Culmina Winery: Novelties and Rarities

31 03 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

Well, I would say “happy spring!”, but this week has already seen a winter storm warning, wind chills down to -20, ice gales loud enough to wake you up at night and a fresh dump of new snow. “Happy Calgary spring!” seems more appropriate. As we head into what is ostensibly a season of rebirth and renewal, of overhauls and spring cleaning, the time is apt to check in on how a winery that has long been followed by this blog is approaching its own clean slate. Culmina Family Estate Winery was sold by founders Don and Elaine Triggs to Arterra Wines Canada in mid-2019, who appear to have approached their new venture with twin goals: (1) maintain the Triggs family’s legacy and vision for these meticulously studied and planned-out lands, and (2) use this existing knowledge and ambition to move the winery forward in a way that expands its reach and identity. Not easy things to try to do at the same time.

Perhaps luckily for Arterra, Culmina was already stretching and broadening its lineup when the new owners came on board. A string of additional bottlings outside of Culmina’s original core, whether as part of the standard release set or as part of the winery’s unique Number Series offerings, introduced a wave of variety while hewing to the estate-based philosophy on which the winery was founded, elegantly bridging the transition into Culmina’s new era and giving consumers tasting experiences that hinted at the winery’s own second wave. For each of these bottles below, it’s a clean slate for both the wines and their maker.

Number Series Chardonnays

Every winery should have something like the Number Series. In addition to their regular core portfolio, Culmina freelances and experiments with intriguing one-off releases which are initially made available on a priority basis to Culmina’s Wine Club members, although some exciting stragglers are currently for sale to the general public on the winery’s website. Whether made as a matter of circumstance (like Number Series No 006, Unfiltered ‘Jeunes Vignes’ Malbec made from newer Malbec blocks that were still maturing into their place in Culmina’s Bordeaux blends) or as a stretch of the imagination beyond the brand’s usual confines (like Number Series No 008 — Skin Contact Gewürztraminer! — which, incidentally, was incredible), this small-production set is a safe haven for the fun and novel. What it has not yet been used for, to my knowledge, is a showdown. Until now. There’s no other way to look at Number Series Nos 010 and 011 than as a side-by-side waiting to happen. Two Chardonnays, same vintage, same producer, substantially similar treatment, two distinct sites — two very different results.

2018 Culmina Number Series No 010 – Margaret’s Bench Chardonnay ($38)

This is the first ever Number Series Chardonnay from Margaret’s Bench, and was intentionally released as the companion wine to the Stan’s Bench Chardonnay below. Stan’s Bench previously starred in the Number Series as release No 004 in the 2016 vintage and returns this year as Margaret’s foil. This is a battle of the in-laws, in a way: Margaret’s Bench was named after Culmina founder Don Triggs’ mother, while Stan’s Bench was named after his wife Elaine’s father. Margaret’s Bench is the highest elevation vineyard of Culmina’s three estate sites, located at 555-595 metres of elevation and featuring 300 fewer degree days of warmth than the middle-tier Stan’s Bench below it. These vineyards are in the process of transitioning to fully organic viticulture; this fall will be the first certified organic harvest at the estate. The Chardonnay on Margaret’s Bench is planted in silt and in 2018 was harvested on October 1st.

The differences between the in-law Chardonnays are immediately apparent from the first pour. This Margaret’s Bench offering is much more of a burnished golden colour than its twin, darker and denser at its core. An exceptional confectionary aroma set brings you inside of a bakery when it’s opening: apple strudel, lemon curd, butterscotch chips, burned sugar and sourdough waft around plump peach and tangerine fruit and rock salt. It enters the mouth round, soft and fleshy at first, almost formless, zero-gravity, before a gradual wall of acidity advances across the tongue a full two beats after the first drop touches the tongue. I have almost never seen such a delay before a wine activates; it’s actually a temporal as well as a sensory experience. Manuka honey, salted caramel, digestive cookie, lemon Halls and celery sticks trace a waxy line down the throat into a lengthy finish that lasts as long as the feeling of wonder and gleeful confusion at what you just felt. Languid and mellow until it’s not.

90+ points

Cork Ratings: 7/10 (Dystopian fishbowl cork pics FTW!)

2018 Culmina Number Series No 011 – Stan’s Bench Chardonnay ($38)

Stan’s Bench is the warmer of the two vineyards thanks in part to its significantly lower altitude: it is stationed at 400-460 metres of elevation, close to 200 metres lower than Margaret’s Bench above it. Thanks to its intra-Bench aspect and elevation changes, Stan’s is home to an astounding variety of grapes, from Riesling to Petit Verdot, from Viognier to Malbec. Chardonnay is a bit of a Goldilocks grape that can grow everywhere, and it fits right into the middle of the action here, planted along the eastern ridge of the Bench. Both the No 010 and the No 011 Chardonnays were made in the same way: basket pressing, wild yeast fermentation in old oak barrels and no malolactic fermentation. Amazingly, to achieve the same final alcohol level in each wine (14% ABV), Culmina had to harvest the Stan’s Bench grapes a full two and a half weeks earlier than the grapes at Margaret’s Bench, on September 13th!

Despite its warmer site and speedier ripening, the Stan’s Bench Chardonnay is notably leaner, lighter and more lemony visually. Bright and piquant aromas explode from the glass: ripe grapefruit, Mandarin orange, lemon pepper, Fisherman’s Friend and white flowers, linked with its twin through a shared salty bite. It is almost like a holographic expression of the previous Chardonnay on the palate, with the same delayed-trigger acid and borderless frame, but half the weight to start with. When the acid finally pounces, it doesn’t stop pulsing until long after you swallow, but it also doesn’t carve any particular path, giving this bottle a similarly meandering sort of feel as the last. Pineapple Life Savers, lime leaf, plasticine and salt lick flavours are surrounded by a pleasing yeasty tang, like fresh sourdough. For all of the evident differences between Stan and Margaret, the overall course of the journey winds up feeling nostalgically similar.

91 points

2016 Culmina Cabernet Franc (~$38)

While it’s no duelling set of limited-edition Chardonnay, the Culmina Cabernet Franc was still a new experience for me. This is not the first release of this bottling (Culmina also released a 2014 Franc, and the varietal has made a Number Series appearance as well), but it is my first opportunity to see where Culmina has taken it. The Cabernet Franc grapes all hail from Arise Bench, the third and lowest of the winery’s three estate vineyards and the source for Culmina’s flagship Bordeaux blend red, Hypothesis. After harvest and fermentation, the wine spends 16 months maturing in 22% new, 78% 1-2 year-old French oak barrels. The oak treatment and the 14% ABV is suggestive of a brawnier New World style of Cab Franc, but what emerges is impressively true to form.

This is a fairly deep, dense ruby-purple in the glass, thinning only at the rim. The visual heft is immediately dispersed by a gorgeous, dramatic, brambly Cabernet Franc nose of black and red currant, huckleberry, liniment, eucalyptus, tomato leaf and Wine Gums, energetically fruity but laced with a herbal streak throughout. Peppery and medium-bodied, it is leaner than expected, wool sweater scratchy tannins overshadowing measured and fully integrated acidity. Black bean, green pepper, pen ink, aniseed and dark chocolate frame raspberry and black cherry fruit, an array of green peppercorn, juniper and further pyrazine notes tracing the flavours into an impressively lengthy finish. This manages to layer in fruit and ripeness without losing varietal character — thoroughly impressive throughout. Welcome to the new era, Culmina.

90+ points


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