Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Kid on the Rosé Block

Prior to preparing for this year's BC Wine Appreciation Society's Annual Bus Tour, I can't say that I knew anything about Culmina Family Estate Winery. With the doors to the winery only having been opened to the public for a couple of weeks prior to the Bus Tour, I'd seen the name mentioned once or twice but had no idea of who was behind it or how it was looking to fit into the ever-growing BC wine landscape.

Luckily, all that changed when one of our BCWAS gang arranged a tour and tasting at the winery on the Monday after the Bus Tour had ended. I briefly mentioned in my last post that I intended to open one of Culmina's wines in the near future. I hadn't quite expected for that bottle to be the first one opened upon my return - but when Boo served up a squash and roasted garlic agnolotti, I thought this new Rosé I might be able to smooth over some of his ruffled feathers when he found out that I'd brought another five cases of wine home with me.

The thought was that, if I served him a wine that he really liked, I'd just tell him that all the wines I bought were of that calibre and that I had to show great restraint to limit myself to the number of bottles that I did buy.

I'm not sure that my plan succeeded, but it did provide an opportunity to tell Boo (and you) some of Culmina's interesting story. The winery is the newest adventure of Don and Elaine Triggs, and daughter Sara, in the Canadian wine industry. Don is - or was - the "Triggs" component of  Jackson-Triggs, one of Canada's most celebrated wineries, and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment and success of Vincor Canada before the country's leading wine producer was purchased by Constellation Brands.

Everything about Culmina reads careful thought and high end investment. Even the winery's name alludes to the Triggs' hopes that this will be a fitting tribute to the culmination of Don's years of love for and hard work in the wine business. There certainly doesn't appear to be any sparing of expense in laying the ground work for what will hopefully be a strong family legacy.

Don took our group out into the vineyard immediately next to the winery and gave a "master class" in considerations to be addressed when setting up a winery and vineyard. During the couple of years that Don "took off" from the business, his mind was clearly still looking toward the establishment of Culmina. A number of winery and vineyard sites in the Okanagan were considered before Don purchased the current lands - and even then the process behind choosing this site involved extensive deep pit excavations to view soil type, ongoing temperature and sunlight measurements, satellite studies to track shadow patterns of the local mountains, elevation studies and water retention levels.

The studies continued even after the lands were purchased. Don had engaged the services of consultant Alain Sutre to maximize the potential of the Okanagan site. Sutre had been exposed to the Okanagan through his work with Osoyoos Larose, Burrowing Owl, Painted Rock and Poplar Grove - all premium producers in the region - and he was confident that Triggs could produce the premium wine that he was looking for. With Sutre's assistance, Culmina determined that the best varieties for the 44-acre home, or Arise Bench, vineyard were the red Bordeaux varieties. Wanting to produce high end white wines as well, thoughts turned to adding another 60 acres on two hillside benches above the Arise vineyard. Margaret's Bench (named in honour of Don's mother) has seen the planting of Riesling, Chardonnay and what could possible be the Okanagan's first Grüner Veltliner and Stan's Bench (named for Elaine's father) where Chardonnay and Riesling are grown in the cooler section and Petit Verdot and Malbec planted in the lower part of that bench - where those blocks receive the "highest Degree Days of anywhere on the Culmina property."

Trying to determine the best grapes to plant in the vineyard wasn't the end of decision making process however. The vineyard has been divided into blocks that average in size at around 1.2 acres. The blocks were demarcated for uniformity of soil and the vines have been planted on five different rootstocks, each chosen to best match the soil type. They have also used at least two clones of each of the grapes (with the exception of the Grüner Veltliner and the Viognier) to try and best match the clone to the varying micro-climates above the ground. The end result is a "patchwork quilt" of plantings according to Don.

They have also decided to go with high density plantings - up to 2044 vines per acre - whereas the norm is generally between 900 and 1300. The thought is that the higher density forces the vines to fight harder to find nourishment. That fight, in turn, forces the roots to dig deeper into the soils, hopefully leading to a greater expression of the vineyard or terroir in the finished wine.

Although they don't currently anticipate that the winery will seek certification, they are trying to incorporate important sustainable aspects into vineyard practices. While not fully organic or biodynamic, all the vineyard posts are untreated wood, they use organic sprays on the vines and they water in the middle of the rows to encourage greater plant and bug diversity. An example of the high end technology being put to use at the winery is that vineyard sensors relay ongoing information to a winery computer, allowing vineyard management to choose to water only in specific blocks as needed.

It was also intriguing to hear Don tell of their decision to undertake a research study by planting 500 vines of Viognier in a bush vine manner. The intent is to use drip irrigation and gobelet pruning (which involves no trellising) - common in Spain and Southern France - to see if the roots will go deep enough to find their own source of water.

We even experienced a novel method of discouraging perdition of the ripening grapes by local birds - new to me at least. Rather than using the ubiquitous cannons to scare the birds off, Culmina has speakers in the vineyards that randomly play the calls of predatory birds. The first time we heard those calls, we all wondered "what the heck was that."

I could go on but it might be best to just direct you to the Culmina website where you can find extensive notes on their site selection and vineyard development. It's kinda like a touch of wine geek paradise.

After our vineyard tour, we visited the inside of the new winery as well and, after hearing about all the care taken outside, it was no surprise to learn that no expense was spared on the inside either. Culmina's approach is seen right at the start with their use of a Bucher Oscillys destemmer - the first to be imported into Canada - that incorporates a more gentle handling of the fruit during the destemming and crushing stages. A full gravity fed production. Tanks chosen for an easier punchdown of the fermentation cap. Extended maceration periods. Particular specifications for their barrels (sourced from five French coopers and incorporating a blend of oak from four different forests). All decisions and procedures chosen to lead to a more complete wine.

As many of the vines are still too young to produce fruit that can be used for winemaking, Culmina only offers three wines currently and production of those wines was so small that all purchases are limited to two bottles of each of the wines.

I particularly liked the story behind the Dilemma Chardonnay. Much of the Arise vineyard had been planted previously, including an 11.6 acre block that featured 16 year old vines. After testing samples from previous vintages and deciding to release a couple of vintages of the Chardonnay, Don and crew faced a dilemma - do they continue with the Chardonnay as planted or re-start? It was ultimately concluded that the method for planting of the vines was wrong, the root stocks weren't suited for the soils and even the Chardonnay grape wasn't the best choice for the vineyard. Accordingly, all of the existing vines were ripped out and replanted. That difficult choice is now reflected in the name of the wine.

1425.  2012 Culmina Saignée (VQA Okanagan Valley)

As much as I liked the Dilemma story, it's the Rosé that I reached for to accompany dinner. A 50/50 blend of Cab Sauv and Gamay Noir, this is a Rosé named for the production method used. The word "saignée" finds its root in the French word for "bleeding" and the wine is made by bleeding off some of the crushed juice before it has had much contact with the skins (part of the process that imparts the deeper colours of red wine). The method allows a greater concentration in the red wine that is left to ferment on the skins while the juice that was "bled" off, is fermented separately to produce a Rosé wine.

The Culmina Rosé is completely dry and very reminiscent of the Rosés of Southern France. This is no White Zinfandel. It's alive with acidity and subtle fruit and it will be interesting to see how this current - and rather unique - Cab/Gamay blend changes over the years as more vines mature and additional fruit becomes available to the Culmina team.

In fact, it will be interesting to see how the whole Culmina portfolio develops in the years to come. I truly enjoyed our visit so soon after the doors to the winery were opened to the public. I look forward to more visits in the future. I'm not so sure that the opening of the Saignée was enough to get me out of  Boo's bad books, but I don't think there'll be any problem getting him to join me for that future visit.

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