Nota Bene 2018 Celebrates 20 Years

By David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Black Hills Estate Winery.

Black Hills Winery in B.C.s southern Okanagan Valley is in celebration mode over the release of the 2018 Nota Bene, the 20th Anniversary vintage. Canadian wine lovers should also be stoked because as Nota Bene has gone, so has the notion of top-notch Bordeaux-inspired reds in B.C.  Nota Bene was not only a pioneer but it has been a tutor on managing the style in the years since. Much of what is now coming out of B.C. in this genre has followed Nota Bene’s lead.

Click to buy the 2018

It was not the first premium Bordeaux red from the southern Okanagan when it debuted in 1998. There was a cluster of ambitious new projects at the time. But Nota Bene sparked the imagination, because it was not only very good, it was the homespun vision of two daring couples – Senka and Bob Tennant and two friends. It was creating something special from scratch on virgin land and making a style of bigger reds deemed impossible up until that moment in Canada. And the winery was in a Quonset hut.

This was also the era of Napa’s ascent, and New World ascent with Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator directing traffic to big reds. One Canadian reviewer wrote that Nota Bene would be the Screaming Eagle of Canada, which thankfully has not happened. Napa’s poster child of the cult wine movement, Screaming Eagle is now outrageously expensive and unavailable. Nota Bene is capped at 3,500 cases a year and sits at the $70 price range in B.C.  Sill accessible and affordable to collectors, and those wanting a special occasion wine.

Nota Bene is a detailed compilation of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc – the component grapes of Bordeaux reds. This breaks down even further with four merlot clones, four cabernet sauvignon clones and two cabernet franc clones being planted in two neighbouring vineyards on the crest of the Black Sage Bench in the southern Okanagan.

Black Sage has emerged as special spot in Canada, with gentle west facing, elevated slopes catching more late day warmth before the sun sets behind the western hills. And at night temps drop significantly, preserving acidity. The growing season of the Black Sage Bench delivers more heat units than Napa, but those chilly desert nights are the ace in the hole.

Back to the clones, and no I am not going to detail what each clone brings. I do want to emphasize that the combinations make Nota Bene special and I am so impressed that this was all thought through in the plantings in late 90s, and that all the clonal batches are fermented separately, then combined through tasting. All great and complex wines are made this way. Good grape growing and winemaking science has to get them to the blending table intact, then the art and sensibility of the winemaker puts them together.

Over 20 years Black Hills has had four winemakers guiding the process. The first was Rusty Figgins the acclaimed winemaker of Leonetti in neighbouring Walla Walla, Washington. Then Senka Tennant, who was one of the first oenology grads at Okanagan College, took over, and remains one of B.C.s elite winemakers. She was followed by Graham Pierce, again still working as one of the best in B.C.  In 2018 enter Ross Wise, a New Zealander who made his name in Canada consulting to wineries in Niagara before going to a neighbour on the Black Sage Bench. Ross is now one of Canada’s most highly prized winemakers, last year earning his Master of Wine accreditation – only the seventh Canadian to do so.

The long-standing mantra around the making of Nota Bene has been “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. So, if there has been variation it centres mostly on reaction to different vintage conditions, which can be notable at this extreme northern latitude. Ross Wise will be doing likewise. In the cooler 2018 vintage, he has tweaked it by adding a mere one percent of petit verdot to the blend, which adds a bit more colour and texture.

Nota Bene is rarely seen in Ontario, so at a time when interest in B.C. wines is peaking in Ontario and across Canada I am delighted that a special six-pack is being offered to WineAlign readers, with sales being handled directly by the winery. The WineAlign critics have tasted the latest offering, with their comments to be found here.

This feature was commissioned by Black Hills Estate Winery. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries and wine agents 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, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.