Eric von Krosigk
Summerhill winemaker Eric von Krosigk shows off the nitrogen generator that collects nitrogen from the atmosphere and pumps it into the wine tanks. The new process allows Summerhill to eliminate up to 90 per cent of the sulphites in their wine.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery has released this year what may be regarded as an historic vintage for the Okanagan Valley.
The 2013 vintage that came out this spring is the first of Summerhill’s ultra-low sulphite wines, made with a new process developed by the winemaker.
Summerhill has been working long and hard on reducing or eliminating altogether the addition of sulphites to wine. To achieve this goal, winemaker Eric von Krosigk installed a large nitrogen compressor that collects nitrogen from the air, and pumps it into their massive wine tanks.Nitrogen is an inert gas, and pushes out the oxygen, so there is nothing to feed bacteria that would normally be suppressed by the use of sulphites.
As a result, Summerhill now uses very little sulphites.
So, what’s the benefit? Well, for people who are sensitive to sulphites, it’s obviously a big deal; sulphite sensitivity can cause asthma attacks for those unlucky few who suffer from it.
For the rest of us, there are two main advantages. First, taking out the sulphites results in a fruit forward wine that presents the true taste of the grape, without that added taste of the sulphur. Secondly, the wines age better and longer. The more oxygen a wine has been exposed to in the beginning, the less time it can be aged without degrading.
Orchard and Vine arranged a taste comparison between two different vintages of Summerhill’s wines. Eric and Summerhill’s CEO Ezra Cipes lined up two bottles: A 2012 Ehrenfelser with sulphites, and a 2013 Ehrenfelser with 90 per cent of the sulphites removed. Both were made of grapes grown in the same fields, and otherwise went through the same wine making process. The one difference of course is that one wine has aged longer than the other.
To put it simply, there is a huge difference, and to my palate, that difference is well worth the effort. The 2012 vintage was excellent, but I was startled with the 2013 to taste how completely the pure fruit taste comes through both in the bouquet and on the tongue.
At first taste, it actually appeared the 2013 was more acidic, but that’s an illusion created by the fact there is more fruit flavor. In fact, the 2013 is notably less acidic than the 2012.
It’s a different experience, and one I think reflects where the best winemakers are going in the Okanagan and around the world. There is a strong trend in higher-end wines today to be more simple and pure, and not simply overcome bad grape growing or winemaking with a lot of sugars, sulphites and other additives. With fewer additives to cloud the issue, wines better express the quality of the fruit and the terroir in which they are grown.
Michel Chapoutier, one of the most highly regarded winemakers in France, spoke recently at the Vancouver International Wine Festival on the topic of consumers seeking no sulphites, saying, "The people who are making wine without sulphites are pioneers and should be celebrated for their innovation."
In the case of this Ehrenfelser, the wine is very crisp, very bright, and very pure, with just a hint of fizz from the natural C02 that’s preserved from the fermentation process.
According to von Krosigk, it is the taste of the future at Summerhill. "We are on a no-sulphite program at Summerhill, which means we use little or no sulphur wherever we can," von Krosigk says. "However, we will not sacrifice a wine to oxidation if it does need some. We have adjusted everything to make this work, and continue to research new and old techniques to reach the goal of zero added sulphites.
“While sulphur has been used for 5,000 years in winemaking, it has its own taste and smell that takes away from the wine, so we are very focused on making improvements at every stage from bud to bottle. We hope at some point to put an ingredients list on the bottle with a single entry: grapes. That is our goal."
CEO Ezra Cipe and his family are pioneers in organic production and environmental sustainability. He says Summerhill will share their design and their experience with other winemakers.
"We are committed to share our data and knowledge from the pilot testing with our provincial industry, and at the same time continue to encourage the wine industry in BC overall to work towards producing quality wines of provenance with sensitivity to healthfulness and to the environment,” Cipes says.
So, hopefully, we’ll soon see many more wines from BC adopting this approach.