[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]
Back in the saddle, and back to wine, for 2016! I hope everyone had a happy and restful holiday season; I had a relaxing blog-free week and a half following my arduous 25-day whisky Advent marathon but am raring to start the new year of PnP off right, so I opted for a bottle that I highly suspected would be good. Suspicions: confirmed.
Culmina is one of Canada’s top wineries in my books and one of the most compelling stories on the Okanagan wine scene. A spare-no-expense passion project spearheaded by iconic proprietor Don Triggs (the Triggs from Jackson-Triggs) and his family, Culmina has only been around for a few years, but through careful site study and selection and meticulous planting, it has been churning out wines of intrigue and quality from its inception. I have previously waxed on about the winery and a number of its bottlings here and here , but this is my first time writing about what could very well end up being the crown jewel of its portfolio, the Dilemma Chardonnay. I hope it’s not my last.
Why “Dilemma”? When it comes to wineries and their offerings, Chardonnay is rarely the problem child, but Culmina’s Chard put this site-mapping, land-surveying, pre-planning producer in a bit of a quandary. When the Triggs family first purchased the vineyard lands that now comprise Culmina’s estate, a section of them were planted to 20+ year-old Chardonnay vines (note to anyone reading from outside the country: 20+ year-old anything vines are a relative rarity in Canada, and the very oldest active vines in the Okanagan Valley may not yet be 40). However, the vines were in the wrong place, planted in a lower-altitude and very warm site better suited to reds than cool-climate whites, and they were a particular clone of Chardonnay with characteristics that weren’t an ideal match to the area. A cool vintage in 2011 allowed Culmina to make Dilemma from these vines without any climatic consequences, but all the while the winery pondered: do we keep using these vines due to their age and stature or do we rip them out and plant grapes more optimized to the location?
2011 also saw Culmina plant a series of new Chardonnay vines, from a superior clone of the grape, in the new Margaret’s Bench Vineyard, which at 595 metres of elevation is the highest vineyard in the south Okanagan and is consequently much colder than Dilemma’s old-vines site, with a similar growing season to those found in the prime Chardonnay areas of Burgundy. The next year, when the new vines started to bear (not-yet-commercial-ready) fruit, Culmina compared wine made from these newly planted offerings to the mismatched old vines and almost immediately resolved their Dilemma: the baby 1 year-old vines blew the well-established but less-suited vines out of the water. Thus the painful decision was made to rip out the old vines and shift Dilemma over to Margaret’s Bench permanently, with 2012 being the last vintage featuring the older Chardonnay block. Tonight’s bottle, the 2013, is the very first vintage made using the new Margaret’s Bench fruit. And it shows.
The 2013 Dilemma spent 9 months aging in 2/3 French oak (mostly new barrels) and 1/3 stainless steel casks. It was a rather nondescript medium lemon colour in the glass but unleashed an immediately inviting warm, spicy nose of sweet lemon, cinnamon sticks, Granny Smith apple and creme brûlée, permeated throughout with a mineral note like fresh glacier water. It was rich and welcoming, but with a needed jolt of sharpness and edginess that kept it from ever seeming soft. Unlike some (read: many) New World Chardonnays, the acid on the Dilemma started firing as soon as it hit the tongue, like a series of tiny electric shocks that livened up the lush, smooth texture – an incredible sensory juxtaposition that amazed me on every sip. Citrus, white peach, orange zest, crystallized ginger, butterscotch and Epsom salts hit deftly, never heavily, leading seamlessly into a finish that just sails. The oak doesn’t deaden or overwhelm the wine at all; winemaker Pascal Madevon keeps everything in careful and beautiful harmony.
It is absolutely unbelievable to me that the vines that went into creating this agile and nuanced wine were only 2 years old, an age when lesser vines aren’t yet ready to produce anything of value. What these younglings have managed to generate is just astonishing. This isn’t “good…for a Canadian wine”; this is high-end, globally competitive Chardonnay, and as the Margaret’s Bench vineyard gets more established, it is going to get even better. This is not a consumer Dilemma: find and buy.
$45 to $50 CDN