Monday, July 24, 2017

Summerhill's versatile winemaking

Photo: The Summerhill wine-aging pyramid (Courtesy Edward Ross Photography

Kelowna’s Summerhill Pyramid Winery is on a roll this year. Examples:

·       The winery’s 2013 ‘Small Lot’ Sémillon Icewine received 100 points and a double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition this year.

·       In May, Summerhill’s 2014 Chardonnay Icewine was judged the best of the icewines at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in Europe.

·       And with its latest releases, Summerhill has joined the ranks of the Okanagan’s serious Pinot Noir producers.

This marks Summerhill a versatile producer, with a portfolio extending from Icewine to sparkling wine and still encompassing heritage varieties such as Foch.

Of course, the winery, which opened in 1992, continues to specialize in sparkling wines. If founder Stephen Cipes had his way, he would call these wines Champagne. The Summerhill sparkling wines are all, I believe, traditional method wines – fermented in bottle just like Champagne. However, Champagne is a term now limited to the French wine region of that name.

The Maréchal Foch is one of the wines in Summerhill’s Heritage Series of wines. “The Heritage Series was established to celebrate the history of BC’s wine industry, demonstrating that beautiful wines can be produced with grapes that are rarely used in modern winemaking,” the winery explains.

Foch is a robust red French hybrid that was one of the mainstays of the wine industry before the 1988 vine pullout in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. The object of that pullout was to eliminate the hybrids from BC vineyards in the belief that they produced mediocre wines.

The main reason those grapes made such poor wines is that they were not being grown to make quality wine. The hybrids were overcropped as a matter of routine and wineries, by and large, had to accept the grapes.

The hybrids still in the vineyards today are being cropped at the same tonnages as the vinifera grapes. That is why delicious wines are being made from the surviving French hybrids.

The grapes for the Summerhill wine are from an Oliver vineyard operated by veteran organic grape grower Hans Buchler, whom I profiled in British Columbia Wine Companion in 1996. Since the book is out of print, here is an excerpt:

Buchler, Hans (1947-):  One of the leading organic grapegrowers in the Okanagan, the lean, lanky Buchler farms a seventeen-acre vineyard tucked into a bucolic, pine-covered valley high above Oliver. In Berne, Switzerland, where he was born, his father was a doctor and his mother a teacher. When he finished college, Buchler spent some time traveling before returning to Switzerland and marrying Christine, a nurse. They lived and worked on his father-in-law's organic vegetable farm in the Swiss winegrowing region known by the appellation La Cot, where his interest in grapes and wine began. Land prices being prohibitive in Switzerland, Buchler and his wife emigrated, choosing Canada over New Zealand because Buchler had traveled across Canada in 1976. "I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of British Columbia," he recalls. The raw land they purchased near Oliver was planted to grapes in 1983 after Buchler negotiated a contract to sell the fruit to Mission Hill.  They originally planted  foch,  Okanagan riesling and verdelet, along with only two vinifera (gewurztraminer and white riesling). The Okanagan riesling was the first to be replaced -- with chardonnay, pinot noir and semillon; half of the foch was uprooted later and the verdelet was pulled out  after the 1995 harvest, to be replaced by pinot noir and gamay. The remaining foch plants may have gained a lease on life by the return of this variety to favor. As well, Mission Hill has had commercial success marketing an organic foch wine, made from Buchler's grapes.

The vineyard has been organic since 1988, after Buchler had used herbicicides and synthetic fertilizers in the first two years.  "But that does not agree with my outlook on farming," he says. Now he gets nutrients into his soils by growing legume cover crops such as peas, vetch and clover, so successfully that some parts of the vineyard are at risk of having excessive nitrogen (which causes the vines to grow too vigorously).  Weeds are kept under control with cultivation and by incinerating the young weeds with blasts from a portable propane-fueled flame thrower. The most devastating insect pest in vineyards is the leaf hopper. Buchler has found the populations of these can be reduced with insecticidal soaps and by introducing parasites, some of which are commercially available while others -- notably a microscopic wasp called Anagrus epos -- occur naturally. None of the controls is complete but Buchler is satisfied with establishing a balance between nature and an acceptable amount of damage. "I always have to find the solution which is the least labor intensive," he says.

Dedicated to organic principles, Buchler is a member of the Similkameen-Okanagan Organic Growers Association and has been president of the Association of Certified Organic Growers of British Columbia. With three wineries fully organic in 1995 and with many requests for information from growers, Buchler knows he is no longer pioneering the concept.

He is now selling grapes to Summerhill, one of the earliest wineries to commit to organic production. Indeed, Stephen Cipes would like to have the entire industry to commit to organic production.

Organic or not, well grown hybrids can produce good wine. My guests at dinner recently had the Summerhill wine side by side with a Syrah. The consensus? The Maréchal Foch was better.

Here are notes on recent Summerhill releases.

Summerhill Cipes Brut Rosé NV ($30.48). This traditional method sparkling wine is made with organic Pinot Noir. The wine rested about three years on the fermentation lees before being finished. It has a lovely rose petal hue, with aromas and flavours of strawberry accented with a hint of breadiness. The finish is refreshingly crisp and dry. 90.

Summerhill Organic Maréchal Foch 2013 ($25.99). This wine, aged nine months in French and American oak, is bold, with aromas of ripe dark fruit and flavours of black cherry, plum, blueberry and chocolate. The ripe tannins give the wine a juicy texture. 90.  

Summerhill Pinot Noir 2013 ($29.89 for 962 cases). This wine was aged for 33 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, strawberry and vanilla. It is savoury on the finish with notes of forest floor. 88.

Summerhill Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 (N/A). The notes identify the vineyard as Chandra Vineyard. This wine was aged 32 months in neutral French oak. Whether it is because of evaporation in barrel or ripe fruit, the wine has 14.7% alcohol and is ever so slightly porty. Perhaps that is not a typical Pinot Noir but this bold wine is pretty tasty, with a concentrated texture, aromas and flavours of cherry and plum. There is a touch of vanilla and spice on the finish. 90-91.


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