Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Upper Bench offers one-stop shopping

Photo: Gavin and Shana Miller

With 220 wineries in British Columbia, and counting, a new label needs something to differentiate itself.

Gavin and Shana Miller should have a winning formula at Upper Bench Estate Winery. He makes solid wines while Shana makes seven different cheeses. And the winery’s summer market will also sell fresh fruit from Naramata orchards. One-stop shopping for food and wine tourists.

Upper Bench is the new name for a Penticton winery that opened originally in 2001 as Benchland Winery and then became Stonehill when it was acquired by the Holman Lang group of wineries.

When Holman Lang went under in early 2011, the Millers teamed up with pulp and paper executive Wayne Nystrom to make a successful bid for the winery at the bankruptcy court.

The rest of 2011 was given over to renovating the winery building, primarily to add a cheese-making room for Shana, who had begun her cheese-making career several years earlier at the Poplar Grove Winery.

The cheese there was (and is) legendary. It is now evident in the Upper Bench tasting room that Shana, who is making between 60 and 80 kilograms of cheese a week, has brought the same skill to this winery. The seven cow milk cheeses all are priced at $5.50 for 100 grams.

Gavin, who was born in Britain in 1965 and formerly worked there as a sales manager, came to the Okanagan in 1995 on vacation. He met Shana and that led to his decision to immigrate and then to get into the wine industry. He was a winemaker at Poplar Grove from 2004 to 2008 and then spent two more vintages at Painted Rock. He had a hand in making notable award-winning wines at both of those producers.

In addition to renovating the winery last year, Gavin also whipped the Upper Bench vineyard into shape. The result is evident from the 2011 wines released to date by Upper Bench, as well as from barrel samples of upcoming reds that I was able to taste recently.

I won’t attempt to add tasting notes on the cheeses, not being technically equipped as a cheese maker. But I did taste the cheeses and they are very good. Here are notes on the wines.

Upper Bench Pinot Gris 2011 ($19.90 for 284 cases). The wine is crisply fresh, with aromas of citrus and apples and with flavours of pears and stone fruit. The finish is dry – the winery’s own notes describe it as steely but that descriptor is overly austere. 88.

Upper Bench Pinot Blanc 2011 ($18.90 for 134 cases). Again, the wine is crisply fresh and dry, with aromas of apples and flavours of pineapple and stone fruit. 88.

Upper Bench Riesling 2011 ($21.90 for 112 cases). This is a juicy, savoury Riesling with the beginning of the classic hint of petrol on the nose. On the palate, it delivers a tasty bowl of tropical fruit flavours. The finish is long but also refreshing. 90.

Upper Bench Chardonnay 2011 ($24.90 for 324 cases). Half of this was fermented in stainless steel and half was fermented and aged in barrel for five months. The oak lends an appealingly toasty note to the aroma and flavour, along with citrus aromas. The flavours include citrus, mango and tangerine and the texture is rich and satisfying. 89.

Upper Bench Rosé 2011 ($18.90 for 174 cases). Made with Zweigelt grapes, this is a good dry rosé with aromas and flavours of strawberries, rhubarb and sour cherry. 88.

Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2010 ($26.90 for 238 cases). This is a wine that Gavin inherited but finished well, giving it 18 months in oak – 30% of it new barrels. While the texture is still firm, the wine displays aromas and flavours of cherries and red berries. 88.

Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2011 (barrel sample). This is already full-bodied and generous on the palate, with aromas and flavours of black cherries. This will mature to an elegant Pinot Noir.

Upper Bench Merlot 2010 ($28.90 for 84 cases). This also aged 18 months in oak, a quarter of which was new French barrels. It is a bold, generous red, with vanilla and black currant aromas and flavours, along with flavours of black cherry and figs. 90.

Upper Bench Merlot 2011 (barrel sample). This youthful red shows promise, with a muscular structure and spice currant aromas and flavours.

Upper Bench Redemption (barrel sample). This is a delicious blend built around the vineyard’s mature Zweigelt vines. There are flavours of plum and blueberry, with hints of pepper and spice. 90.


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