Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Hills changes the Nota Bene recipe

Photo: Black Hills winemaker Graham Pierce

In blending the 2012 Nota Bene, Black Hills winemaker Graham Pierce decided to break with the tradition of anchoring that wine around Cabernet Sauvignon.

For the first time since 1999, Merlot anchors the 2012 Nota Bene. “It’s a better wine,” Graham says. “Let’s just not do something because we always did it.”

The 2012 vintage, the 14th vintage of Nota Bene, has just been released and Graham has been doing some trade tastings.

The blend for 2012 is 57% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Cabernet Franc. In every previous vintage but the first, the blend contained around 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, creating a familial consistency in the wine.

The first vintage in 1999, some 1,600 cases, was made by a Washington State winemaker, Rusty Figgins, with substantial input from Senka Tennant. One of the former owners of Black Hills, she was the winemaker through the 2008 vintage, when Graham took over.

I have no notes on why that first vintage was heavy on Merlot. My informed guess, however, is that the decision was made for the winery by the weather that season. 1999 was a cool growing season during which Cabernet Sauvignon would have struggled to ripen more than Merlot.

That was not the situation facing Graham in 2012. That was “one of the best years we have seen for flavour profiles, balanced ripeness and quality,” the winery says of that year. The Merlot-dominant blend was, as Graham says, judged to be the better wine.

Many Okanagan Meritage reds are anchored by Merlot, and not just because so much of that varietal is in the vineyards. When it is well grown, Merlot in the Okanagan is not the soft, jammy varietal that was panned in the movie, Sideways. The variety has good structure, vibrant fruit flavour and bright acidity; it does not need to be propped up by a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In his trade tastings, Graham has been showing the 2012 as part of a vertical tasting that includes the previous five vintages. It is as if he is putting down a marker, showing that he need not apologize for changing the recipe.

In one recent trade tasting, the overwhelming favourite was the 2009 Nota Bene. That wine is a big, rich and concentrated red from one of the Okanagan’s greatest vintages so far. The blend is 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc. If you want to taste this delicious wine, you either need to find a Nota Bene collector or sign up for a vertical tasting at the winery.

If the 2009 outscored the other vintages, none of the other wines disappointed. Even with vintage variations, the quality consistently is high. And Nota Bene always tastes like Nota Bene, with flavours of blackberry, plum, black currant, chocolate, liquorice and sage nestled in a plump texture.

The Nota Bene 2012 ($53 to 3,200 cases) stacks up very well. The familiar sage and herbal notes are on the aroma and the finish. The fruit flavours include black cherry, plum, coffee and chocolate. The texture is rich and ripe, with long tannins. The winery says this was “more masculine” than previous vintages – even after dialling back the Cabernet, which speaks well of the quality of the Merlot. This will age as well as any Nota Bene, which is seven to 10 years. 92-94.


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