Culmina Winery: Old & New

19 11 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

Highway 97 runs south from Oliver to Osoyoos and is surrounded by vines on both sides. With Osoyoos Lake in the foreground and the roadway running parallel to a tiny tributary connecting the lake to the bodies of water further north, the landscape rises up sharply to the east and west, creating a large natural amphitheatre with tremendous sun and wind exposure for grape plantings. The highway’s crossroads count up from 1 as you leave Oliver, and if you turn right at the viticulturally famous Road 13 and go just up the hill from the winery bearing that name, you find the long-planned site of Culmina Family Estate Winery.

The vines planted there after years of detailed soil mapping and research are now into their second decade, the winery now a veteran stalwart with an established lineup of quality offerings. But there are still some tricks up its sleeve, starting this year with the release of the first-ever Syrah from the estate (keep it coming) and an ever-increasing portfolio of small-production Number Series wines, the Number releases increasing like the Roads from Oliver to Osoyoos, indicative of a winery not content to rest on its laurels.

It’s one thing to read and write about something and another thing to experience it for yourself. This summer I was finally able to turn off on Road 13 and walk the vines at Culmina, admire the remarkable view and see firsthand the care that goes into the fruit at the estate. (Extreme bonus points for the Tesla charging station in their visitor parking lot, a major rarity that far south in the Okanagan.) I got to see the striking difference between the three plateaus of vineyards that Culmina cultivates: the warm Arise Bench, right in front of and surrounding the winery building; the even warmer Stan’s Bench, slightly higher and more southerly, perfectly positioned to maximize the effects of the sun; and the cooler Margaret’s Bench, shockingly elevated as compared to the other two and seemingly inaccessible on the backside of a steep rocky slope. I got to appreciate the natural majesty of the area, and the concentration of top-end producers in the immediate vicinity — if Road 13 wasn’t enough just down the road, Checkmate and its James Bond villain lair of a winery complex is a couple minutes the other way.

The bet that Don Triggs made on this land has paid off, but Culmina continues to write its story even after his departure. With one clear exception, this tasting set focuses on Culmina’s tried and true releases; Ray will shortly address the more novel end of the winery’s current lineup.

2017 Culmina Dilemma Chardonnay ($31 cellar door)

The current vintage of Culmina’s flagship Chardonnay is from four vintages ago, not because it spends extensive time in oak (a total of 9 months of barrel aging, with 28% new French oak barrels balanced out by 20% oak-free wine matured in stainless steel) but because it integrates in bottle prior to being released. A cold and wet start to the year in 2017 quickly turned too warm throughout the summer, but was saved by cooler conditions during harvest, allowing for precious acid to be retained, aided by the near 600 metres of altitude on Margaret’s Bench. Only 30% of the wine saw malolactic fermentation, another tool to preserve sharpness and focus.

I have probably had Dilemma more than any other Okanagan Chardonnay, and each experience with it reinforces its position as one of the Valley’s top expressions of this chameleonic grape. 2017’s version is a piercing lemon-gold colour simmering with creme brûlée, Amaretto, charred lemon, tangerine and Honeycomb cereal aromas, never overpowering, but focused and confident. The silky layered body, lent additional texture by a trace of tannic scratch, is bisected by biting acidity, a pulse of vibrancy that keeps the notable palate weight from feeling heavy. Rosewater, Asian pear, lemongrass and bergamot flavours lend a sense of floating calm to a weighty core of Honey Lemon Halls and salted butter. This displays poise and elegance while still reflecting the warmth of its vintage and its home. Dilemma never disappoints.

91- points

2018 Culmina Syrah ($42 cellar door)

Now for the new. It’s not like Syrah was an after-the-fact afterthought for Culmina, but some vines take longer to develop into commercially viable fruit sources than others. It was a bit more of a struggle for these Syrah vines on Arise Bench (to the point that possible rootstock adjustment and replanting may be on the horizon at some point), but in 2018 they made liquid history by generating the first 150 cases of Culmina Syrah ever made. This was a cool-warm-cool vintage in the Okanagan, with a warmer summer giving way to a cool fall and winter holding off just long enough to allow for a November 8th harvest. The resulting wine spends 16 months in 100% French oak (25% new) has a shockingly high Rocks District-like pH of 3.97, among the most elevated numbers for a wine that you will ever see; interestingly, Okanagan Rieslings have some of the lowest pHs in the world (often under 3.0), making our nearest wine region almost surely the home of the widest potential pH divergence on Earth. But I digress.

This latest entry into an ever-strengthening field of Okanagan Syrah has the variety’s trademark glass-coating purple colour in spades, offering some translucent relief only at the rim. Lush and smouldering, it exudes slowly advancing layers of blackberry and blueberry pie aromas, boosted further by sweet spareribs and black licorice Jujubes but thankfully anchored by grounding sandpaper, hot rocks and peppercorn. If you thought you caught a lingering sense of Bazooka Joe gum somewhere in there, I would not disagree with you. The wine continues its overtly pleasing path on the palate, where for a split second it is a dead ringer for Dr. Pepper before splintering into overlapping notes of five spice, sweet tobacco, black cherry and cedar plank, its intense flavours and powerful sinewy body an impressive display that feels like it’s pressing just a bit. A prior bottle that I had of this Syrah was absolutely impeccable, but this one leaves me feeling like it’s being wrung a bit too hard. Still an absolutely worthwhile addition to a rock-solid lineup.

89 points

Cork Rating: 7/10 (The logo will never cease to be a winner. Shorter cork, but space well maximized.)

2016 Culmina Hypothesis ($46 cellar door)

Three different bottles, three different vintages in this release – when does that ever happen? Culmina’s pinnacle red Hypothesis is held back longer than its other wines before release, which is why this half-decade-old Bordeaux blend is the current vintage; it was actually bottled on the exact same day as the 2017 Dilemma above (August 10th, 2018). 2016 was almost the exact reverse of 2017 as a vintage, starting very warm in early March, then turning cold and wet for the summer before being saved by heat at harvest time. The harvest dates on the five different grapes comprising the Hypothesis blend varied wildly, starting with the Malbec (5%) on October 5th then continuing with Merlot (33%, mid-October), Cabernet Franc (19%, end of October), Petit Verdot (1%, November 11th) and finally the lead horse Cabernet Sauvignon (42%, ending November 14th). Like the Syrah, it sees 16 months in French oak before bottling, with a slightly higher proportion of new barrels (33%) servicing the winery’s top offering.

This is equally as dark as the Syrah, but ruby-hued and a touch more transparent. The similarities end there, though, as the Hypothesis comes across as stately, rustic and savoury on the nose, a far cry from the exuberance above. Sundried tomato, warm leather, coffee grounds, spearmint, empty pipe bowl — these impressions all register before the first hint of black fruit, accompanied by the omnipresent sagebrush aroma that smells like the hills of this countryside. A measured body immediately involves far more active powdery tannin, which swarms around enduring cherry cough syrup, black plum, Ricola and salted licorice pipe flavours. This doesn’t reach for fruit or power like the Syrah, and doesn’t try to hide its herbal streak or assertive structure, but embraces a more restrained, less ripe, more nuanced approach to its benefit. Sometimes the confidence associated with saying less says more.

90 points


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