Culmina: No Stone Unturned

A WineAlign Winery Profile
By David Lawrason

Many of the world’s most iconic wines have taken single word names that evoke classicism and ring with entendre. Many end with the letter “a” –  Solaia and Ornellaia from Italy for example, or Insignia from California. I am wary of such wines as often the names can portend more than the wines deliver. It is much easier to sound important than be important.

Culmina, the latest ‘single-word-ending-with-an-a-winery’ from B.C.s Okanagan Valley is indeed important to B.C. and Canadian wine! As I sat with the range recently at the WineAlign offices I kept telling myself that they were clearly in a state of grace (literally) that many from B.C. have not yet attained. There is a sense of detailing and compactness that is actually quite rare in wines so recently out of the gate.

(At the bottom of this report, WineAlign critics have included some top picks from a recent Culmina tasting.)

culmina_table_crop4450_4 (1)

That may be because Culmina is not really new. The winery is new, the vineyards are new and the name is new, but the wines are truly the culmination of the careers of three men and two women with deep roots in winemaking, and who have brought not only experience, but a particular understanding of what it takes to make wine in the southern Okanagan.

The founders of Culmina are Donald and Elaine Triggs, whose surname still appears on more bottles of wine than any in Canada. After the partnership of Alan Jackson and Donald Triggs dissolved within a series of corporate acquisitions in the 1990s and 2000s, Donald was left to his own devices. He could have retired as a grandfather, but instead he and Elaine launched into a new project that would bring their years of experience to bear.

Part of that experience was having overseen the launch of Osoyoos-Larose in the southern Okanagan. Osoyoos-Larose was a joint venture between Vincor (of which Donald was president at the time) and Groupe Taillan of Bordeaux, and from the outset it was conceived as a “one wine” house focused on a red blend of Bordeaux varieties. In other words, ‘très serieux’.

Triggs hired two Bordeaux trained specialists for that project. One was renowned French viticulturalist Alain Sutre, the other was winemaker Pascal Madevon. Together these men knew the soils on the bench lands overlooking the valley; knew about temperature ranges at various elevations and about air and frost drainage; and knew the vagaries and caprices of vintages in this northern latitude. Madevon, through ten years of blending, had honed his ability to create excellent wine on a consistent basis.

Both men would become instrumental in the creation of Culmina. With Sutre’s help the search for a southern Okanagan site ideal for Bordeaux varieties began in 2006, with the first section of the current property being purchased in 2007 (of which more in a moment), with higher altitude benchlands being acquired in 2009.

Much of Donald Triggs experience and skill was administrative and operational – in building, brand development and marketing – tasks which he shares now with Elaine and daughter Sara. Elaine had been very hands on when the couple purchased and farmed the Delaine Vineyard in the Niagara River sub-appellation in 1998, turning it into one of Niagara’s best vineyards for sauvignon blanc and syrah. Daughter Sara, the youngest of three children, earned her Masters in Wine Business from Adelaide University in Adelaide, Australia and brings her very wine focused business and marketing skills to the table. In fact, I have rarely seen such careful, well-timed and sustained marketing efforts in Canada

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The Vineyards

I first visited Culmina’s vineyards on the Golden Mile Bench in 2014, while in the Okanagan to judge the WineAlign National Wine Awards. I climbed into a truck with Donald and Madevon, and we stopped first near the winery at a site that once contained 12 acres of vines belonging to a previous winery (in total 44 acres were purchased, but the rest had not been planted). There were some red Bordeaux vines immediately identified as unsuitable, but also a tempting patch of chardonnay. The first tough decision Triggs had made was whether to keep them, which would give him some immediate production, or start again with his own vision. He decided to rip them out.

Culmina’s vineyards sit on the western slope of the valley with south-east-facing vineyards that capture early morning light when temperatures are cool, and are shaded when late afternoon-evening sun is hot. Their height above the valley floor was also a major draw; the Margaret Vineyard is the highest in the south Okanagan, a decidedly cool site that doesn’t qualify for the new appellation Golden Mile Bench boundary because it is above the mapped altitude line.

But knowing the basics was not enough. Triggs set up 20 temperature stations. He dug 66 pits to explore the soils of the site. He then mapped the site based on micro-climates and soil types, coming up with 45 different blocks of about 1.25 acres each. Once this information was analyzed he had a good idea of not only which grape varieties to plant but which rootstocks to use as well. No stone unturned.

That first vineyard – called Arise Bench – has similar heat-summation degree days to Bordeaux and is planted to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, with a touch of syrah and malbec in its warmest location. Cabernet franc was also placed in the areas containing soil with high calcium content, while the merlot was planted in areas nearest to the mountain shadow to protect the variety’s delicate aromas

Back in the truck we climbed steeply to a vineyard that curved along a long terraced bench. Out at its edge there was a rocky promontory which we climbed on foot to absorb one of the most spectacular views of the south Okanagan, from Oliver in the north clear to Osoyoos in the south. Out on this rock edge Donald Triggs was actually so excited that he danced a quick jig, kicking up dusty soil.

Donald Triggs

We were on Margaret’s Bench, a cooler site with heat summation closer to Burgundy. Three white varieties – chardonnay, riesling and Austria’s grüner veltliner – were selected, with soil variations further determining the placement of each clone and rootstock combination on the Bench. Grüner veltliner was chosen for the schist-like soil areas, whereas riesling was planted on stonier soils.

Back in truck we drove across (south) to Stan’s Bench. Here again they planted riesling, and chardonnay on the cooler, higher sections, but then decided to plant late ripening varieties of petit verdot and malbec in the lower areas, with the highest number of degree days on the property. And surprisingly at the far end of this patch, on a very steep slope he showed us the most daring of his vineyard exploitations – a patch of head pruned, unirrigated vines. This too was a culmination, the crescendo in a carefully orchestrated grape-growing scheme.

The Winemaking

With the combined experience of Donald Triggs and Pascal Madevon, Culmina’s winemaking is grounded in both tried and true methods and some new pieces of technology. Born in Paris, France, winemaker Pascal completed a Technician’s Degree in Viticulture and Oenology and went on to complete an Oenology National Diploma from the University of Bordeaux in 1989. He came to the Okanagan in 2002.

His philosophy revolves around two principles: gentle handling of fruit and minimal intervention of wine. All of the grapes harvested from the estate are picked by hand. They are then protected in small stacked bins so that their own weight does not cause their skins to break before they reach the winery. Upon arrival, the fruit is hand-sorted on a vibrating table so that the fruit is gently deposited into the de-stemmer. The grapes are processed in a gravity-flow designed winery, built into the side of a hill – allowing for pump-less rackings and transfers from the fermentation hall into the barrel room.

The winery’s simple design also allows for each tank to only be used once each vintage. By allowing the fermented wine to sit on the skins for up to 24 days after the fermentation is completed creates wines with softer and more approachable tannins.

Lastly, a simple basket press is also used for all pressings. Even though this kind of press is less efficient yield-wise, and is much more time consuming and manually intensive to operate, its gentle pressing ensures that stems and seeds are never pressed so hard that they crack, thereby preventing unwanted green tannins from being added into the pressed wine.

Among more high-tech processes, Culmina uses a Bucher Oscillys de-stemmer from France – the first of its kind in Canada – that allows more gentle handling during the crushing and destemming of fruit. In addition, modern, stainless steel, temperature-controlled conical red fermentation tanks were imported from France. And when a pump is required (pumping over) they use a peristaltic pump, the kind used to transfer live fish at aquariums from one tank to another.

The Wines

Full reviews by several WineAlign critics can be viewed by following the links below.

I have sat down with the range twice in the last year, and both times, as I mentioned at the outset, I was impressed by the sense of poise and layering.

The flagship of the range is a red blend called Hypothesis, based on merlot (as are many southern Okanagan reds) with cabernet sauvignon and cab franc.  It is not the most expensive of its sort in the Okanagan, but it is easily among the best, especially the 2013 to be released next year.  Three years does not quite a vertical tasting make, but the 2013 has a fine sense of fragrance and poise, whereas the currently available and quite ripe 2012 is a bit more powerful and youthfully tense at the moment. The 2011, the debut vintage from a cool year is quite refined, more subdued and showing subtle evolution. The less expensive blend called R&D Red is quite lively, complex if a bit more sinewy. And the 2014 rosé blend from the red wine shows considerable finesse and liveliness as well.

Culmina 2014 Saignée

“It has a very pretty, gentle nose of red currant jam, raspberry and fresh herbs. It’s medium weight, elegant, smooth yet nicely fresh with a dry finish.” David Lawrason

Culmina 2013 R & D Red Blend 

“Begins like elegiac poetry, with a Bordeaux sensibility and a nod to blends distinguished by site.” Michael Godel

Culmina 2012 Hypothesis 

“The palate offers an abundance of black cherry, plum and blackberry fruit along with graphite and saline. Excellent concentration with flavours that build like crescendo.” Sara d’Amato

Culmina Saignée 2014 RoséCulmina R & D Red Blend 2013Culmina Hypothesis 2012Culmina Decora 2014Culmina Dilemma 2013

Most people discussing Culmina whites leap onto the fact that Donald Triggs has planted the Austrian variety grüner veltliner – a rarity in Canada – and he has done an amazing job extracting varietal veracity.  The wine is called Unicus, and it was an immediate hit, selling out the  2013 and 2014 vintages. I am just as impressed by the bold, taut riesling called Decora, again with vineyard altitude imparting unexpected tension for South Okanagan riesling. The chardonnay, called Dilemma, is richer of course, but also based on fine acidity and minerality.

Culmina 2014 Decora

“Dynamic and age-worthy.” Sara d’Amato

Culmina 2013 Dilemma 

“I like the freshness and the balance here – acids snap and crackle on the palate, while concentration and density are genuine, weaving in some intriguing resinous-savoury-herbal character into citrus and white fleshed orchard fruit.” John Szabo, MS

The production at Culmina is relatively small, and clearly pointed to the premium end of the market – although fairly priced given the quality. So it may not be as easy to find as many in our national audience might like. But again, for a young project the family Triggs is keenly aware of the need to get their wines out to key buyers across the country. Their website provides points of contact.

As a regular feature WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, if any, is entirely up to WineAlign. See below for more details provided by the winery.

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Culmina is pleased to offer complimentary shipping across Canada to WineAlign Members on purchases of 12 or more bottles.
Have the warmth of the South Okanagan shipped directly to your door just in time for the holidays. All shipments are temperature-controlled to assure the integrity of your order. Purchase by Monday December 14th to best ensure delivery by December 24th.
 
We’ve exclusively made two cases of our sold-out 2013 Dilemma (Chardonnay) to WineAlign Members from our library (maximum two bottles per order). Try a mixed-case with our 2014 Decora (Riesling), 2014 Saignée (Rosé), and flagship 2012 Hypothesis (Bordeaux-Style blend) to share with friends and family.
 
Buy Now Here: http://bit.ly/BuyCulminaWine

Have any questions? Call the winery directly at (250) 498-0789.
 
To ensure access to upcoming limited production releases – such as our first single varietal red, the 2013 Merlot, and 2015 Unicus (Grüner Veltliner) – become a complimentary Member to receive your own Allocation. No commitment is required.
 
Become a Member Here: http://bit.ly/CulminaMember
 
Creating wines of excellence through the blending of art and science.
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