|Cult wines on parade|
At a recent wine tasting, one of the guests asked: “What is
a cult wine?”
It is a top quality wine highly prized by collectors. They
get their names onto a winery’s VIP list and get in line to buy each release
when the winery announces it. They usually buy it six to 12 bottles at a time.
The most enduring cult wine from the Okanagan is Nota Bene,
the flagship Bordeaux
blend from Black Hills Estate Winery
Paul Guedes (below with wife Kara) is a North
Vancouver businessman who has collected Nota Bene in
each vintage since that wine debuted in the 1999 vintage.
Recently, to celebrate his and wife ninth wedding
anniversary, he invited some of their closest wine-loving friends to a dinner
at which 12 vintages of Nota Bene (1999 through 2010) were served. The venue
was a cozy restaurant called Kitsilano Daily Kitchen where chef Brian Fowke
prepared an astonishing nine-course dinner, pairing the tapas-sized courses
with the wines.
Because the Okanagan is a young wine region, vertical tastings
like this seldom happen. I can think of just two other cult wineries – Blue Mountain
and Burrowing Owl – that began releasing wines in the 1990s. Black Hills opened
in 2001, nine years after Blue
and three years
after Burrowing Owl. There were other excellent wineries that opened, or were
open, in the 1990s but none sustained the cult following that leads to
collectors cellaring each and every vintage. (I expect a few producers might
take issue with.)
Black Hills was launched in 1996 when two couples – Peter
and Susan McCarrell and Bob and Senka Tennant – purchased an abandoned vineyard
on Black Sage Road
and planted 36,000 Bordeaux
varietals on 26 acres. In 1999 they decided to open a winery, making wine with
half of the vineyard’s production while selling the rest. That gave them cash
flow while they developed the Black Hills
The first wine was Nota Bene 1999. It was well received by a
number of reviewers.
In a prescient review at the time, if I may pat myself on
the back, I wrote: “A
Noteworthy and Collectible Wine. For collectors of British
Columbia wines, the latest must-have wine is the 1999 Nota Bene
from Black Hills
Estate Winery, a producer near Oliver which has just opened.
This has all the marks of becoming a cult red wine capable of appreciating in
The Nota Bene blend is usually anchored with Cabernet
Sauvignon, but not always. The 1999 Nota Bene was 64% Merlot, 26% Cabernet
Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. The second vintage in 2000, however, was 52%
Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc. That has generally been
the template. The 2010 Nota Bene, for example, is 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32%
Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc.
The predominance of Merlot in the first Nota Bene reflected
the 1999 vintage. It was a cool vintage, one in which it was harder to ripen
Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. The first Nota Bene had 13% alcohol. The 2000
vintage, from a warmer year, had 14% alcohol. Even warmer years produced a 2004
Nota Bene with 14.6% and a 2007 Nota Bene with 14.7%.
Senka Tennant, with some initial coaching by telephone from Washington
Rusty Figgins, made Nota Bene from 1999 through 2007. She had a hand in making
the 2008 as Black Hills
transitioned to new
ownership and to the current winemaker, Graham Pierce (right). This comparative
stability in winemaking has meant that Nota Bene’s style has been reliably
consistent across all of the vintages.
When the McCarrells wanted to retire from the wine industry, Black Hills
was sold in late 2007 to Vinequest Wine
Partners Limited Partnership. The Tennants took a few years off and then opened
Terravista Vineyards in 2011, a Naramata boutique offering only two white
Vinequest president Glenn Fawcett financed the purchases and
the subsequent expansions at Black Hills
the sale of units to investors. Paul Guedes is not an investor but is an
enthusiast for Black Hills
Currently, Black Hills
owned by about 450 investors who, among other perquisites, get a free case of
Nota Bene each year. With the wine now selling at $53 a bottle, that is a good
dividend. It is just one of the privileges of ownership.
Vinequest Wine partners have doubled the winery’s total
production to about 10,000 cases a year. However, the production of Nota Bene
is capped around 4,500 cases a year, safeguarding the quality of the wine as
well as its comparative scarcity.
At the end of the Paul Guedes vertical, his 18 guests voted
on their favourites. There were six votes for the 1999, five for the 2003, four
for the 2002, two for the 2005 and one for the 2006.
Obviously, Paul has a temperature-controlled cellar with
excellent storage (constant 54 degrees F), because none of the wines had fallen
Here are my notes:
Nota Bene 1999:
The fruit aromas and flavours have matured, developing earthy notes and
ephemeral fruit favours that typify a well-aged wine. The complexity reminded
one taster of an aged Italian red from Tuscany
It so happened I still had a bottle of the 1999 in my
cellar. In view of the vote – it was not my top pick - I opened it the
following day. The fruit in my bottle was more vibrant (one expects bottle
variation as wines age), deliciously sweet up front with a spicy berry note on
the finish. It has begun to slide from its peak, but with remarkable elegance.
Nota Bene 2000: The
wine has notes of delicate truffle aromas, with flavours of plum, cassis and
cigar box. The texture is polished and elegant.
Nota Bene 2001: The
aroma is smoky and spicy but the mid-palate is lean and dried out. It reminded
me very much of an old Chianti, with its short, dusty finish.
Nota Bene 2002: This
is a surprisingly satisfying wine, beginning with dark hue and a texture that
is big and bold. On the palate, the ripe plum flavours are juicy and generous.
The wine is at its peak. I reviewed this wine when it was released and wrote
that it was the best Nota Bene to that time. It still outshines the previous
three, in my view.
Nota Bene 2003:
This was a hot Okanagan vintage and the atmosphere was saturated with smoke
from the forest fires. There is just a touch of smoke on the aroma and in the
flavour of this wine, along with notes of plum, black cherry and olives.
Nota Bene 2004: The
wine begins with spicy berry aromas, leading to flavours of black currants,
plum and cigar box.
Nota Bene 2005: This
begins with a seductive aroma of vanilla and cassis. The wine delivers a big
spoonful of sweet fruit to the palate (lingonberry, cherry, raspberry) with
long silky tannins and with a persistent finish. This was my favourite. I
prefer the lively fruit aromas and flavours to the elusive notes of some older
Nota Bene 2006:
wine is a milestone for Black Hills
, which had
replaced its challenging Quonset Hut winery with a new winery, well equipped
with all the tools needed for modern winemaking. The 2006 is full on the palate, with
distinctive aromas and flavours of blueberry and cassis. When the wine was
released, winemaker Senka Tennant (right with Paul Tennant) described it as “appealing for its layers of
dark fruit with a hint of spice, olives and cedar on the nose; full bodied and
balanced with silky velvety tannins and a great lengthy rich finish.”
Nota Bene 2007: The
firm structure and power of this vintage marks it as a good candidate for
further cellaring. However, it is already appealing with spice and cassis
aromas and with earthy plum flavours.
Nota Bene 2008: This
begins with an appealing aromas of red fruit, vanilla and mocha. It is rich and
ripe on the palate with flavours of plums, black cherries and vanilla. On the
finish, there are hints of chocolate, red berries and spice.
Nota Bene 2009:
am surprised no one voted for this wine. I found it one of the best on the
table, with dramatic aromas of vanilla and cassis, followed by flavours of
black currant, coffee, mocha and cedar. At a previous tasting when this wine
was released, I noted
vanilla, eucalyptus and dark fruits on the nose, with flavours of plum, black
cherry and chocolate. This has lots of time ahead it.
Nota Bene 2010:
this stage of life, this wine is tight as a drum. It begins with aromas of
raspberries and pepper and tastes of cola, coffee and vibrant red berry notes.
It has the classic cigar box notes on the finish that signal the Bordeaux
heritage of this
wine. Opening the wine now is infanticide.