VanWineFest 2017 – Heartbreak & Backache Seminar Part 1

In this seminar at the Vancouver International Wine Festival we had a panel of distinguished wine makers and hands-on owners share their stories and insights on Riesling and Pinot Noir, two notorious cool-climate grapes famed for breaking backs in the vineyard and hearts in the winery. These individuals talked about the challenges in the Okanagan Valley, Niagara Peninsula, and Mosel Valley growing grapes, going organic and much more.

Our moderator of the seminar was Mark Shipway, AIWS, who is Wine Department Head at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Vancouver.

Our panelists were:

  • Tobias Busch, Head wine maker and oenologist, Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof winery,
  • Ann Sperling, Wine maker for Sperling Vineyards,
  • David Paterson, GM and wine maker for Tantalus Vineyards,
  • Harald Thiel, Vigneron and proprietor of Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery,
  • Pedro Parra, Wine Terroir Consultant, OCP’s vineyard and wine making consultant
Tobias Busch, Harald Thiel, Ann Sperling, David Paterson, Pedro Parra, and Mark Shipway at VIWF (L to R)

Tobias Busch, Harald Thiel, Ann Sperling, David Paterson, Pedro Parra, and Mark Shipway at VIWF (L to R)

Our Featured Wines

Narrative Riesling 2015
Free Form Red 2015

Sperling Vineyards
Old Vines Riesling 2011
Vin Gris 2014

Tantalus Vineyards
Old Vines Riesling 2009
Pinot Noir 2011

Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery
Felseck Riesling 2013
Estate Pinot Noir 2011

Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof
Leiwener Laurentiuslay Spätlese Riesling 2007
Pinot Noir 2015

Sperling Vineyards, St Urbans-Hof, Tantalus, Haywire, and Hidden Bench Riesling

Sperling Vineyards, St Urbans-Hof, Tantalus, Haywire, and Hidden Bench Riesling

Tantalus, Haywire, and Hidden Bench Pinot Noir, and Sperling Vineyards Vin Gris

Tantalus, Haywire, and Hidden Bench Pinot Noir, and Sperling Vineyards Vin Gris

The Seminar

We started the seminar with a discussion of the Riesling grape at each of the 5 wineries we had a sample to savour. With 3 of the 5 wines coming from the Okanagan, the discussion was more about BC’s terroir, although we did get interesting insights from Harald about the Niagara region.  Following are snippets from the seminar.


A soil pit at Okanagan Crush Pad

A soil pit at Okanagan Crush Pad

Pedro Parra noted that Riesling is a great grape for Canada.  What we need to do is to look for small differences in soil as he indicated that small differences in the soil can show big changes in a wine.  He noted that we need to concentrate on limestone, which in BC is very thin, like powder, compared to Europe where it is more solid stone.  He noted that Riesling has delicate flavours and needs natural tension that comes from the soil. He also mentioned that gravel makes wines that provide a burning sensation in your mouth.

David Paterson from Tantalus Vineyards noted that if you do not have limestone in your vineyards, then you should have granite.  The granite in their vineyard gives undeniable minerality.  He has found that even within one block of vines, while the soil is similar, differences in aspect (direction of ground slope facing the sun) can make differences in the grapes.  David, who is originally from Australia, noted that although we may call some of our vines, planted in the 1970s “Old Vines”, other countries, like Australia with vines over 100 years old may disagree, but it is David’s assertion that our vines have been aged by our harsh winters and gives them character, so they should indeed be viewed as old.

Ann Sperling from Sperling Vineyards works with the oldest vines in BC.  Their Riesling grapes were planted in 1978.  She is a neighbour to Tantalus Vineyards, but is separated by a ravine, and the aspect of her vines are different from Tantalus.  Her vineyard is composed of glacial deposits but have some limestone clay, and Riesling is planted on the limestone clay.  Ann tried to investigate what made the vineyard special, and in part by digging 3m pits in the Riesling block, and brought in soil experts to analyze the vineyard. One question was how do to measure limestone in the soil?  She, or the soil experts, identified a way to do this and her Riesling block received a 3/3 rating.

Harald Thiel from Hidden Bench Vineyards provided us a Riesling from their Felseck Vineyard.  He noted that these vines owe their existence to Herman Weis who planted Riesling in Ontario. 75% of Riesling vines in Ontario were from Herman Weis (imported from the Mosel Valley. Clone 21B). Riesling was first planted in the Niagara Escarpment in 1976.  BC also owes their Riesling grape vines to Herman Weis.

Harald indicated their area is glacial terrain and north facing.  He noted that Riesling is a good grape economically for Ontario, and can be divided into 2 camps: Lower priced wines grown at 8-9 tones/acre and selling for $12-15 a bottle, and Premium, terroir driven wines selling in the $30 range.  He also indicated that it is a hard sell for New World Premium Riesling. That is too bad in my opinion, but hopefully through seminars like this, and writers like me telling everyone about how good our Rieslings are, we will get many converts.

Tobias Busch from Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof described their terrain as very steep in the river valley, and composed of slate soil.  Or more importantly solid rock, in which the vines roots have to force themselves into the rock.  The area gets very hot in the afternoon do to the slate, but as the other side of the river valley is flatter and more open, they get cooling breezes in the night to keep the acidity and flavour of the Riesling grape.

Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture

Ann Sperling, although presenting here from BC with Sperling Vineyards, also is Director of wine making at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara, which is the first organic and biodynamic vineyard in Canada.  Conventionally grown vines are more vulnerable to management of vineyard according to Anne. If the weather has a dramatic turn, the vines are more prone to disease. Demands on fruit set stress the vine and is often when the vine is vulnerable.  Anne tries to bring microbial life back to the soil. A more consistent soil directly affects the vine health.  While the climate may be changing, if you have a consistent environment in the soil, the vines should not be as adversely affected.  Anne noted that we are bearing the costs of producing the grapes organically, but we are not pushing long-term costs on to the future.

Harald Thiel grows their grapes organically and notes that there is more work to grow in a humid environment.  It costs approximately 30% more for Hidden Bench Vineyards to farm organically.  If you follow conventional methods and use systemic chemicals those are absorbed in plant.  Organic and biodynamic treatments are surface replied and if it rains, needs to be reapplied.  Roundup, a popular herbicide, can be applied to kill weeds in a vineyard, but the question is, do you want a manicured, weed-free vineyard or a living and growing vineyard?  To Harald, in the end he knows that he is not modifying soil structure, rather he is improving the soil by adding organic over time. They apply 500 tonnes of compost a year over 84 acres and their vines are thriving.

Pinot Noir

A selection of Pinot Noir clones (Image courtesy

A selection of Pinot Noir clones (Image courtesy

Harald: Their Estate Pinot Noir accounts for 50% of their wine production.  The grapes come from 3 different vineyards, 100% estate grown. He noted that they have many clones, and some older vineyards from the 1960s. Our vinification program is simple; Make their wines all the same. Hand picked, de-stemmed, and hand-sorted. Let the grapes cold soak for 6-8 days, then let the fermentation with indigenous yeasts take place. After fermentation age some in barrel and some in steel, then blend. Their Estate Pinot Noir is not a terroir-driven, single vineyard wine, but shows what can be done with Pinot Noir.

David: 2011 was a hard vintage for their Pinot Noir. They picked into November but did as a result get a long hang time. The heartbreak came when he tried blending their French and German Pinot Noir clones.  German clones form big bunches and have lots of seed tannin. He gets a dark and ruddy wine with astringent tannins from the German clones.  Not direction they want with Pinot, so he just uses the French clones now. It was a learning process and he now sees that these clones should not be together.  Another thing that David learned about Pinot Noir is that by using whole bunch fermentation, the skin tannins are softer, and you get a  bigger, rounder wine. He now makes sparkling wine with the German clones.

Tobias: This is the first time their Pinot Noir wine is shown to the general public. We are tasting a barrel sample from the 2015 vintage. The grapes come from vines planted 1993. Before that time, regulations only allowed Riesling to be grown in their Mosel appellation. A such, with this first vintage they did not have facilities to make a proper red wine and used stainless open fermentation tanks, with whole cluster fermentation and natural yeasts. The wine underwent spontaneous malolactic fermentation.  At this point the wine is still an experiment and only time will tell how it develops. They will be releasing this wine in BC, possibly in September.  The audience did quite enjoy this wine, as I did.

We covered a lot of material in this article, and I hope learned something about our grapes, viticulture and wine making.  In Part 2, I will provide my tasting notes for the wines outlined above.  Enjoy.

Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.