Terroir and Organic/Biodynamic Viticulture
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.