Monday, February 20, 2017

A wine tasting with Ann Sperling

Photo: Sperling Vineyards' Ann Sperling

Ann Sperling surely is the pride of Kelowna’s wine community: a hometown vintner with an international reputation.

Since 2008, she has applied her extensive experience as the winemaker and one of the proprietors of Sterling Vineyards.

Last month, she invited me to a tasting of her current range, mostly wines just being released, or soon to be released. The range is astounding: everything from a Champagne look-alike to Icewine. All the wines are made with fruit for the historic estate vineyard, known to the Sperling family as Pioneer Ranch.

The pioneering began with Ann’s ancestor, Giovanni Casorso, who came from Italy in 1883 to work with Father Charles Pandossy, the pioneering missionary in the Okanagan. The next generation of the Casorso family began planting grapes in 1929.

The property was taken over in 1960 by Bert Sperling, Ann’s father, who had married Velma Casorso. Ann, who was born in 1962, grew up in that vineyard.

She has vivid memories of Pioneer Ranch. “All the grapes at that time were labrusca or labrusca hybrids,” she says. “The exception was the Perle de Csaba. It is a vinifera and a Muscat type. It ripened early, in late August, and tasted wonderful. I certainly attribute my love of Muscat and Moscato d’Asti to having gorged myself as often as possible on those grapes.”

She began her winemaking career at Andrés Wines in Port Moody in 1984, armed with a food sciences degree from the University of British Columbia. She moved to CedarCreek where she was the winemaker from 1991 to 1995. Her achievements at CedarCreek included the 1992 Merlot Reserve, so impressive that the judges at the 1993 Okanagan Wine Festival created a platinum medal for it.

She moved to Ontario in 1995, carving out a distinguished career (with husband Peter Gamble) as a consulting winemaker. Some of the best Ontario wineries have been her clients, including Southbrook Vineyards, her major Niagara client today.

As busy as her career has been, one thing had been missing in Ann’s life. “I have always wanted to make wine with my parents’ vineyard,” she said. “I got to make wine with some of the grapes when I was at CedarCreek, but not anything extensive.”

In 2008 she partnered with her sister, Jill, their spouses and other members of the family to launch Sperling Vineyards. “It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to make wine here, because I am so familiar with every foot and every slope and every grape on the property,” Ann said.

The debut vintages were made at a nearby winery in East Kelowna, where Ann also was consulting winemaker for several years. In 2013, a production facility with a 10,000-case capacity was completed in the middle of the Pioneer Ranch. Because that vineyard lacks public access, the Sperlings planted enough grapes next to family-owned Pioneer  Country Market to support a license for Sterling Vineyards. The market is on Benvoulin Road, a major Kelowna thoroughfare.

The winery amid the vines is licensed separately as Magpie Cellars, named for a flock (or murder) of magpies that have lived here a long time. “They have watched over us and criticised our work for generations,” Ann said.  “It seemed fitting to acknowledge their role.”

If magpies were wine drinkers, they would not have much to complain about. Here are notes on the wines. Vision Label is a reserve designation.

Sperling Sparkling Brut 2010 ($40). This is made with Pinot Blanc from a vineyard block planted in the 1980's. The block produces fruit with the ideal acidity for sparkling wine. The inspiration for this wine was a grower Champagne made from Pinot Blanc and selling for $250 a bottle. The Sperling Brut was disgorged after about 42 months on the lees. As a result, there is a fine biscuity note both on the nose and mingled with the lively green apple flavours. 92.

Sperling Brut Rosé 2013 ($42). This wine is made with Pinot Noir clone 828 and presents with a lovely pink hue from skin contact. The bubbles give the wine a creamy texture. There are aromas and mouth-filling flavours of raspberry and strawberry. 91.

Sperling Brut Reserve 2011 ($50). This sparkling wine is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay from vines planted in 2008.  Ann’s model is Grande Marques Champagne and she adheres to the winemaking protocols of those wines (moderate alcohol, bright acidity, long lees contact in bottle). This wine has bready aromas from the lees contact. There is also a touch of biscuit mingled with the citrus and green apple flavours. The finish is crisp and dry. Tasted blind, you would take this for classic Champagne. 92.

Sperling Vision Label Chardonnay 2015 ($30). This barrel-fermented wine is made with clone 528 Chardonnay from a high-altitude block in the Sperling vineyard. “I wanted to retain acidity, so we harvested it somewhere around 21 Brix, maybe 21 ½,” Ann explains. “At that point, there still is eight or nine grams of acid. And I am working in 500 litre puncheons.” Think of Chablis with this wine. The oak is subtle on the nose and palate. The citrus and apple flavours are kept bright by the acidity. The finish lingers. 91.

Sperling Vision Label Vin Gris ($30). This is 100% barrel-fermented Pinot Noir but treated much like the Chardonnay, with the retention of good acidity. The wine, which presents with a bronze hue, has aromas and flavours of strawberry and apple. There is a fine backbone of minerality. 90.

Sperling Pinot Noir Rosé ($19). The wine is made with clones 828 and 777. The grapes get overnight skin contact before being pressed, just enough for a moderately pink hue. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherries and strawberries. It is filled out on the palate with good texture to lift the fruit flavours while finishing dry. 91.

Sperling The Market White 2015 ($17). This is a light and refreshing white, with just 11% alcohol. It is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Bacchus and Riesling. The Bacchus contributes herbal and spice notes. Ann limits Bacchus to a maximum of 40% of the blend; more than that, and Bacchus takes over. This wine begins with herbal aromas and subtle notes of lime and grapefruit on the palate. A touch of residual sugar adds to the easy-going style. 90.

Sperling Old Vines Riesling 2013 ($32 for 210 cases). The grapes are from the vineyard’s 1978 planting of clone 21B Riesling. This dry Riesling has good weight and intensity with notes of lemon and lime in the aroma and ripe apples and peaches on the palate. The wine is also beginning to show the classic petrol on the nose and on the palate. Seventeen grams of residual sugar are balanced with about 10 grams of acidity. This is an age-worthy, sophisticated Riesling. 95

Sperling  Amber Pinot Gris 2015 ($30). This is Ann’s “natural” wine. The grapes went into the fermenters with 40% whole clusters. The wine was fermented on the skins with no additions of any kind, not even yeast or sulphur. The wine was fermented to total dryness and, after moderate settling, was bottled in April, 2016. Some lees remain in this unfiltered wine by design, to guard against oxidation. The name of the wine describes the colour which was extracted from the Pinot Gris skins. The texture is rich. The wine is complex, with spice, herbs and orange zest on the palate. Natural wines like this are popular with sommeliers because of the ability of the wines to pair with a wide range of foods. 91.

Sperling Pinot Noir 2015 ($26). Made with clones 114 and 777, this is a bold Pinot Noir, with aromas and flavours of spicy black cherries. The texture is silky. “Pinot Noir should be persistent,” Ann says. “Its power is in its ability to hold your attention.” This one does. 92.

Sperling Vision Label Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). This is a single barrel selection. The wine plays the usual Pinot Noir trick: the colour a bit light but the texture is full and satisfying and the flavours explode with notes of cherry, strawberry and spice. 92.

Sperling The Market Red 2015 ($18 for 500 cases). This is a new wine in the Sperling portfolio to partner with The Market White. The wine is 90% Maréchal Foch, with 40% whole clusters in the ferment, adding structure to the wine. The other 10% is Pinot Noir. The wine is a juicy, Beaujolais-style quaffer, with flavours of blackberry and cherry. 88.

Sperling Old Vines Foch 2015 ($32). Sperling Vineyards has one of the oldest blocks of Maréchal Foch in the Okanagan. Ann, who now uses about 30% whole clusters in the ferment, has mastered this venerable, and sometimes derided, French hybrid. This wine begins with intense aromas of black cherry and chocolate. Those are echoed on the meaty, earthy and full-bodied palate. The texture, however, is almost silky. 91.

Sperling Late Harvest Riesling 2015 ($30 for 375 ml bottle). Grapes for this wine were harvested from the vineyard’s old vines block at -6◦C, not far above the legal threshold for Icewine. The object was to concentrate the aromas and flavours. This dessert wine begins with aromas of lemon and lime. It delivers a mouthful of tropical fruit flavours and, with bright acidity, has a clean and refreshing finish. 95.

Sperling Vidal Icewine 2015 ($55 for 375 ml). To qualify for a tasting room license, Sperling Vineyards planted a two-acre block of Vidal in the form of a labyrinth next to the wine shop. For Icewine, the grapes were picked at -10◦C. The wine is a textbook Vidal Icewine – plump, with aromas and flavours of mango, guava and peach. Bright acidity gives this sweet wine a clean palate, encouraging one to drink a second glass. 90.

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