Small Lots and Biodynamics

Seatbelts, everyone! Grab your coffee, tea, or wine – this is going to be a bit over the recommended length for a blog post. But we’ll take that risk, because we are super jazzed about Rollingdale, their wine, their philosophy, and what they’re doing with biodynamics.

There are many reasons why Rollingdale, a boutique winery located in the Lakeview Heights area of West Kelowna, is one of Discover Okanagan Tours’ favourite stops in the valley. If you ask any of our guests, they always say it is a fan favourite! By the time you’ve turned into Rollingdale’s curving gravel driveway and had a glimpse of Lake Okanagan behind the winery, you’ve already caught all of the good vibes. Rollingdale doesn’t look like other wineries – there are plenty of spots in the valley where you’ll see row after row of perfectly manicured vines, but Rollingdale isn’t one of them.

Driving in past the foch, which Rollingdale vineyard manager Brendan Smith explains is left to do its thing – you may even wonder if the vineyard workers forgot to prune a few rows. Don’t worry, it’s done by design, and is part of Rollingdale’s biodynamic approach to viticulture. In most North American vineyards, all the vines are pruned and guided into wires to grow in those beautiful, uniform rows that are featured heavily in Okanagan travel brochures. While the resulting vines are visually stunning, grapes of different varieties thrive under a variety of conditions, and Brendan’s mission is to make all the vines in his care as happy as possible, because of course, the happiest vines produce the best fruit. What makes the pinot blanc happiest is to be trimmed and tucked, which Brendan and the vineyard team do with great attention and care. 

 Briefly, because you’ll stop reading if I go too far down the rabbit hole, biodynamic agriculture looks to harmonize cultivation with the biosphere as a whole. This means a lot of different things, from not using chemicals (organic farming, basically), to bringing life back to the soil through composting and planting symbiotic plants, as well as following lunar/celestial cycles for every stage from planting to harvest, along with the use of preparations (more on those later). The science has been in for some time: monoculture, the cultivation of acres and acres of a single crop year after year, is bad for the soil and for biodiversity. Biodynamic farming aims to restore the soil to health, and grow quality product within a thriving and diverse ecosystem. 

To accomplish this is takes a lot of work. Rollingdale has been organic since its inaugural year in 2004, and is in year 3 of 5 on the journey toward biodynamic certification. The chardonnay block is fully biodynamic, and Brendan says that the vines are producing about twice as much fruit than they did previously. In other blocks, you can see the difference from one row to the next, where vines and clusters that have been tended to according to the lunar calendar (pulling off leaves on certain days, for example) are much further along in their growing season than the directly neighbouring rows of the same grape variety. Rollingdale’s aim is to go as far as they can down the biodynamic path (beyond meeting the basic requirements of certification), but tending to each vine as an individual member of the collective, and staying on the lunar calendar schedule requires a lot of labour at crucial times during the growing season. Harvest happens at the full moon, so Rollingdale hosts a neighbourhood harvest block party, where the neighbours come to lend a hand. Even though I know firsthand how hard harvesting grapes is (there’s a reason we celebrate the end of harvest season), I’m excited to join the party this year, and participate in the community that Rollingdale is working hard to build.

In an industry where the talk has long been about the “when, not if” of mechanizing viticulture, Rollingdale doesn’t want to lose that connection to the vines and the growing cycle. Investing in the machinery would pay for itself by the second year, but that’s not what Rollingdale is about. “We drink most of the wine we produce,” says Brendan, “and we want to drink good wine.” That means producing good wine, and we’re not saying that you can’t make good wine with a robot vineyard crew, just that for Rollingdale, making the best wine includes biodynamic viticulture, which is different depending on the variety and the vines. Wine drinkers who don’t work at Rollingdale are here for it, too – I have to wait until 2020 to get my hands on another bottle of their Blanc de Merlot, a signature wine in their portfolio, and 2019’s vintage might be very different from 2018’s. Rollingdale’s fermentation tanks are located outside (you’ll see them to the right as you walk toward the wine shop), and aren’t temperature controlled, which means whatever Mother Nature does with the weather during the fermentation process will end up having a big impact on the wine. 

Brendan talks about leaning into whatever the season brings, which seems risky, particularly since the wine industry rewards with awards wines that most embody the expected characteristics of a particular variety (Riesling should taste like green apple, petrol, etc.). Without temperature control, the wine might freeze overnight mid-ferment, which will produce a much sweeter wine than one that hasn’t been allowed to freeze. For this exact reason, Rollingdale’s chardonnay isn’t likely to win awards, but it has certainly won my heart, and made a convert of this former member of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) club. The space that prioritizing “stuff we like to drink” over winning awards leaves room for more expression of the grapes, and of the terroir, and fits well within the philosophy of biodynamic agriculture that Brendan are the crew at Rollingdale are so passionate about.

Impressed by what I had seen, I asked Brendan about preparations – which range from hanging yarrow to planting a cow horn filled with manure in a specific spot at the fall solstice and digging it up at the spring solstice. He acknowledges that he doesn’t understand the purpose of some of the preparations, that we don’t yet have scientific explanations for the mechanisms behind every aspect of biodynamics. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one that we might be able to discover and articulate someday. For now, Brendan sees the evidence of its efficacy in how much fruit his happy vines are producing, how beautiful the balance between sugar and acid is, and how oh-so-drinkable the wine turns out. While I remain skeptical about the cow horns, I too can see and taste the evidence of the benefits of biodynamic viticulture.

Honestly, there is a lot of really interesting stuff happening at Rollingdale – way too much to cram into one blog post. So trust us, do yourself a favour, put Rollingdale on your must-do list for your next wine tour/Okanagan adventure day. Or, don’t trust us, and come Discover what makes Rollingdale so special for yourself! Either way, prepare to learn, be surprised by a wine you thought you wouldn’t like, and have an epic wine adventure. Rollingdale is always a stop on Discover Okanagan Tours’ Westside run – come join us soon!

Visit the Rollingdale Winery webpage for more info on the winery itself!