The first thing a sharp-eyed visitor might notice on a visit to Summerhill Pyramid Winery’s estate vineyard is a great variety of colours among the vine leaves.

“We don’t go for that Miracle Gro look here,” winemaker and general manager Eric von Krosigk says.

The vineyards, managed with organic, biodynamic and permacultural practices, don’t get the continual cocktail of sprays throughout the season that other properties might. “I think we get an expression of terroir that is much more intense—the vine enters into a symbiotic relationship with the soil,” he says.

In that soil are something in the order of 57,000 species of microflora that create a complex growing medium for the vines and, ultimately, the grapes they produce.

“It’s like an ocean—an incredibly complex ecosystem that plants grow in. The conventional practice of constantly using salts, sulphurs and other components ultimately makes the soil toxic.”

Not that less invasive farming practices are any less costly or labour intensive. Compost mixed right on the property can need adjustments, and biodynamics—which follow the teachings of Rudolph Steiner—require the making and use of five natural preparations made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs that, during the course of the growing season, add to the soil’s structure and health. “It really takes an artist’s eye to read the plant and keep adjusting what we do through the season.”

Biodynamic practices are intended to create diversity and balance in a farm ecosystem, generating health and fertility. Throughout the growing season, Eric says, “Everything matters—water, weather, nutrients, even the pH levels in the water. We are trying to achieve a certain harmony so the vine doesn’t overproduce, but also so it doesn’t underproduce.”

It is this gentle, persistent level of care that helps develop minerality and other characteristics in the fruit that are treasured in wine. “80% of what’s in the bottle comes right from the grape.”

Come harvest time, weather and temperature, and the condition of both plants and grapes are factors in determining when to pick. So too is what the grapes are intended for. Barely ripe, acidic fruit makes the best sparkling wine, which might only have a 10% alcohol level. For a table Chardonnay, slightly higher levels are sought, and those come from further ripening and sugar development.

On the day of harvest, whole Chardonnay clusters are given a gentle pressing and allowed to cold settle for about 12 hours. The murky juice is then quickly transferred to oak, often new, barrels. Fermentation might take two weeks, after which the juice is racked, or siphoned off the sediment, and then stirred regularly for up to 2½ months, encouraging body and structure development. Malolactic fermentation takes place as well as the yeasts breaking down, the remaining proteins create a rich mid palate, which gives Chardonnay its treasured creaminess.

When fermentation has created the desired results, a portion of the wine is again racked and stored in stainless steel vats to allow for a final settling of the remaining lees. Tweaks in that period result in a clear, stable wine that is ready for bottling. A few months of rest in the bottle and it is ready for the shelf, and appreciative customers.

“I love Chardonnay,” Eric smiles. “I’m not a fan of oversweet or over-oaked versions but when grown and made right, it’s a great wine.”

Throughout its time in the winery, the liquid’s exposure to oxygen is controlled by the introduction of nitrogen to the barrels and tanks. While wine needs oxygen along the way, too much can lead to unwelcome results.

The tiny clusters of grapes that begin with fruit the size of a pinhead evolve into fruit bursting with complex flavours, just what the winemaker is looking for as he gently guides it through the complex process of turning fruit into wine. Chardonnay grapes grown on the Summerhill Pyramid Winery produce wine that has won awards—“too many to remember”, Eric says—for both sparkling and table wine versions.

~ Lorne Eckersley