Thursday morning at 10:00 I sat down to a tasting of Summerhill Wines at The Butternut Tree Restaurant in downtown Edmonton. I was a bit late because my perfect route plan was foiled by a Street Food Festival. Nonetheless I was invited to sit down and enjoy a taste of:
Summerhill’s Cipes Blanc de Blancs 2012 – It had a white flower nose of delicate citrus fruit and skins. Then a magnanimous attack of zesty incensified fruit.
Ezra (Cipes CEO) started to talk about how his family got into Biodynamics in the first place. It was their first season in BC and their vineyard manager handed Ezra’s dad a Hazmat suit and told him they were going to spray that day so he had to suit up. Ezra’s father thought about the young family he’d only just moved to the countryside to live a healthier life. When he spoke to the manager about going organic they parted ways. Summerhill was on its’ own and on its’ way to becoming the first Certified Organic winery in the region. They were doing it way before it became cool.
Next we tasted Cipes Traditional Cuvée 1996
Clear mid gold Yeasty toasted brioche, with lemon zest. Bright pretty attack of savory toast and jam. Juicy compelling fruit and even balance. Ezra says key lime pie. Great with toasted moss! Also Caviar three kinds with tiny perfect pancakes and cream.
Biodynamics pre date Organics. It’s a holistic effort envisioned by Rudolph Steiner. Steiner was a mystic & a philosopher / intellectual. He recognized the farmer as a unique noble creative force, a very important entity in the framework of agriculture.
Permaculture looks at nature and tries to integrate its systems. Nature has no waste and we can emulate this idea by Composting. Composting was the first and main thing the Cipes family did to bring life back to their soils. So all the yeasts, stems, skins (all the organic matter) became the basis for their composting program. Now plate scrapings from their restaurant and horse manure borrowed from neighbors also come together to make the most wonderful dirt.
Summerhill share their compost and their “preparations“ with neighbors at no charge thus encouraging permaculture in their own backyard. Ezra’s Brother Gabriel has been in charge of overseeing compost from the very beginning.
So what then about the notorious preparations?
Biodynamic preparations were outlawed in Germany during the Nazi regime! So it is that each different preparation has a code number. Here’s one for autumn: First take the manure of a lactating cow, put it in cow horns… dig a hole in the garden and bury the poo horns in a spiral pattern. Dig them up in the spring by which time the poo will have been transformed into a peaty black earth. Take a few grams of that peaty black earth and add creek water in a barrel. Dynamize the liquid by stirring with a huge stick making vortices first in one direction and then the other..back and forth carefully creating a vortex each time.This brings the practitioner in line with the laws of nature. Once that’s done spray your property with the preparation in a spiral pattern.
Rudolph Steiner said one had to experiment to bring back life force to the soil and that people are integral to the process. Every minute thing has implications for the whole of the environment.
We continued tasting:
2017 Summerhill Gruner Vetliner from the first Dementer certified vineyard. It was the first BC Demeter certified wine. It’s clear mid gold with a white pear and jasmine nose of wet stone and sandalwood. The big round attack may be the result of spontaneous malolactic fermentation. Cheata gets a white pepper note. Silken attack of unique elegant savory fruit with a gentle but inky finish. It really seeps into the palate. Served with chilled asparagus soup which is delightfully fresh and garnished with a slightly licorice tasting herb flower (Chervil) that nails the pairing. Also the steak tartar with roasted ground crickets really brought out the freshness in this wine.
Summerhill Vineyard Riesling 2017 was a clear mid light gold. Tropical nose of fresh laundry and a tiny hint of gas but more green apple and fresh laundry prevail. Bright tart fresh lime attack of sweetly perfumed fruit that opens to peachy stone fruit. Ezra describes a wooliness on the front of the palate from uncontrolled fermentation. It has a deep wide mouth feel and minerality that is also the result of natural fermentation. The long game on the finish is all jasmine and lily of the valley. It’s a big Riesling displaying the high acids which are a signature of Okanagan Riesling.
We spoke some more about growing wine in BC and how the cold weather they get in winter makes it an easy place to be biodynamic many pests being rendered inert by the cold. We talked about how chemicals kill the bio diversity in the soil and how the bacteria and fungus of today are simply the gnomes of days gone by.
Then Ezra said something to the effect that it’s not as much a doing of biodynamic farming as it is an awakening to the consciousness of biodynamics. There’s a good video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwuPTI8AT7M about that.
Finally we had the 2017 Summerhill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 It was dark purple ruby with a very clear edge. Barrel aged it smelled of wild cherry & raspberry incense. (a balance of contrasts…) Juicy attack of chewy tannin and a scrapey mouthfeel. It’s as though the dryness itself leads you to the next sip and the next. Uncontrolled fermentation gives that woolly edge to the front of the palate again.
There were ups and downs for Summerhill through the years. In 2013 an influential Wine Consultant assured their winemaker that the native yeasts from their vineyards would work on their own but it took two weeks for fermentation to begin and when it did it smelled like farts ! (H2S) In response they hyper oxygenated the whole vat managing to diminish the H2S and it worked out… but to those who know, the fart smell still lingers in the background.
It seems that biodynamic wines are more about tasting the terroir than going through all the steps and the odd seeming processes. Ultimately wines are about the eco system…the web of life.
The conversation came around at last to Gabriel Howard, famed British plant physiologist and economic botanist who advocated organic farming and the idea that plants like music. Live with them for a few months he said! Most specifically they like pure harmony such as in baroque music. They are also fond of ragas and reggae.
It all seems very odd but strangely right to me. Biodynamic farming may well be the royal road to terroir driven wines. There’s a clarity and a quality to them that make you feel good. I know my own head was very clear with absolutely no congestion all afternoon and my backache disappeared!
The wine, the discussion and the exquisite food at The Butternut Tree made for an enchanting start to the day and for me a whole new way of looking at Summerhill Winery.
Next time we’ll talk about the pyramid!