Wine Review: Culmina Spring Releases, Part 1

30 05 2019

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

IMG_0135You have to admire a guy like Don Triggs.  After co-founding the eponymous Jackson-Triggs, taking the brand to meteoric heights and carrying the cause of Canadian wine along with it, Don parted from the brand in 2006 when it was subsumed into the massive Constellation empire, his finances and legacy secure, a career in wine that started shortly after his graduation in the late 1960s drawing to a close, retirement beckoning.  But instead of choosing that comfortable path, he threw himself back into the breach once more, this time thinking smaller in scale and fixated on quality.  This next quest started, literally, from the ground up.  With the aid of legendary vineyard consultant Alain Sutre, Triggs spent a year scouring the Okanagan Valley for just the right site, one that could reliably and properly ripen red Bordeaux varietals, including Canada’s white whale, Cabernet Sauvignon.  Finding a promising spot with southeast-facing exposure on what is now the Golden Mile Bench, the Okanagan’s first legally recognized sub-Geographical Indication (GI), they carried out a slew of temperature and soils tests and discovered that the microclimate of the site (at least in terms of degree-days, a measurement that tracks relative aggregate temperature over the course of a growing season) was very similar to that of Bordeaux.  Arise Bench, the inaugural estate vineyard of Culmina Family Estate Winery, was acquired, and Don Triggs’ newest project came to life.

Having located a potentially ideal site for big, chewy reds, Triggs and Sutre only had to look up to find complementary cooler spots for elegant whites.  Two separate and increasingly higher-altitude benches a short hike up the adjacent hillside completed the Culmina vineyard collection:  Margaret’s Bench, at almost 600 metres of elevation a truly unique Okanagan location, welcomes Riesling, Chardonnay and Canada’s top plantings of Gruner Veltliner, while mid-level Stan’s Bench splits time between these whites and Malbec and Petit Verdot to round out Culmina’s Bordeaux blends.  This three-tiered vineyard elevation stairway is the foundation of everything Culmina does, every square inch mapped and studied to maximize the location of each vine planted.

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As Culmina established its identity in the Okanagan, its lineup of releases began expanding: its base Winery Series line, culminating (no pun intended) with Hypothesis, the Bordeaux blend that was the mission statement for the venture, has now been joined by two other sets of releases.  The light-hearted R&D line (which stands for either “research and development” or Don and his twin brother Ron, who are featured in childhood form on the labels) allows Culmina to let its hair down a bit and focus on budget-friendlier wines that are a joy to drink; the limited-release Number Series is a set of small-lot one-offs that push the boundaries of possibility on Culmina’s trio of sites.  I had the opportunity to taste some of the winery’s latest releases, which have just started to hit shelves now, and track the continued upward trajectory of one of Canada’s most exciting wine projects.

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2018 Culmina R&D Dry-Ish Riesling (~$34 AB Retail)

This brand new white offering from Culmina’s R&D line is so hot off the presses that it hasn’t even cracked the winery’s website yet.  Not only does it feature the best Riesling sweetness designation ever (I vote for abolishing the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness scale with one that trends from “Seriously, Dry As A Freaking Bone” to “Dry-Ish” to “Sort Of Sweet, In A Good Way” to “Yeah, No Getting Around It, Super Hella Sweet”), but it does not shy away from ripeness:  at 13.5% ABV and with at least some noticeable residual sugar that went unfermented, this hints at about as much unabashed power as Canadian Riesling is likely to get.  Due to its newness its precise details are unknown (as much as I would love to know its Brix, RS and pH figures), but as the R&D wines are made from 100% estate fruit, these grapes must hail from the middle or upper bench on the Culmina grounds.

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A slight spritz adds shimmer to a rather svelte pale lemon-green colour, but any sense of possible demureness arising out of this hue is immediately obliterated by a fiery aromatic attack, irrepressible white peach and nectarine riddled through with chalk, floral bouquets and bath bombs, like somebody’s spa day went nuclear.  In the conflagration, slate and compressed pineapple linger, along with a surprising suggestion of fresh mint.  There is an inevitable hunt for sweetness on the tongue of anything named “Dry-Ish”, but my particular chase is almost immediately interrupted by buzzsaw acidity and a powdery, excitable, almost jittery texture, one that is remarkably absent the weight or heft that the wine’s ripeness level might suggest.  Yes, the sugar is there in the background, providing welcome relief and respite from the living torrent that swirls endlessly around it, but the finish of this highly entertaining Riesling is entirely dry.  Ish.

88+ points

2018 Culmina R&D Rosé Blend (~$34 AB Retail)

The rare Okanagan Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet Franc rosé blend!  Like the Saignée rosé from Culmina’s primary line of wines, this one is a pink rendition stemming from the Bordeaux varietals (mostly) on Arise Bench.  Its pale coppery-salmon colour is reflective of a fairly short time on skins, but as with the R&D Riesling above, initial appearances of restraint can be deceiving.  I sniff.  Sometimes you say that a wine is “one-note”as a criticism, a suggestion that it is rote and uninspired and utterly lacking in complexity; other times you say it because it so perfectly and precisely epitomizes the essence of a flavour that you can’t perceive anything else without great effort.  This rosé is an emphatic example of the latter phenomenon, beaming out the most pristine expression of CANTALOUPE that I have come across in a wine.  You could pick a cantaloupe fresh off the vine (yes, cantaloupes also grow on vines) and cut it open in front of me and it wouldn’t embody that musky, sweet, oily, semi-tropical aroma better than what is sitting in my glass.

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If I strain for more I pull out surrounding impressions of lychee, bubble tea, coloured marshmallows, apple skins…and prosciutto?  I’m going with it.  The rounder mouthfeel of this pink R&D jostles a bit with the wine’s jagged acid and with what I would guess is a healthy dollop of residual sugar, as if all three powerful elements find it a bit confining to all be compressed within the same bottle.  That said, the sensuous cantaloupe-soaked flavour unabashedly delivers, and I’ll take a surplus of structural components over a deficit any day.

88- points

2014 Culmina Hypothesis (~$60 AB Retail)

Onto the flagship.  The brand new 2014 edition of Hypothesis proudly sports the Golden Mile Bench sub-GI designation, even though it wasn’t formally created and legally approved until 2015 (the benefits of lengthy maturation, I suppose!).  A Bordeaux-influenced combination of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc, all from Arise Bench, this wine represents Culmina’s response to Canada’s biggest red challenge (getting King Cab properly ripened), from grapes harvested at the property that started it all.  After fermentation it spent 16 months maturing in French oak (30% new, 63% 1 year-old, 7% 2 year-old), but this resting time does not seem to have affected its pigmentation much.  This one is DARK, and not just in contrast to the prior two offerings.  Inky, dense and glass-coating, it’s fully opaque and purple even after 5 years of life.

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Ropes of blackberry, black plum and blueberry fruit immediately pull you in, and rich oak-aided dark chocolate, molasses and campfire embers ensure you can’t leave.  Beautiful cola notes are starting to coagulate as you delve deeper, just a hint of what is sure to be a gorgeous progression to come.  Asphalt, grip tape, grilled dill pickles and other pleasantly bitter and tangy things surface on the finish, which harnesses the fruit and power and primacy of this weighty wine and pockets it for later, leaving a faded shimmering echo of what was there before, like a film negative.  All elements have resolved into harmony, but greater growth and expression will come with time.  We wait.

91 points

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