Canadians in the vineyards of Argentina

By / Magazine / November 26th, 2020 / 43
Ann Sperling

If there were a ‘winemakers with the most frequent flyer miles’ award, Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble would win hands down. Partners in wine and in life, this Niagara-based couple have amazingly long and geographically diverse resumés.

Ann Sperling is the director of winemaking and viticulture for Southbrook Farms, Niagara-on-the-Lake. She rightly claims to be the torch-bearing advocate for organic and biodynamic wine-growing and winemaking in Canada. She also heads growing operations and winemaking at her family’s property Sperling Vineyards in Kelowna, BC. Before moving eastward, Ann was the award-winning winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery in Kelowna.

Peter Gamble, founding executive director of Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance, helped make the VQA Regulations in 1988. A former winemaker at Hillebrand (now Trius), he went on to set up a consulting business specializing in winery start-ups. His projects include Stratus and Ravine Vineyard in Ontario; Benjamin Bridge, and Lightfoot & Wolfville in Nova Scotia; and (most recently) On Seven Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But it is their frequent visits to Sperling Vineyards in BC and bi-annual trips to Argentina that rack up the air miles. In Argentina, they supervise the harvest, blending and bottling of Versado, the wine they grow in their three-hectare Malbec vineyard in Mendoza This 100-year-old vineyard is planted on Malbec rootstock, with a few random vines of Tempranillo thrown in. According to Ann, this means that “there’s a lot of variation in the vineyard from vine to vine because it’s not clonal.”

The couple have been working their vineyard on the legendary Cobos Road for 11 years. They produce three labels totalling 10,000 bottles a year on average. These include an estate entry wine, an Old Vine and a Riserva. (A fourth label, a Gran Riserva, is in the works.) To label a wine a Riserva, they have to commit it to two years in the barrel. Currently, they make Versado at Clos de Chacras, a local winery.

I was lucky to join them for the blending session of their 2018 vintage in December. “We use 100% French oak,” Peter told me in their kitchen in the town of Chacras de Coria. On the kitchen counter, there were 40 small bottles, each one marked with its barrel number; a beaker; a slew of ISO tasting glasses; and a measuring column into which Ann poured the wines, measured and tasted them, and made notes.

“We love second-use and older barrels,” Peter continued. “We shy away from over oak wood contributions and prefer Boutes Grande Réserve barrels (from the Boutes family cooperage in Bordeaux). They are respectful of the grape variety.”

Each vintage produces enough wine to fill some 35 barrels. For their Riserva wine, the couple look for the barrels that offer “the greatest complexity and the best expression of the terroir.”

To perfect the Riserva blend, they begin a bench trial. They look for the texture, mouth feel, complexity, acidity and fruit character that are the hallmark of Versado. “Then we determine how much time the blend needs to spend in wood,” they explain.

Wines may taste better when enjoyed with the winemaker, but I thought the final test blend was stunning. Versado speaks to the soil of Mendoza in a Canadian accent and I cannot wait for the 2018 vintage to be on liquor store shelves. According to Peter, the 2019 vintage could be even better.


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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