Wine Review: 2013 Culmina Unicus

8 06 2014
There it is:  history in a (classically presented) bottle.  BC Gruner!!

There it is: history in a (classically presented) bottle. BC Gruner!!

In my last post, I celebrated an Old World country’s rich wine history.  In this one, I get a front row seat as a New World country, my own, takes a milestone step towards charting its own course.  I may be a little more excited about this development than is strictly necessary, but I’ve (seriously) been waiting and hoping for this moment for a few years.  Finally, fantastically, Gruner Veltliner has come to the Okanagan Valley.

If you’ve heard of Gruner before, chances are you’re either at least a semi-serious wine person or you’ve been bothered about it before by me.  I adore Gruner, which is the signature white grape of Austria and is rarely found elsewhere; given that Austrian wine doesn’t exactly fill retailers’ or importers’ heads with gleeful visions of dollar signs, there tragically tends to be much less of it around locally than its quality and value would otherwise dictate.  If you’ve never tried a bottle of Gruner Veltliner, it’s sort of like if a Riesling and a Chardonnay had a rebel baby.  It combines the powerful acidity and piercing minerality of Riesling with the luxurious, silky mouthfeel of Chardonnay, then takes a left turn and offers up a remarkable set of spicy, tangy and often downright wacky flavours all its own, from white pepper to rubber boots and elastic bands (all in a good way, I swear).  The result is a sensory experience unlike any other in wine, one that keeps you constantly engaged as you try to figure out what the hell is going on in your mouth.

One of the reasons that I have often thought that Gruner Veltliner might be able to find a second home in Canada is the climatic and geographic similarities between BC wine country and Gruner’s homeland:  northern Austria and southern BC share almost the exact same latitude (48.4 degrees North in Wachau, 49.1 degrees North in Oliver), the same continental climate and high day-night temperature shifts and, in places, similar soils.  Yet until now the Okanagan has churned out every conceivable white grape under the sun, but no GV.  Thankfully, Culmina has come to the rescue.  This new high-end venture from Don, Elaine and Sara Triggs (of Jackson-Triggs fame) is based on a philosophy that combines old-school attention to detail and minimalistic winemaking with new-school scientific advancement, especially as it relates to vineyard mapping and matching grapes to sites based on detailed soil, temperature and exposure analysis.  Check out the details at Culmina’s visually stunning website – they’re fascinating, if you’re the sort of person who finds micro-block mapping and soil pit analyses fascinating (which I am).

photo 3-2Culmina has called its Gruner “Unicus”, which is Latin for “unique”, “unprecedented” or “singular”, and it is sourced from select blocks of a single vineyard called Margaret’s Bench located near the Golden Mile south of Oliver.  It was a pale lemon colour in the glass and gave off a set of clean yet musky aromas, predominantly grapefruit, spring water (if you find that descriptor ridiculous, think of the smell when you’re standing by a waterfall) and wet rocks, with a whiff of spice and a touch of grassiness giving a faint nod to the traditional Veltliner flavour profile.  Even though Gruner is usually fairly lush on the palate, this one went a step further, with a noticeably full body, a slightly viscous, almost oily mouthfeel and a chalky texture.  The sensory overload common to Gruners was less in the flavour complexity here and more in the mouthfeel, which was fascinating.  There were medium levels of acidity, but the acid was less prominent than I had anticipated, and I’m fairly sure there was a hint of residual sugar left in the wine, a relative rarity for the varietal.  Given that the Unicus was already 14% abv, if any natural sweetness did remain after fermentation, that would suggest that the grapes were picked when extremely ripe — the extra residual sugar could have boosted alcohol levels even further if the wine was made fully dry.

The bizarre array of rubbery, chemically and otherwise loopy Gruner Veltliner flavours is largely absent from Culmina’s inaugural take on the grape, which keeps a cleaner line and features powerful notes of tropical fruit (pineapple, mango, pink grapefruit), baby powder/Tums and a subtle but pervasive smokiness.  The flavours stay consistent throughout and the finish lingers for a good minute, a strong sign of quality, although the alcohol is a bit noticeable as you swallow.  I’m not sure I would pick this out as Gruner Veltliner if I had it blind — it tastes almost like Sauvignon Blanc on steroids.  That said, it’s delicious and highly drinkable, as evidenced by the fact that I downed the bulk of a bottle over the course of an evening.

Stelvin Rating:  9/10 (All those using blank black screwcaps, take note - killer all around.)

Stelvin Rating: 9/10 (All those using blank black screwcaps, take note – killer all around.)

This is a historic and tasty Okanagan introduction to Gruner Veltliner, and it would be a non-wacky, non-threatening way to give this overlooked grape some much-needed adherents outside of the Austrian border.  I am confident that the Unicus will have broad appeal and be a commercial success (it is built to be friendly to casual wine palates), which is HUGE for unlocking and expanding Gruner’s potential in this region.  I also love that a premium-focused winery is putting Gruner front and centre in its branding and marketing efforts, and I have become a Culmina customer because of the pride they show in being the pioneers of this grape in the Okanagan.

That said, the thing that attracted me to Gruner in the first place was its inherent weirdness, its willingness to descend into funk and esoterica — what made it strange and off-putting to some made it interesting to me.  While I appreciate the effort put in to making this remarkable varietal one that can play to all crowds, I would love to see Culmina’s Gruner program expand in future vintages to include an offering that embraces the wild and wacky, that clocks in fully dry at 13% or so and that reflects a little more of the typicity of this utterly singular grape.  While the 2013 expression is quite enjoyable, I think that its very high level of ripeness robs it of some of its “Gruner-ness”; this does not detract from it as a standalone wine in a buying landscape almost devoid of GV disciples, but for this lone Veltliner flag-waver, it left me wanting a bit more of what makes Gruner Gruner.  Still, I can only raise a glass to Culmina for heeding my prayers and introducing this grape to its new home.

87+ points

$27 to $35 CDN

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