Culmina Winery: The Bordeaux Varietals

9 04 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It is with great pleasure that I pick up where Peter recently left off, following up his batch of Culmina curiosities by exploring a tidy package of three Bordeaux varietals from this esteemed producer, all hailing from the same 2016 vintage. This affords a unique opportunity to compare the three grapes across the same vintage conditions, and as it turns out, with vineyard held constant as well. All grapes featured here come from Culmina’s estate Arise Bench, a southeast-facing site along British Columbia’s vaunted “Golden Mile”. Culmina founder Don Triggs subjected this site to a bevy of temperature, water retention, and soil analyses to determine that it shared many similarities with famous sites in Bordeaux. The stage seemed set for making these varieties shine in the Okanagan, but not before further precision was sought in terms of a detailed mapping of terroir variations within the Arise Bench area itself. This designation of “microblocks” means that grapes can be meticulously calibrated to viticultural parameters in order to help ensure a good balance between ripeness and fresh acidity. This sort of obsessive attention to detail has long drawn me to this winery, as does its willingness to pair the classic wine heritage that underpins Bordeaux-style red wines with a trailblazing spirit, as Peter recently documented. Let’s investigate the classics end of the equation.

2016 Culmina Malbec ($39)

One of the few reds that can actually smell and taste like grapes, Malbec has largely fallen out of favour in Bordeaux itself but hangs on in rootsy, sometimes chthonic Cahors, and to a limited extent in the Loire Valley. Most modern Bordeaux vignerons deem Malbec berries to be too large and thin-skinned to contribute much to a blend, with a scant few still growing small plots largely out of tradition. Evidently, however, things are different in the New World, where Malbec is a superstar. My own experience with the grape is rather favourably predisposed, although I am admittedly extremely selective in what I sample. Even unoaked, a well-crafted Malbec can yield a lovely spicy smokiness to balance the rich fruit. I would expect nothing less here. This vintage represents only the second release of a 100% Malbec wine from the Arise Bench site, the grapes hailing from two distinct micro-blocks. 2016 featured some unseasonably cool weather that helped retain acidity in the grapes, although the ripening period was still sufficiently protracted: in this era of climate change, perhaps ultimately a stellar vintage. Yikes. The grapes experience a pretty classic yet light-handed Bordeaux-esque winemaking regime, seeing 16 months in 100% French oak (17% new, 23% 1-year old barrels, 60% 2-year old + barrels).

This is a hearty deep opaque purple hue, upon first glance looking like it may ooze rather than pour. The nose builds thick layers of fruity black plum and Welch’s grape jelly, oaky aromatic pipe tobacco and chocolate milk, and earthy graphite and charcoal atop a baking spice/clove-dusted bedrock of Fig Newton and the Sun-Maid raisin last survivors from a Halloween haul, perhaps about as much olfactory pleasure as you find on an Okanagan Malbec (this still takes a moment to compute for me… Canadian Malbec… honestly though, why not?). I get further wisps of bay leaf, wild iris, cedar and spearmint, the latter note in particular gathering steam as the wine breathes. And breathe it does. This is unexpectedly lively, buoyant, and even a little taut at first, but it rapidly mellows out, coalescing into a pacific bastion of hazy violets and blackberries. The fruits are reeled back just a little from the expected hot climate blueberry characters, back towards black cherry and even red plum. It is like someone threw a deft hand on the ripeness rudder just as the boat was going to drift into a whirlpool of homemade jam oblivion, steering us back through black currants floating amongst a ripe, pliable, mouth-filling edifice of tannins that somehow evokes both yerba mate and Red Vines. Truly a long finish, the finale reverberates for a good five minutes post-sip and leaves one scrambling back for another dollop. Although there is no immediate rush, this is plenty enjoyable right now. Take me to the pilot of your (Malbec) soul.

91+ points

2016 Culmina Cabernet Sauvignon ($39)

Cab looms so large in the red wine world, occupying such an exalted yet ubiquitous status, that whenever I’m faced with writing about it, I often don’t know what to say that could classify as unique or interesting. It’s all been said, no? I have commented before on this blog about Cab’s rocky start in the Okanagan. The grape’s prestige meant that folks rushed into plantings without much analysis of whether the thick-skinned, late-ripening “king of grapes” is actually suited to the climate. The result was much overly oaked mediocrity, not to mention the notion that the Okanagan might instead be Merlot country (see below). The good news, though? BC Cab has gotten better. Site selection, improved viticulture, and shifts in winemaking have all played a role, but once again climate change might be the real crux of the matter. Culmina’s tech-savvy approach ought to shine here. Arise Bench grapes are matured for 16 months in a combination of new (25%) and 1-2 year old (75%) French oak barrels. It makes sense that the brawnier Cab can stand up to more new oak than the Malbec.

This is one where I’m on the fence about colour. Is it a bottomless pit of ruby or a moderate purple? I lean toward the latter and then skew back to the former. Oh well. It’s pretty regardless. The aromas curl languidly up to my nostrils, a caress of chocolate-covered violet Turkish delight, cigarette smoke, smashed clay pot, and dark roast coffee grounds, a nascent fruitiness just barely waving from beneath the tastefully pungent smoky oak. This will o’ the wisp eventually becomes a dragon, albeit a surprisingly red-fruited one, perhaps another nod to this cooler vintage. The currants are perhaps 60% red and 40% black, ditto the cherries, and an undercurrent of red bell peppers, dusty old thyme, oregano, and rubbed sage helps ensure that the showy fruit does not completely outpace the herbaceous complexities that I don’t mind in a Cab (so long as they are on some sort of leash). My mind starts wondering what Bordeaux appellation this might compare to… settle down, mind. This is its own thing. The cacao nib vibes never go away. I do appreciate the mouth-drying linear tannins. Nick Jackson (Master of Wine) wrote a stellar short book on how to blind taste according to a wine’s structural characteristics as opposed to a pure reliance on aromas and flavours. His view that arrow-shaped Cab tannins congregate largely on the gums is entirely on point here. Like the aforementioned Malbec, a mint vibe gathers steam with time in the glass, and I start to get a little nutmeg. This wine starts and stays a tad serious, largely taciturn but flashing an occasional ” vibrant fruit, bitches”. The finish is a long coda where the red fruits, bell pepper and jalapeño pyrazines, and graphite expand into a plume that damn near saves the wine from my initial fear that it might be just a touch too oaky. Whereas the Malbec was a largely carefree pleasure cruise, with one or two jagged flourishes, this one was truly about the journey… twists and turns through archetypal Cab aromas and textures, blowsy fruits that blink in and out, and an overarching languid oaky toast to bind the sequence together. This is a big wine, a full voyage, and one you will probably remember for a time if you are a fully present drinker.

90- points

2016 Culmina Merlot ($35)

We lastly arrive at “Culmina Right Bank”. Merlot was in fact the first varietal red released by Culmina back in 2013. A previous reviewer has referred to Merlot as the “signature varietal of the Okanagan”. This is interesting. In viticultural theory, the relatively early-ripening Merlot should do better in this climate than Cab, all other things being equal, and Merlot was the dominant blending component in Culmina’s flagship Bordeaux blend, Hypothesis, up until 2014. My own feelings on BC Merlot are decidedly mixed, yet this wine excites me. This is 100% estate grown Merlot from Arise Bench. The wine is matured for 16 months in new (18%; this is down from 50% in 2013), 1-year old (27%), and 2+ year old (55%) French oak barrels.

The Merlot pours a rather rusty ruby red, an obvious standout from the darker stylings of the previous two bottles. The nose is initially more muted as well… greener perhaps, yielding a mossy-treasure-chest-meets-black-liquorice-pipes vibe. The instant that latter aroma hits, I am greeted by a cavalcade of further shadowy notes: dark chocolate, pine mushroom, black olives even, ashtray, wormwood or some other sort of medieval tincture. WTF? This is New World Merlot, right? It should taste like a blueberry Pop Tart. This is rather stark and stony out of the gate, and seems determined to differentiate itself from its Malbec and Cab siblings by holding up the wall in a rather emo fashion as opposed to hitting the dance floor. But hang on. These Culmina reds typically reward patience. I start to get some blackberry bramble notes, plum skin, serviceberries (Saskatoons), huckleberry pie (close enough to a Pop Tart, I suppose), pen ink, even winks of underripe raspberry and cranberry. The acidity is rather fresh, yet the gum-coating tea-like powdery tannins still linger like a pall after a forest fire. I keep probing this wine for complexity, and keep turning up various trinkets. Although at first the finish rings hollow, a shaft of cedar-heavy oak, clay pot, and tomato leaf where one is expecting a blossom of fruit, eventually this too catches up, becoming a rather beautiful riff on blueberry tea and pancake batter. Although the body here is perhaps less than expected, the firm tannic structure seems to fill in any gaps. This may not be the most overtly pleasant or impressive of the three bottles reviewed here, but there remains something compelling about this Merlot that I cannot shake.

89+ points

Cork Rating: 4.5/10 (as always, I dig the logo and typesetting.)


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