Wine Review: 2015 Culmina Hypothesis

20 03 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

My initial intent was to write this piece without a singular mention of COVID-19. I wasn’t sure I wanted this sort of historical tag on a bottle review…this too shall pass, right? It then occurred to me that wine itself is usually about the vintage, the year it was made. Wine is historical, and other things besides. I also don’t particularly want to talk about  our current global situation. We are all experiencing some degree of anxiety (not to mention other painful emotions) in our own ways, and do I want to fan those flames? Not really, but at the same time, I’m not in the business of denying aspects of the human condition. Perhaps this is a chance for me to ask all of our readers to say safe, look out for one another (even at a social distance), and retain hope that we got this. Because we do. Peter and I are going to keep doing this blog (for which this is post #600 — see? history), because we love what we do and because this is a great way to remain connected. At this moment join me, will you, in experiencing some of the most iconic red wine that Canada has to offer?

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Don Triggs

As a wine lover a tad obsessed with Gruner Veltliner, I immediately recall that Culmina and founder Don Triggs are responsible for one of Canada’s first plantings of this white grape, and they still produce Unicus, a wonderfully salty, flinty, yet surprisingly fruity rendition that does this wacky variety proud. It turns out that Don’s first vinous love is in fact red Bordeaux varieties. You likely recognize the surname. Yes, Don Triggs co-founded Jackson-Triggs, one of Canada’s largest commodity wine brands. When the giant Constellation Brands purchased Jackson-Triggs in 2006, Don thought briefly about retirement…or rather, what to do with retirement. Don and spouse Elaine decided to found a boutique winery, in essence taking the very opposite stance from the path that had previously brought him so much success, focusing instead on a deep desire to make terroir-driven wines. You see, Canada’s relatively cool climate doesn’t always reliably ripen red Bordeaux varieties. Although Merlot is more forgiving, Cabernet Sauvignon needs ample sun and heat. Far from daunted, Don and Elaine embarked on an intense research program to figure out just how “Canadian Bordeaux” could become more fact than fiction.

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View of the Culmina estate that includes Arise Bench. Note the slope of the winery buildings, which allows gravity to move the grape must around (see explanation below).

Enlisting the help of savvy vineyard consultant Alain Sutre, Don’s first order of business was to find a vineyard site suited to Bordeaux grapes. Reasoning that a southeast facing slope would provide optimal sun, Don and Alain spent more than a year scouring the South Okanagan before finding “Arise Bench”, a plot in the Golden Mile Bench subregion of the Okanagan Valley. Located on the western slope of the valley, south of Oliver and across from the Black Sage Bench, Golden Mile Bench has a southerly aspect that provides the requisite warmth, yet its location on the west side of the valley means that the site gets greater morning than afternoon sun, technically making it cooler than Black Sage. You may recall that Bordeaux is not a “hot climate” wine region, even if certain sites there are warmer than others.

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The soils of the Golden Mile are a complex matrix of stone, gravel, sandy loam (loam can be a fertile mix of sand, silt, and clay), and gravely loam. My mind cogitates on “gravel” and immediately draws a parallel with the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blends from Bordeaux’s esteemed Left Bank. To help ensure success, Don and Alain carried out a preliminary battery of temperature, water retention, and soil analyses on the property. These studies indicated that Arise Bench shares certain similarities with quality sites in Bordeaux itself, including similar degree days at 1,516 (vs 1,565 in Bordeaux), an index of outdoor temperatures. Better wine living through science, clearly, yet one never gets the sense that Don’s intent was to produce a technocratic sterile commodity; he just wished to do things right as he realized his dream.  While Don and Elaine have just recently sold Culmina to move into (true) retirement, his legacy lives on in this passion project.

The Arise Bench vineyard is named for a property Don’s ancestors owned in the Barbados in the 17th century. Sure enough, the sloping site is rich in gravel and enjoys a south-southeast aspect. Still more meticulous planning went into planting the vineyard itself, which is roughly divided into half-hectare micro-blocks. This enables each micro-block to be individually managed via a precise irrigation system. Plantings are relatively dense to encourage competition between vines, resulting in more robust grapes. The winery itself is built into the side of a mountain and is gravity-fed, meaning that pumps are rare at Culmina. The grape must is moved around by gravity itself, with this gentle handing permitting less extraction of undesirable harsh tannins. The use of conical vats, basket pressing (for the top-tier wines, including this one), and lengthy periods of time during which the juice sits on the skins post-fermentation (up to 24 days) further help to yield softer, supple tannins in the finished wines. Culmina represents a seamless meld of high and low tech, cerebral yet low on pretension, an artisanal butterfly born of a big business chrysalis. And just in case you missed it, the 2015 vintage was remarkable.

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2015 Culmina Hypothesis (~$46, cellar door)

2015 in the Golden Mile Bench began with notably warmer-than-average temperatures. This led to the earliest vine budbreak on record for the region, in the second week of April. The summer remained decidedly warm, although some cooler temperatures in late summer descended just in time to prevent the grapes from becoming baked sugar bombs. The result was optimal ripeness for all grape varieties that comprise Hypothesis, resulting in very intense flavours but with balancing acidity. If ever one was going to assemble the great Canadian Bordeaux blend, this was the vintage to do it. Even the stubbornly late-ripening Cab apparently liked this summer. In The Wines of Canada, Rod Phillips is complimentary of Hypothesis, lauding its depth and complexity but describing it as typically “austere in character”. This could be the one to break that mould.

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Although past vintages seem to feature the classic Cab Sauv/Cab Franc/Merlot triad in varying proportions, this one includes five of the six classic red Bordeaux varieties to the tune of Cabernet Franc (36%), Merlot (35%), Cabernet Sauvignon (23%), Petit Verdot (4%), and Malbec (2%), all from Arise Bench. Merlot and Malbec were harvested first, Franc in the middle, and Petit Verdot and Cab Sauv last. All grapes were hand-picked and sorted. The oak regime is 100% French barrels (30% new, 35% 1-year old, 35% 2-year old). The result lives up to the hype.

The nose is rich with plush fruit and oak in a tightly coiled, finely-tuned balance, with smashed Bing cherries, red and black plum and mashed blueberries all vying for your attention, surrounded by various assertive yet not overbearing strands of blackberry jam, chocolate milk, coffee beans, clove cigarettes, hickory smoke, fried dill pickles (of the sort you cannot eat in a pub right now…sigh), and masking tape. As I wade through sticky fruits and campfire associations, I come upon some lovely botanical oscillations: Matsutake mushrooms, juniper foliage, field mint, and west coast underbrush that makes me recall all the Fridays I spent as a resident exploring instead of writing a paper…

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Cork Rating: 7.5/10 (Smashing logo, solid font.)

I recommend sipping this patiently. This fascinating elegance strides forth from the Loch Ness depths, back and forth…and just when you think this is a huge wine, this elegant sylvan spectre floats by and you have to revise your stance. This happens again and again, and it is a wonderful ride. The push-pull likely mirrors this historical vintage: ripe yet ultimately balanced. The acidity is a deft yet light hand on the rudder, the tannins a swirling nebula of pliant bungee cords that should support some time in the cellar. It’s Hypothesis all right, but clearly a more open and less austere rendition (cf. Rod Phillips). Blackcurrant wine gums come on late and I think “there’s the Cab!”. You probably should wait…or even better, get a few bottles and do your own assessment while self-isolating. Hey folks…we got this.

92- points


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