Culmina: Summer 2020 Releases

21 07 2020

By Peter Vetsch

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

I love getting wines hot off the presses, just as they are hitting the market for the first time.  There is always a sense of anticipation associated with latest vintages of wines you have come to appreciate over time; with a baseline of familiarity about a particular bottle’s standard expression, it’s much easier to pick out differences based on vintage conditions or stylistic variations in winemaking.  Instead of trying to puzzle out what a wine is all about, you can look for how it approached a given year, what it suffered through to make it into the bottle, or whether its new rendition stretched its ambition or capabilities.

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I was especially interested in tracking the evolution of this latest set of releases from the Golden Mile Bench’s Culmina Family Estate Winery, as it was this month last year when it was announced that the estate’s founding family had sold the winery to Arterra Wines Canada, whose number of wineries under ownership has cleared the triple digits.  Arterra’s reach in the Okanagan includes stalwarts such as Laughing Stock, Nk’mip, See Ya Later Ranch and Sumac Ridge, as well as Jackson-Triggs, whose co-founder Don Triggs also founded Culmina, and also founded Arterra’s corporate predecessor Vincor International, a few mergers and acquisitions ago.  Time is a flat circle.  Don and his wife Elaine are now enjoying a well-deserved retirement (for real this time), leaving Culmina in the hands of winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon and the established winery management team.  What will they do with it?  The 2019 releases are our first chance to find out.

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2018 Culmina Decora Riesling (~$21 Cellar Door)

But first, a pre-acquisition offering.  It says something about Culmina’s Riesling program that the Decora, as far as I can tell the least expensive wine bottled under the Culmina label, is held back an extra year before release.  Most $21 Rieslings are pumped out early for cashflow purposes, but the winery is right to hold this one in abeyance for a time, and the result far outstrips the sticker price.  This is the 8th harvest of Decora from Culmina’s Margaret’s Bench vineyard, the estate’s highest-elevation and coolest vineyard at 595 metres of altitude.  2018 was a rollercoaster of a year, with a cold start to spring reversing itself in May and leading to a stretch of heat that lasted until mid-summer, when the weather put on the brakes and eased into harvest, which was thus allowed to extend until late October.  Culmina apparently decided not to mess around with the resulting crop of Decora, because despite a 3.05 pH and a whopping 9.4 g/L of titratable acidity, they left a scant 4.49 g/L of residual sugar in the wine, presenting a (for all intents and purposes) dry scythe of a Riesling that carves more of its own path every year.

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Despite the additional year of age, the Decora is an exceedingly pale lemon-green hue, almost entirely colourless at the rim.  The piercing, steely, grapefruit-dominant nose casts an immediate impression of a driven, focused wine; lemon zest, wet green grass and flint  circle like sharks around a buttoned-up, viciously precise, businesslike aromatic profile.  Trace amounts of softening sweetness tiptoe around the edges of the palate, Rockets candy and orange Tic-Tacs (my favourite), but the heart of this whirlwind is almost achingly dry, powdery and racy, linear and chiselled into a straight line laser-etched right down the tongue.  White rock, Granny Smith apple (with skins), chalk and freshly cleaned knives follow incisive acidity into a finish that burrows down instead of expanding out, taking you briefly by surprise at every sip.  This is the most serious Decora I have ever tried, but a masterclass of focus and controlled power.  It may soften and spread out with time, but is an unrelenting drill right now, compelling in its relentlessness.

91+ points

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Stelvin Rating:  8.5/10 (A pace-setting screwcap. Gorgeous.)  Vinolok Rating:  8/10 (OK, I cheated by leaving the foil on.  But still.)

2019 Culmina Unicus Gruner Veltliner (~$27 Cellar Door)

OK, NOW for the 2019s.  This blog has always been a Gruner safehouse and therefore has a longer history Culmina’s Unicus, the Okanagan’s first Gruner Veltliner, than most other wines.  Culmina has taken its Gruner stewardship seriously from the start, planting it alongside the Riesling in Margaret’s Bench, allowing for fuller phenolic ripeness while maintaining acidity and not shying away from the grape’s stranger side.  The 2019 vintage started out easy, with mild, warm and dry weather until the middle of August, when rains started to come.  Thankfully higher altitudes and good drainage allowed Margaret’s Bench not to miss a beat, with the Gruner harvest coming in early in October. Then Culmina got weird during fermentation, using FOUR different fermentation vessels for its lots of Veltliner:  36% concrete egg, 28% concrete amphora (which I had never heard of before right now), 26% stainless steel and 10% neutral French oak.  I guess?

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The 2019 Unicus is immediately more noticeable than the Decora for its brilliant, piercing golden colour, holding the gaze in the appreciation for that extra half second before the glass comes up for further examination.  The aromas are musky and citrusy, but riper and sweeter citrus like Meyer lemon and blood orange, mixed with cantaloupe and honeydew.  Gruner’s textbook tropics and white pepper are not quite present, but tapioca, vanilla yogourt, lemongrass and coconut water bring some of the exotics for which the grape is known.  Lush but only medium-bodied on the tongue, expansive but not languid, it takes another half-beat of delay to process the wine texturally.  Silk with grip?  Like a jungle cat sleeping in the sun while constantly watching your every move, relaxed but ever-aware.  Now the mango comes in, the (slightly green) pineapple, the…rubber boots?  Blackcurrant Wine Gums?  I missed you, Gruner.  Unlike the bottle above, the acid here is measured; it’s not a life-or-death cliff’s-edge drama like the Decora, but Unicus marches to the beat of its own drum with ease and comfort.

90- points

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2019 Culmina Saignée Rosé (~$24 Cellar Door)

Culmina’s Saignée exists in a symbiotic relationship with the estate’s flagship Bordeaux blend red, Hypothesis.  A common winemaking practice for enhancing the flavour concentration and colour of bigger reds is to “bleed off” a portion of the must during fermentation, after a short time sitting on the red grapeskins.  The remaining wine enjoys a larger ratio of colour, structure and flavour-enhancing skins to juice, boosting its concentration and impact; the bled-off wine gets a new identity and separate purpose as a rosé.  Of course, making rosé in this fashion puts the pink wine to some extent at the mercy of the red, as picking decisions and grape hang time are focused more on the needier, more difficult red wine than the more flexible rosé.  The result can often be a heftier, riper rosé that can be aimed towards red drinkers.  This one fits that bill.

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I don’t know if it’s the first Saignée to be more Malbec than anything else, but it’s the first one I remember that holds that distinction (for the record:  32% Malbec, 31% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon).  The other distinction that Saignée holds in my heart is that it is the (lone?) Culmina bottling enclosed with the glorious resealable Vinolok glass capsule, which absolutely everybody should use more.  This red-in-the-making rosé showcases a pretty translucent salmon colour and a healthy amount of glass-coating bubbles before launching into a forward and emphatic nose redolent of fresh strawberry, raspberry marshmallow candy, seawater, white peach and cream soda.  It is dry on the palate (the driest of these three bottles, in fact, at 1.42 g/L of residual sugar), but almost doesn’t taste like it due to the sweet, almost heavy ripeness of the fruit, a confectionary mix of watermelon Jell-O, grenadine/Shirley Temple, cotton candy, even lychee.  Mild acid emphasizes the wine’s textural breadth almost too much, but things reassemble somewhat in a calm, clean finish, quiet but for a lingering Bazooka Joe echo that takes me right back.  This is of a pink style that will not appeal to all, and is a far cry thematically from the lithe and lethal Decora above, but my glass certainly emptied quickly enough.

87+ points

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