Mt. Lehman Winery
For Vern Siemens, co-owner of Mt. Lehman Winery, growing grapes and making wine are labours of love. Both came naturally to Siemens who “grew up in a construction- and farm-based family.” A successful land developer in Calgary and the Fraser Valley, he and his wife Charleen purchased a former dairy farm on fertile rolling hills in Abbotsford in 1985.
Siemens interest in wine came at an unusually early age when he started “experiments with dandelion and raspberry wine in elementary school.”
“Isn’t that why we have closets in the bedroom,” he asks with a smile? “After high school, this led to kit wines, and then making wine from frozen grapes, and then from imported grapes.” Further training consisted of “traveling to virtually every major wine area in the world to taste and learn...reading almost every book...and acquiring a huge, international wine cellar.”
Gradually, Siemens began experimenting with growing grapes on his 75-acre farm, which continues to produce certified organic hay on the back 40 acres. “I’ve gone through 50 to 60 varieties...and a lot of them did not work out or I did not like the flavours or they just were not practical,” he explains.
He describes Müller-Thurgau as “simple,” Huxelrebe as “tart without complexity,” Kerner a “huge producer, but mediocre” and Dornfelder with “nice colour and easy to grow, but unimpressive.”
Siemens jokes there was so much bad wine spilled on the entrance way that he “had to pave the driveway.” The levity belies his real aim: “I would only open a winery if I could make wine as good as Okanagan wine.”
Today’s vineyard covers 17 acres with 12 varieties passing the cut, including Pinot Noir, the flagship variety, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Merlot, as well as several Blattner hybrids. Planted in a new field four years ago, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürtztraminer will produce a crop this year.
Fascinated with Burgundies, Siemens has been growing Pinot Noir for over 20 years. “I love their complexities, delicate
personalities, difficult characters...tough to grow and tough to vinify, or tough to get it just right,” he notes. “One false move...and you lose that delicate fruit and personality...with the soft fruit and silky texture. Our vineyard is a compilation of French clones 113, 115, 375, 667 and 777...to emulate the great vineyards of Burgundy.”
After trying unoaked Chardonnay from Penticton – “I didn’t realize they were this good” – Siemens planted the vine and liked the result. Using Romani yeast recommended by UBC microbiologist Hennie van Vuuren, he describes the wine as “foamy,” “effusively fruity and fresh with guava and green apple flavours” and “reflects the soil.”
“The Blattner varieties do hold some promise for the Fraser Valley because they are so easy to grow and ripen fairly reliably,” he says. “At this point I am still not sure if [they] will ever make it into the mainstream as I find their wines somewhat lacking and with a greenish mown lawn quality. Currently, I am working on several Blattner varieties, such as Cab Foch and Cab Libre. There are some who seek out the Cab Foch – a killer with Mexican food – for its gorgeous colour and depth, smooth, spicy fruit and soft tannins. But I find them unexciting; if you are going to have red, why would you want anything but Pinot Noir?”
Siemens explains the biggest challenge for his dry farming vineyard is “obviously getting enough sunshine to ripen all the grape varieties sufficiently –not enough summer– coupled with the need to keep the vineyards clean and cropped via leaf pulling and a disciplined sulphur spraying program to keep mildew at bay.” On warm, dry years like this year, both are easily achieved, he adds. While 2012 was fantastic and the warm summer of 2009 produced excellent reds, 2010 and 2011 were horrid, although still suitable for making whites.
“The soils underlying our vineyards are basically 18 inches of topsoil over dense clay, which not only holds water sufficiently during dry spells, but provide our Pinot Noir with a pretty roundness and full fruit flavours,” Siemens says.
Siemens notes the costs to produce in the Fraser Valley are much higher than in the interior or elsewhere in the world. “The reason is that we have hilly terrain – Burgundian landscape – and there is very little mechanized work in the actual vineyard; pruning and picking are done by hand. Also, our labour costs are much higher and finally as part of the winery experience the landscaping of the farm and look and health of the vineyard are important factors.”
Mt. Lehman is a small–scale family operation with a tiny plot, compared to “other grape growing areas of the world where factory farming more aptly describes grape growing.”
According to Siemens his winemaking “really amounts [to] minimum intervention in the wine making process...we want grapes to show us where to go with the wine. That is why it is important to keep your yields low and vineyards healthy as this is really where you start. Every year I continue to experiment with various new yeasts and wild yeasts to try and find the perfect one for the variety and climate we have here. Instead of additives, I blend for acidity and keep sulphur crazy low.”
Siemens prefers small lots, with no more than 200 cases of a certain variety. Production is nearing 2,500 cases, and he jokes “we either have to go bigger and hire a winemaker and I hire a winemaker and cellar workers, or we have go smaller so I can keep up.”
He readily admits that pouring his energies into his passion while continuing to make money through his business endeavours is a tough act. “Rarely do the two work together. My goal is to one day break even on the financial front.” ■