Calgary Wine Life: Culmina Tasting with Don Triggs

5 06 2015
Don Triggs, visionary owner of Culmina.

Don Triggs, visionary owner of Culmina.

Okanagan wines are coming of age, and Don Triggs is helping to get them there.  More and more, producers from British Columbia’s top wine region are ceasing to be satisfied with being locally successful and a tourist charm; they are after quality, seeking distinction, looking to carve out an international identity.  Triggs’ current wine venture, Culmina Family Estate Winery, is a manifestation of this quest to be better.  In the past few years, Triggs has meticulously engaged in soil mapping and analysis of the 43(!) micro-blocks of terroir in his estate vineyards; he has relentlessly, and successfully, helped lobby for the creation of a new delimited sub-appellation (the first sub-geographical indicator in BC) for the Golden Mile Bench, an east-facing angled strip of land stretching southward from Oliver; and he has made Culmina’s winery facilities the most technologically advanced in the area.  This dedication to elevating the level of the Okanagan’s wine game is starting to show in the bottle.

I have had an interest in Culmina for a while, since before its wines were even available.  They came on my radar when word first leaked out that among their various initial offerings would be the Okanagan Valley’s first ever varietal Gruner Veltliner.  I am a massive fan of Gruner, the noble, eclectic and often downright wacky national grape of Austria, and I had held out hope that somebody in BC would find room among the acres of Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer to give it a chance here.  Culmina did, and I rushed to buy its inaugural 2013 Unicus Gruner direct from the winery, writing it up almost exactly a year ago today.  I was captured by the quality of the wine and impressed by the effort, but left hoping that future vintages would embrace the inner weirdness of the Gruner grape a little bit more.

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Today I got to see what the future of Unicus, and the rest of Culmina’s slate of 2015 releases, looked like.  I was fortunate enough to meet both Don Triggs and Culmina’s vineyard manager and winemaker Pascal Madevon over lunch and taste through two whites, two reds and a rose which led me to think that the future of the Okanagan is bright indeed.  My detailed notes on each wine we tried are below:

2014 Culmina Unicus (Gruner Veltliner)

FullSizeRender-59I didn’t have to wait long to find out how my Gruner was coming along.  According to Pascal Madevon, Gruner faces two unique growth challenges in the vineyard:  it is extremely vigorous, producing much more fruit than ideal for concentrated, characterful wine (overcrowded fruit on the wine tends to have more dilute and less complex flavours), and it doesn’t ripen all at the same time, even within the same bunch of grapes, making parts of the harvest live up to the colour that give the grape its name (Gruner = green) if you’re not careful.  To combat the first problem, Madevon dropped half of the fruit from the vine early to give the rest a proper chance to develop; to minimize the second, he harvested the Gruner on two separate dates, with the first pass snagging the earlier-ripening fruit and a second pass four days later nabbing the rest.  This is another example of the attention to detail that can separate the good wine from the great.  Only 284 cases of 2014 Unicus were made; Alberta got 28 of them.  If you see it, buy it, because you won’t see it again.

Culmina winemaker Pascal Madevon.

Culmina winemaker Pascal Madevon.

The 2014 Unicus delivered everything I was hoping for a year ago when I tried the 2013.  The “Gruner-ness” of this Gruner was ramped up significantly, with super sharp pineapple and grapefruit aromas mixed with spicy ginger, mineral bath salts and an almost Vaseline-like note on an amped up aromatic nose.  Raging levels of icy acid traced straight lines for concentrated citrus, grassy and peppery flavours, from Meyer lemon to fresh mowed lawn, that green Gruner identity staying true through to the end of an extended grapefruit-Radler style finish.  Fully dry (1.4 g/L of residual sugar), mouthwateringly fresh but with incredible heft on the palate, this was absolutely stellar, and it didn’t shy away from what it was.  Let this be the template for all future Canadian Gruners.  Bravo.

91-92+ points

 

2014 Culmina Decora (Riesling)

IMG_2729Culmina’s Riesling proved to be a more than able companion to its Gruner, giving it a one-two white punch that may be unparalleled in the Valley.  Made in an Alsatian style, it features (after much experimentation by Madevon) 6 g/L of residual sweetness, enough to smooth out any jagged acid edges and lend balance to the overall wine without being overt.  Rather than stop the fermentation process with sugar from the grapes still left in the wine, Madevon instead fermented the Riesling to full dryness but reserved a portion of the (sweet) unfermented grape must (which the Germans would call the Sussreserve) and then used this juice to incrementally raise the sweetness levels of the finished wine.

The vines used to make this Riesling are only on their 4th leaf, yet they already pack a massive punch.  The predominant note in the Decora was lime, bright and pure and surrounded by brine, burnt matches and wet rocks.  The acid structure was again significant, keeping things tight and linear, and the barely perceptible sweetness saved the wine from any hint of austerity, leading into a dry, chalky finish that just kept going.  I have had the 2013 Decora as well and the 2014 is another step up.

90-91 points

2014 Culmina Saignee (Rose)

FullSizeRender-57“Saignee” means “to bleed” and refers to the method of production of Culmina’s vividly coloured rose.  After the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes ultimately geared towards Culmina’s red bottlings are crushed and the skins have macerated (soaked in) the juice for 6 to 12 hours, a small portion of that juice (3-5%) is “bled off” and fermented separately, before it has been in contact with the skins long enough to turn fully red.  The result is dual gains:  the pink juice rescued early from maceration becomes a rose wine with wholly different characteristics from its red siblings, while the remaining juice sees its flavours and tannins concentrated by the dilution, leading to more structured and powerful reds.  The rose is fermented more like a white than a red, at lower temperatures (15-17 degrees Celsius) and with a view to ensuring that little to no tannins remain in the finished wine.

The first two visuals you notice with the Saignee are the closure and the colour.  For its rose only, Culmina uses the utterly fantastic Vinoseal glass closure, which is super easy to open and reseal, breathes like a cork and ensures no bacterial taint concerns.  (Culmina may be the only winery I’ve ever seen to use three different closure systems for its wines:  screwcaps for the whites and base red, glass for the rose, and cork for the top red.  I say that if you’re going to be bold and awesome and rock the Vinoseal, then rock the Vinoseal.)  It also uses a specially designed, utterly clear glass bottle to showcase the deep, orange-free strawberry colour of the Saignee.  The wine paired delicate fruit and herbal aromas on the nose, strawberry, pink grapefruit, rhubarb and rosemary, but incredibly flashed hints of darker currant fruit on the palate, a first for me with a rose.  There was impressive depth of flavour and a glorious creamy mouthfeel, but at 14% the wine felt a touch hot, with a sweet-seeming glycerol note on the back end of the flavour profile nearly masked by generous strawberry and pink lemonade juiciness.

88-89 points

2013 Culmina R&D (Red Blend)

This wine was just bottled in March and is not yet released to the public, although it will be next week, so keep an eye out!  You won’t be able to miss it, because the label contains a picture of Don Triggs and his twin brother Ron when they were 9 years old.  The name “R&D” stands for both the research and development that were required to get Culmina to its present state and for “Ron and Don”.  The R&D is intended to be a slightly lighter, earlier drinking, less expensive cohort to Culmina’s top red Hypothesis, although the latter is a true blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc while the former is much more Merlot-dominant.  The R&D goes through a shorter maceration than the Hypothesis, sees less time in oak and is aged in older barrels that transfer less flavour and tannin, so it is brighter and fruitier than its older brother.

If you're wondering, Don is on the left.

If you’re wondering, Don is on the left.

R&D was a barely translucent deep ruby and sang of pure red cherry fruit on the nose, with a touch of paperiness and dustiness alongside.  The deep red fruit continued on the palate, matched with a wider array of supporting flavours, pepper and leather and spice, all in a chewy package with surprising structure.  For an early-drinking base red, the R&D didn’t lack for structure, with grippy tannins and a clear line of acidity running through the middle.  Unsurprisingly, given its recent relocation to the bottle, it seemed like it was still coming together, but I bet you in six months it would truly be ready to rock.

87-88+ points

2012 Culmina Hypothesis (Red Blend)

FullSizeRender-65Hypothesis is Culmina’s top wine, and the one it’s hoping will be its icon.  The blend shifts every year (2011 was mostly Cab Franc), but the 2012 is 57& Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and 21% Cabernet Franc.  Each varietal was harvested separately — the Cab Sauv two weeks later than the rest, on November 10th! — and the resulting wine was aged in 70% new French oak for 16 months before bottling.  Hypothesis is meant to be an aging wine, one to open in 5+ years as opposed to right now.

It was immediately noticeable that Hypothesis was a darker, thicker opaque ruby colour as compared to its younger sibling R&D.  The nose was surprisingly bright, lush and approachable, clean and fruity, featuring raspberry and other dark red fruits and almost incense-like perfume, but the structure locked down on the palate, wrapping it in potent tannin even after the wine had been decanted for multiple hours.  Hints of cedar, talcum powder, Nibs and foresty notes leaked through, offering hints as to how this theory might develop.  I would be very curious to revisit this wine in 3 years to see where things stand, but even in its infancy it was an impressive Canadian handling of the major Bordeaux grapes.

90-91+ points

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