Thursday, November 5, 2015

Summerhill takes on Champagne

Stephen Cipes, the founder of Summerhill Pyramid Winery, once said he would like to use the term, Champagne, for Cipes Brut.

He explained that he did not want it confused with the “cheap junk” that was in the market as sparkling wine.

Champagne is a protected designation used (except for a few holdouts) only for wines made in the Champagne region of France. There is a trade agreement between Canada and Europe that prevents Canadian wineries from using any European place names.

But there is nothing to stop a Canadian winery from doing comparative tastings of its wines against Champagne or similar international wines. And that is just what Summerhill did recently, as a prelude for releasing several of its prestige bubblies to restaurants and to wine shops in British Columbia.

Since 1991, Summerhill has produced both table wines and dessert wines. The primary focus, however, has always been on sparkling wine.

That began when Stephen Cipes co-operated in an Okanagan winemaking trial in the late 1980s with Jack Davies, the founder of Schramsberg Cellars.

“Jack Davies was my parents’ inspiration,” says Ezra Cipes, son of the founder and the now the winery’s president. “My family moved to Summerhill in 1986. They had table grapes and hybrid wine grapes. There was one small block of Riesling, part of the Becker plantings from 1978. In the late 1980s, when the BC industry was regrouping, all sorts of consultants came through. Jack Davies was one. He visited our vineyard. He is a sparkling guy. He told my parents they would be wasting their time making still wine here; they should make sparkling wine.”

They did in fact collaborate on one wine (Davies is believed to have been considering producing in the Okanagan). “We released it at the Millennium as Cipes Schramsberg Cuvée,” Ezra says.  

Over the years, Summerhill winemakers – notably Eric Von Krosigk (left) – have laid down vintage after vintage, aging it in the tradition of Champagne.

“We have quite a few of these treasures sitting in our warehouse, waiting to be released,” Ezra says.

Several have now been released after making their public debut at a wine trade luncheon in September, tasted against international wines.

The Cipes Blanc de Blanc 2010, a 100% Chardonnay sparkling wine, was tasted side by side against Pierre Peters Grand Cru Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Several expert tasters at the lunch preferred the Cipes wine, which also sells for about half the price of the Champagne.

Cipes Blanc de Franc 2011, a sparkling wine made with Cabernet Franc grapes, was matched against a Loire sparkling rosé, Château Moncontour NV. The wines are comparable in price. Here, it seemed to me it was a draw: the Loire wine is fruitier while the Cipes wine is somewhat austere.

Finally, Cipes Traditional Cuvée 1996 was matched against a Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc Brut 2009. The comparative tasting was not that valid: the relatively young California sparkling wine had the appeal of freshness and fruitiness while the Cipes had the appeal of the complexity of 19 years of bottle development.

The bad news is that you may have a hard time finding this wine. Only 200 cases were made and most has been allocated to restaurants. A modest quantity is available at the Summerhill winery for $99. 

The wine is one of those “treasures” that received prolonged aging in the Summerhill cellar, much like some of the very old Champagnes that show up from time to time.

“It was incredibly acidic when it was young and it took this long before it gained this harmony,” Ezra explains. “It couldn’t hang around our cellar any longer. We find a lot of beauty in it, a lot of excitement.”

It is a companion to Cipes Ariel Cuvée 1998, a prestige cuvée, also made with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. It has been on the market already and, whenever the stock gets low, a little more is disgorged and released. No Champagne was paired with this wine; it might have been interesting to put it against a Krug because those Champagnes are also well aged.

Would it upstage the Krug? Probably not, but neither would it embarrass itself.

These are fine sparkling wines. And if you are on a budget, there is always Cipes Brut, at $26.95. It won gold at the B.C. Wine Awards.

Here are notes on the other wines.

Cipes Blanc de Noirs 2008 ($34.90). Made with Pinot Noir, this is a crisply refreshing sparkling wine, with notes of apple on the palate and with a delicate hint of lees aging on the nose. 90.

Cipes Blanc de Blanc 2010 ($39.90). The wine begins with a lovely and delicate fruity aroma, leading to flavours of citrus and apple. The lees note is delicate as well, adding a hint of complexity to this crisply fresh and very elegant wine. The plus is the active display of fine bubbles in the glass. 93.

Cipes Blanc de Franc 2011 ($39.90). This was a wonderfully opportunistic rosé sparkler, made in a cool year when the winery got some Cabernet Franc grapes not ripe enough for a table wine. There was more than enough flavour for a sparkling wine. Salmon pink in colour, this wine has aromas and flavours of  cherries and strawberries. It is bone dry, with a slightly earthy and bitter finish suggesting tannin. 88

Cipes Traditional Cuvée 1996 ($99.90). While the acidity has been moderated by 19 years of age, the wine still is bright and tangy. The flavours are very complex with notes of marmalade, ginger and oyster shells. The bubbles are extremely fine and quite long-lived. 92.

Cipes Ariel Cuvée 1998 ($88). This wine has aged to rich complexity, with aromas of apple, nectarine and hazelnuts. On the palate, the wine has good weight, with flavours of hazelnuts and marmalade. The finish is crisp, with long-lasting bubbles. 93. 


At November 6, 2015 at 9:04 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Hi John. Jack Davies tasted some of the wines from the Becker project with Dick Cleave and me. I recall his comment that the Pinot blanc from the Becker project was the best Pinot blanc he had tasted in ten years. The rise of Chardonnay in the 80's eclipsed Pinot blanc or it might have become BC's signature grape.

There was no question that Pinot blanc was a star in this region. It produced consistently good varietal character year in and year out from both the Kelowna and Oliver sites. The Kelowna site was near Summerhill, at the intersection of Chute Lake Road and the Lakeshore. Interestingly, Pinot blanc also performed well in the Rittich trials decades earlier.

Gary Strachan

At November 6, 2015 at 10:58 AM , Blogger Leeann Froese said...

Such a great take on the sparkling wines in BC and where Summerhill fits in. I am lucky to work with these wines.


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