is lessened.
Here is a little photo-journal of the process:
The wood and materials arrived on pallets, sent over from Italy. Note the dried reeds used between each plank in order to make the tanks water tight.
We unloaded dozens of huge metal bands.
When the coopers from Italy finally arrived they set right to work...
... and made quick progress.
Soon the tanks were complete and filled with wine. In this image, everything is complete except for the last step of painting the metal bands red. This is done to signify these tanks are used for red wine production. Green bands would signify white wine.
Et voila, we're up and running. Note the red hose leading to the top of the tank. There is a sprinkler up there, and this hose is used to pump the fermenting wines up over the cap of grape skins that forms during fermentation. By pumping over the young wine, we bring much needed oxygen into the fermentation, and extract colour, flavour and tannin from the grape skins.
David Suzuki is a Canadian icon. I have known of him as a public figure since elementary school, and have always thought of him as a beloved national figure. But in recent years I have come to understand that he is considered a little controversial by some - that not everyone shares his point of view as I do.
In recent years, Summerhill has developed a professional relationship with the David Suzuki Foundation, beginning with the launch of our Alive Organic Wine series. When asked to provide in kind sponsorship to support the Blue Dot Tour, we did not hesitate for a second.
David Suzuki's message is brilliant and simple and true: Every Canadian should have the right to a healthy environment. We're proud to support his efforts out on the road, getting the message out there and hopefully starting a national debate on this bold and righteous premise.
Hope to see you there!
Federweisser is a name for young fermenting wine. In this harvest ceremony of thanks giving, some is poured back in to the vineyard to thank the earth, and more is enjoyed with Zweibelkuchen (onion pie) to celebrate!
This picture of a buck quite at home in the middle of our parking lot was taken in November 2012:
Later that winter, the buck and his family ate an entire block of Chardonnay hanging on the vine for icewine. The next spring they nibbled all of the green growth from the newly planted vineyard blocks:
Summerhill Vineyard was first planted to grapes in the 1940s, and it has never been fenced. The property has always contained multiple nature habitats, both wetland and dry gully preserves, as well as a meadow area. We have always considered the property to be a nature preserve along with being a farm. However, with the development all around our farm, and the proliferation of deer fencing around nearby properties, the pressure that the dear deer have exerted has become too much, and we have decided to fence the vineyard to keep them out.
The dry gully, where the deer seem to spend most of their time, will be outside the fenceline, but the wetland preserve will now be enclosed. This will have serious repercussions for the ecosystem, which we can't pretend to understand or accurately predict. We will do our best to keep the deer out, but assume the coyote will be able to traverse the cattle gaurds and will remain as predators for small mammals... or at least we hope they will remain.
This was a big decision, with much pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth. We don't take these things lightly. However, after sustaining significant losses due to deer pressure over the last three seasons consecutively, we have to deal the economic realities of farming.
Here are some more pics of the dry gully and the fenceline:
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.