Fresh Starts and Fine Wines in the Okanagan Valley

Reported by Susan Desjardins

Each trip to B.C.’s Okanagan Valley is a new adventure; tasting wines from a new vintage, visiting old friends at existing wineries, or talking to individuals who have decided to turn their minds, hearts and hands to the cultivation of grapes and the vinification of unique wines. Our visit this October was no exception, providing an exceptional opportunity to take an extensive tour of the Triggs’ family new venture, Culmina Family Estate Winery on the Golden Mile, and to visit Platinum Bench Estate Winery on the Black Sage Bench as well as Spierhead Winery in southeast Kelowna.

Culmina

The Golden Mile bench in the south Okanagan, between Oliver and Osoyoos, is legendary, named not so much for the quality of the soil for tree fruits and grape vines, but rather for the gold mines that were worked in the area in the late 1800s. Don Triggs greeted us when we arrived, brimming with energy and enthusiasm for this new project. After the sale of Vincor (which included Jackson-Triggs, co- founded by Triggs) in 2006, Don took a year off – “but I got bored, so I talked to Elaine and the family about starting a new winery. My youngest daughter Sara said she’d be interested, so here we are . . .”. In 2007, the Triggs family purchased an existing property which included some established vines. Don had a very clear notion of what he wanted to achieve: “Culmina” means summit, and our goal is to reach for the peak in Bordeaux-style wines, producing premium wines that are the best that can be achieved from our estate. Culmina is also the root of the word culmination, and this winery is the ultimate expression of our family and its values in the wine business. The estate honors members of the Triggs family, the principle 48-acre vineyard named ‘Arise’ after the estate of an ancestor of Don’s who was awarded 10 acres in Barbados in the late 1600s by the British monarch after serving as a ship’s purser. Margaret’s bench, a 10-acre vineyard which has to be one of the highest on the Golden Mile, is named after Don’s mother, while Stan’s bench, also 10 acres, is named after Elaine’s father.

Propriators of Culmina: Elaine, Sara and Don Triggs (Photo courtesy of the Culmina website)
Propriators of Culmina: Elaine, Sara and Don Triggs (Photo courtesy of the Culmina website)

Our tour of the property made it clear that the latest in technology has guided and continues to support the Triggs family’s focus on outstanding quality in its vineyards and wines. Don discussed, the research that went into selecting and then assessing the site; how numerous soil test pits were dug in the vineyards, how water retention in the soils was measured, to the extent that the Arise vineyard is subdivided into 1.25 acre micro- sites, each planted with unique root stocks and clones of Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties. Degree days were measured, once again to ensure that the appropriate grape varieties were planted in the optimal temperature zones. The Arise vineyard has the highest overall number of degree days at 1500, Margaret’s bench, the lowest at 1280-1350 (look for Riesling, Chardonnay and Grüner on this property), while Stan’s bench offers an interesting dichotomy – a south- facing rock wall along a reach of this vineyard retains heat and drives up degree days to as much as 1800 (you’ll find the Malbec, Petit Verdot and Viognier here), while the part of the vineyard without the rock wall has degree days half way between the Arise vineyard and Margaret’s bench. Satellite imaging was used to assess the extent and impact of the afternoon shadows that slip down the mountain and across the vineyard, determining where the Merlot would be planted so that it benefits from the cooling effects of the afternoon shade. Small solar panels dot the vineyards, powering batteries that feed the environmental monitoring systems measuring soil moisture, temperature and other data. Interested in the technology? Sara Triggs is not only a partner in this venture, but an outstanding tasting room hostess, and the brains behind the Culmina website, where you can find maps and diagrams of the ‘vineyard mapping’ undertaken by the family.

Don has also initiated an experimental planting of dry-land farmed vines, recognizing the risk of water shortages in the coming decades. Grafted to vigorous, drought-resistant rootstock that will send their roots up to 30 metres down in search of water, the 1000 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah have been planted 2×2 metres apart on a steep slope without disturbing the natural vegetation. Drip irrigation will be used for the first 3 years, with the intent to eliminate watering once the vines reach that stage. At maturity, the vines will be pruned to the goblet, or ‘bush vine’ shape to enhance their survivability in this desert landscape.

The family’s prior experience and their appreciation of the arts and sciences manifests itself in all aspects of Culmina. The winery graphic is a fine and unique representation of the old bush vines found in such dry, windy climates as the east coast of Spain and the south of France. Displaying clean, modern lines and materials, the winery tasting room and outdoor patio is architecturally inviting and warm. The environmental monitoring system is the first major installation of this type in Canada. The initial research was extensive, and the data collection continues, providing an ongoing record that can be used to adjust and adapt as required. The technology is married to age-hold practices of hand- planting, hand-pruning and hand- picking the fruit. And there is a strong emphasis on sustainability, manifested in the cover crops between the rows, designed to attract beneficial insect populations and to manage the vigor of the vines, sourcing of local cow manure as fertilizer, the use of hand-split cedar posts or galvanized steel to eliminate chemical leaching, use of under-canopy irrigation to minimize water usage, as well as construction of the winery to optimize solar gain and energy efficiency.

To produce his iconic wines, Don Triggs turned to Alain Sutre and Pascal Madevon, both sons of Bordeaux, whom he worked with in the early days of the Osoyoos- Larose joint venture. Pascal joined Culmina as winemaker in January of this year and, in this, his first vintage at the winery, was hovering between the sorting table and the de- stemmer as the Merlot made its way from vine to fermentation tank in the gravity-flow winery. As we talked about Culmina, he spoke passionately about this new venture and the potential of the fruit coming off the vineyards.

The Triggs’ family have a flavour profile in mind for their wines. Says Don, “Let the fruit be uninterfered with as possible”. The fruit from each block goes into its own tank and goes through extended fermentation to soften the tannins. Fermentation is held to lower temperatures to ensure the sustainability of the aromatics. Grapes and fermenting wine are tasted, the wine created to match the desired profile. French oak is used in aging, the barrels specified by Alain Sutre, purchased from 5 coopers who use a mix of barrel staves from four renowned French oak forests. Literally no stone is left unturned, no detail too small to be addressed.

To quote the Triggs family, their focus is on “three fundamental principles: first, their love and appreciation for art and design; second their understanding that by applying scientific principles, it’s possible to reach high calibre results; third, that only in striving for perfection is there the possibility of achieving excellence.”

Culmina opened in late August, 2013, offering tasting and sale of their initial vintage, 2011 Dilemma (Chardonnay) and Hypothesis (Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), as well as their 2012 Saignée Rosé (Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay). The wines deliver on the promise: the rosé a fine balance of lovely red fruit, floral notes and clean acidity, offering a silky yet crisp texture; Dilemma, produced from the original 20-year vines on the estate (after waiting 3 years to taste his own Chardonnay grapes at maturity, Don made the decision – it was a dilemma, says he – to tear out the old vines), fermented in new French oak and aged partly in barrel, partly in stainless, very expressive, with attractive minerality, hints of toasted nut, orchard fruit and tropical notes, showing an outstanding integration of oak and a creamy yet fresh texture; Hypothesis, the icon, described by Don as offering Cab Franc on the nose, Merlot through the mid-palate, with Cab Sauv securing the long finish, is an elegant yet full-bodied cellar-worthy wine with complex aromas and flavours—floral notes, earth, berries, spice and toast—with the lovely tension of clean acidity and fine-

grained tannins married to well- ripened fruit. Alas, the wines are available only at Culmina or through the wine club, but we can look forward to on-line ordering in the future, perhaps when the 2013 vintage is released. Based on the conditions of the vintage and the fruit at harvest, Don is expecting ripe, elegant wines – the summer heat brought the sugars to an ideal level, then the cooler weather in September allowed the tannins to ripen, and October again brought warm temperature, allowing the fruit to mature.

If you travel to the Okanagan, don’t miss the opportunity to reserve your own tour and tasting at Culmina! Or get on Sara’s mailing list so that you’re the first to know about direct ordering from Culmina.

Platinum Bench Estate Winery

Pickers are in the vineyard and the warm scent of fresh-baked bread is drifting through the doorway as I arrive at Platinum Bench Estate Winery. Fiona Duncan is up to her elbows in flour and bread dough, a timer always in her pocket or on the counter – “If you can wait 5 minutes, the bread will be out of the oven and we can do a tasting”. I browse the wines, and the tiny fridge, which advertises artisanal cheeses from Poplar Grove and Kootenay Alpine Cheese Company (their Alpindon is a favorite). A young couple hangs out on the deck overlooking the hills behind the Black Sage bench, waiting for their soprasata and swiss cheese mini-loaf. They’re heading home to Vancouver, and couldn’t resist just one more taste of Fiona’s unique bread with their Platinum Estate Cab Sauv, once they get home, of course.

Outgoing and friendly, Fiona and her husband are the team that makes Platinum Bench work. He’s in the vineyard, she’s in the small kitchen, baking bread, and in the tasting room, insisting you try the entire flight of wines, with the bread, of course, and perhaps a taste of local cheeses. Their philosophy: “to achieve a great wine, one must first approach the land and vines with meticulous care, cropping, and respect . . .”

Originally from Vancouver via Winnipeg, Fiona decided a few years ago that she wanted to become an expert croissant maker. After a year and a half of experimenting, with mixed but generally satisfying results, she decided to formally enroll in a course. But she had to complete her ‘bread levels’ first; consequently she became a qualified baker as well as a croissant expert! So when the couple decided they wanted to buy a vineyard and make wine in the Okanagan, the germ of an idea was born. How about a winery that is also an artisanal bakery, featuring local cheeses? And, then Fiona came up with these uniquely flavoured breads to taste with the wine: Double cream brie and pear is paired with the whites; soprasata and swiss generally pairs with the lighter reds; gorgonzola and fig is reserved for the heavier reds.

With the help of Harry McWatters, the couple patiently waited for a vineyard suitable for the style of wine they wanted to produce to come on the market. The property they eventually purchased is one of the first planted on the Black Sage Bench, with vines that are now almost 20 years old. They moved out to the Okanagan in 2011, after the purchase of the property. Says Fiona, “We were lucky, as the site had 15 acres under vine, as well as a winery building and a small apartment where the former vineyard manager lived. We moved right in and immediately started taking viticulture and viniculture courses. Our focus is really on quality fruit – we still sell some grapes, as well as producing our own wine.”

In between the beeps of the timer (I admit to having arrived right at opening), Fiona offers a tasting of their first vintage, as well as her delicious breads (they’re shaped like a chain of tiny stuffed buns). The 2011 Chardonnay was blended from wines aged in stainless, new French oak and neutral French oak. Showcasing a clean crisp texture, it offers lovely flavours of orchard fruit, a touch of spice and delicious honeyed butterscotch. Due to the late bud break, the 2011 Merlot was cropped early, providing a better opportunity for the sugars to concentrate in the grapes, then the long warm autumn allowed the tannins to soften, creating a nicely balanced wine. Dry, medium bodied, there’s the lovely tang of red fruits, subtle oaky notes and a touch of pepper on the finish. The 2011 Cabernet Franc offers attractive floral and herbal aromas, hints of roasted red pepper, ripe berries and a touch of peppery spice. The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is firmly structured, spicy, toasty, showcasing blackberry and red berry, finishing tangy and clean. The 2011 Platinum Bench Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (35%) and Gamay (5%), displaying attractive floral notes, rich fruit aromas and a nicely balanced structure. Dry, medium bodied, the fine-grained tannins balance a rush of fresh, well-ripened fruit. Platinum Bench also releases two styles of Gamay, one in the spring, described by Fiona as a white wine on steroids (unfortunately, it was sold out), and a fall version that’s small-batch fermented and aged 10 months in new French oak, described by Fiona as fuller, rounder, and very smooth. If you want the ultimate in on-site food and wine pairing, make tracks for Platinum Bench!

Spierhead Estate Winery

Before catching my flight out of Kelowna, I headed to Spierhead Estate Winery, located above the lakeshore southeast of the city. The winery was established six years ago on an abandoned hiilside apple orchard that used to be part of the Turton family estate. The vines are now 4 years old, covering 20.4 acres and the winery has won numerous accolades: best winery in B.C. in 2012; best Pinot Noir for their 2010 (a first vintage) at the 2012 Canadian Wine Awards; double gold for their Pinot Noir Rosé at the 2013 All Canadian Wine Championships; and gold for their Pinot Gris (unfortunately sold out) at the recent Okanagan fall wine festival.

Established by a partnership of 3 individuals, including an Okanagan- based winery photographer, the estate is situated on sandy, rocky soil, produces about 3000 cases of wine and grows its own Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. For its Pursuit and Vanguard Bordeaux-style blends, Spierhead sources its grapes from a south- Okanagan vineyard owned and overseen by one of the modern Okanagan wine industry’s best- known pioneers, Harry McWatters.

The 2011 Riesling has a lovely delicate nose of flowers, fruit and mineral, with a lively crisp lemon- lime texture. The 2011 Chardonnay is only slightly oaked (20% of the fruit spent 10 months in French oak), showcasing stone fruit, floral notes, mineral and a touch of passionfruit. It’s dry, fresh and tangy, balancing flavours of orchard fruit and citrus with a refined note of toasted nut. The 2012 Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Reserve were released 2 days before my visit (what luck!), both aged 10 months in oak, the latter crafted from select barrels. The Pinot Noir is light- medium bodied, tangy in texture, showcasing mineral, red berry and a touch of toast, while the Reserve is medium-full bodied, rich and silky in texture, perfumed with red and black fruits, spice and a hint of toast, finishing long and smooth. The 2011 Pursuit is primarily an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with a dash of Cabernet Franc, aged 18 months in oak. Dry, medium-full bodied, it offers complex lifted aromas, subtle structure and a clean texture, a basket of ripe red and black fruits garnished with notes of spice, herbs and red peppers. The 2011 Vanguard is primarily Merlot, blended with equal shares of the Cabernets. There’s a subtle nose of black cherry and berries, vanilla and cedar. It’s dry, firm, full bodied, with a nice balance of fine-grained tannins, fresh acidity and ripe plum, cherry and berry mingling with notes of peppery spice. Spierhead wines are available at the winery, but may also be ordered directly through the wine club. Enjoy!