Ann Sperling is arguably Canada’s foremost authority in the organic/biodynamic winemaking space.
Raised on a family vineyard in Kelowna, BC, Ann recognized early on the need for developing and appreciating the fine balance within the characteristics of the fruit and its effects on wine. She completed her Food Sciences degree at UBC and has continued her path of learning and exploration since she entered the wine industry full-time in 1984.
Ann’s resume includes the implementation of organic certification at Malivoire’s Moira Vineyard in Beamsville, Ontario in 1999; The continuing of her family’s vineyard in Kelowna – now called Sperling Vineyards; And various consulting projects, including her own Malbec vineyard in Mendoza. Add to this her being awarded Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards in 2004.
She’s now Director of Winemaking and Viticulture at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario where she transitioned the farm and vineyard practise to biodynamic viticulture and winemaking in 2006, with Pro-Cert and Demeter certification in 2008.
Like organics, biodynamic wines are free of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, but the eco-balanced regimen is even more stringent. One of the main aims is to strengthen the soil and, therefore, the vines.
It’s all part of Ann’s quest to not only educate on the benefits of organic/biodynamic and other forms of sustainable farming, but to also allow the difference in quality speak for itself through the wines that she makes. She continues to challenge her peers to be better winemakers, better growers and better stewards of their vineyards.
“I believe it’s important for educated consumers to ask their producers the hard questions about methods of production and challenge growers to perform at higher levels.” – Ann Sperling
I had the chance to speak with Ann back in 2018, with organics and biodynamics being the focus of our conversation. Ann made it clear that she believes that “the argument for “feeding the masses” should not apply for products such as wine, so growing wine grapes using the highest standard of sustainability should be the norm rather than the exception.” It’s a great motto to do business by – and not just if you’re a winemaker, but also as growers and farmers who share this great responsibility.
As a sort of fitting tribute to the upcoming 50th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22) – and this being arguably the most important Earth Day in recent memory – I thought it would be a good idea to dig out my interview notes and re-publish my full conversation with her here (which was originally partially used for a piece I wrote for West of the City back in 2018).
Q: As consumers grow more concerned with environmental practices, the wine industry is becoming more pressured into adopting sustainable farming methods, such as the practices we are speaking of here (biodynamic, organic). Consumers seem to be willing to pay a premium for more ethical grapes, which is a powerful incentive for others to follow suit. Is this something that you had in mind when you came to the decision to become biodynamic at Southbrook?
A: The alignment of our goals has always been to a) make great wines of character and place b) create a long lasting vineyard environment that we are comfortable and proud to work in along with all Southbrook employees and visitors c) add value to agriculture and show the region and wine industry that Organic production is attainable. We completely agree that consumers are ready for this and supportive.
I’ve read that biodynamic winemakers have claimed that their methods tend to result in better balance in growth over the stretch of the season, resulting in a wine with the correct balance of flavour and alcohol content, even with changing climate conditions. Biodynamic wines can also be found to have better expressions of terroir, the way in which a wine can represent its specific place of origin in its aroma, flavour and texture. Do you see this as a noticeable factor and characteristic when it comes to your winemaking?
At Southbrook we have seen over the 10-12 years of work with our estate grown biodynamic grapes that our wines require very little to no intervention, so we continue to work with wild ferments consistently and have developed natural wines such as Orange Vidal and Biodynamic Bubbly – both made without additives and bottled unfiltered.
It is said that some grape growers who have adopted biodynamic methods claim to have achieved improvements in the health of their vineyards, specifically in the areas of soil fertility, crop nutrition, and pest, weed and disease management. Is this true in your case? Have you noticed significant improvements since becoming biodynamic?
There is no question in our minds that our practices have improved the tilth of our soil. We see a thicker topsoil profile and deeper root penetration throughout the vineyard. The natural/pre-existing make-up of our soils is very delicate therefore the increased organic matter is making it more resilient.
Do you think it makes more sense for Ontario (considering our climate) to have more biodynamic and organic wineries than we do, if it does in fact help produce a more consistent wine year over year? Why do you think others have not followed as closely in your footsteps?
We have had a steady increase in biodynamic production over the years – Lightfoot & Wolfville were certified in 2017 in Nova Scotia, and Hidden Bench (has now pursued certification since 2018). Not every winery or vineyard wants to make great wine, so often they are not thinking about improvement or change. Another very big factor is training – viticulture and wine schools still focus on conventional methods, so those doing organics and biodynamics must be very motivated and prepared to do their own learning and on-going development.
What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out? Conversely, what do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker?
I was raised in a vineyard and am an optimist so winemaking suites me. There’s a new focus each season so deadlines are built in and no one needs to tell me what to do. A frustration is an expectation that wineries should constantly remake themselves and always have something new in their lineups. Vineyards on the other hand need nurturing and slow development to bring out subtle improvements over time.
What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve (be it with Southbrook or yourself personally)?
Recently my development has been to rely more on all components of the grape and less on winemaking and cellar techniques. So working with stems and whole clusters, allowing more skin influence in all wines. Working to rely less on the character of wood and more on the properties as a vessel.
Southbrook 2013 ‘Poetica’ Chardonnay
Wine experts have said that Ontario is the perfect environment for chardonnay to thrive, and this wine is a major testament to that. In fact, if there was to be one chardonnay to lead the Ontario charge and be the example, this would be the one, without a doubt. Aged 11 months in French oak, it has excellent complexity with flavours of honey and nuts, buttered toast, spice and some citrus leading towards a full-bodied finish. Serve moderately chilled. ($70)
Southbrook 2013 ‘Poetica’ Red
This limited-edition offering reflects the highest expression of Southbrook’s estate vineyard. Made from 74 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 23 per cent cabernet franc and 3 per cent petit verdot, this wine will be a real treasure among your cellar. Expect red and blackcurrant fruit accented by notes of pepper and spice, all nicely elevated with a fresh acidic burst. It’s energetic with such impressive focus. This is a definitive Ontario red wine blend! ($70)
Southbrook 2016 Cabernet Rosé
Made of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon and 50 percent cabernet franc, this medium salmon colour rosé boasts aromas of ripe strawberry, sweet herbs and cedar, and is dry, medium bodied on the palate. Pair this with your appetizer charcuterie board this summer or with barbecued chicken and ribs. Yes, this wine will cut through all those flavours and leave you with a refreshing finishing taste. ($29.95)