Sunday, June 1, 2014

Culmina releases the Okanagan’s first Grüner Veltliner

French-trained winemaker Pascal Madevon, who is now at Culmina Family Estate and formerly managed Osoyoos Larose, had not made any white wine in 20 years prior to the 2013 vintage.

He was handed a neat challenge last fall when he had to make the first Grüner Veltliner in the Okanagan. For good measure, he also made his first Riesling and his first rosé in two decades.

Culmina, the winery launched by Don and Elaine Triggs (right) and their daughter, Sara, is just releasing those 2013 wines. Pascal rose brilliantly to the challenge.

There are just 60 cases of Grüner Veltliner. The winery has released it under a proprietary name, Unicus. Don explains that bit of Latin translates as unique or one of a kind.

Perhaps it should be called Almost Unicus. The first Grüner Veltliner was planted in British Columbia in 2008 on the Saanich Peninsula by De Vine Vineyards. The winery released its first Grüner from the 2012 vintage, also under a proprietary name, Grü V. It was well reviewed but I never tasted it because De Vine only sells its wines on Vancouver Island.

I have tasted Unicus and I am impressed. The wine, which sells for $27 a bottle (compared with $19 for Grü V), can be purchased from Culmina’s winery. Culmina offers free shipping in British Columbia on six-pack or case-lot orders for any of its wines.

Grüner Veltliner was planted in 2011 in Culmina’s highest and coolest vineyard. Of course, there is cool and there is cool. The grapes for Unicus were ripe enough to yield a wine with 14% alcohol. The grapes on Saanich yielded a wine with 10.5% alcohol.

That suggests that Grüner Veltliner is a versatile grape for British Columbia’s vineyards. Some growers have been interested for quite some time in planting Austria’s most widely grown white varietal. Until recently (and perhaps still), no Austrian nursery had the Canadian government’s approval to ship vines to Canada for fear of introducing viruses. I think it is improbable that there are no virus-free sources in Austria but plant regulators are very cautious.

The vines for Culmina (and probably for De Vine) came from a virus-free block at the University of California in Davis which, in turn, got them from a certified French nursery.

The varietal has become popular with North American restaurants, which is why plantings have been increasing in Oregon, California and Washington.

“We were looking for a cool climate white, and some diversity,” Don Triggs says, explaining why Culmina has planted about two acres. “You know the three standard varietals for cool climate are Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. We were looking for a variety that was winter hardy. And we were looking for a variety where there might be some consumer interest. We did see some interest in this in California wine bars; and in people planting it around the world.”

He gave some thought to Torrontes, the Argentine white, but was not sure how well it handles hard winters. Grüner Veltliner has a good history of surviving continental climates in central Europe. And there was some anecdotal evidence from Ontario where Karl Kaiser, the Austrian-born founder of Inniskillin, planted a small block in the 1970s.

“It was a suitcase clone,” Don thinks. “They had one of those bad Ontario freezes and Karl’s Grüner Veltliner and Seyval Blanc were the two varietals that survived the best. So I knew it was winter hardy. The sad part of that story is that when Inniskillin expanded, they pulled it out to increase the parking lot.”

Making the Culmina Grüner Veltliner was “very, very easy,” Pascal (left) says. The grapes were crushed carefully in a basket press and fermented in stainless steel between 17°C and 19°C. The wine was removed from the lees in two weeks, cold stabilized and bottled within a few months. In 2014, when he will have twice as much fruit, he is debating whether to age some in neutral oak, as some Austrian producers do.

Pascal used the same minimalist approach to making the Culmina Riesling, which is being released under the name, Decora, and the rosé. The latter is called Saignée because it made bleeding some juice from each fermenter of red wine. The French call this technique “saignée.” The method not only makes good rosé but it also concentrates the remaining red wine.  

Culmina makes just two other wines. The Chardonnay is currently called Dilemma because the winery was uncertain whether to continue making it from an old block that Don inherited when he bought the property; or whether from a new planting in the same vineyard as the Grüner Veltliner. The 2011 and 2012 Dilemma are from the old vines, which have now been removed, and the 2013 is from the young block. Don thinks it is a better wine.

The red icon is called Hypothesis. The 2011 was released last fall and the 2012 is scheduled for release this fall. The first vintages include the three main Bordeaux reds. Going forward, it will become a Merlot-anchored blend with all five Bordeaux varietals.

Here are notes on the three releases from the 2013 vintage. The 2011 wines have been reviewed in earlier blogs.

Culmina Unicus 2013 ($27 for 60 cases). This expresses the classical varietal fingerprint of the Grüner Veltliner – the touch of white pepper in the aroma and the palate. There is also tropical fruit in the aroma, leading to flavours of citrus and melon. The texture is rich; and the wine has a lingering dry finish. 92.

Culmina Decora 2013 ($23 for 160 cases). This wine, with 12.5% alcohol, has a fine spine of minerality with citrus aromas that emerge on the palate as lime and grapefruit flavours. The wine has the potential to become complex with another six to 12 months in bottle. 88-90.

Culmina Saignée 2013 ($22 for 178 cases). The blend here was four barrels of Merlot juice, two barrels of Cabernet Franc and one of Cabernet Sauvignon. The light rose petal hue is the hue that is increasingly popular with rosé drinkers. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and cranberry, going on to flavours of cherry and strawberry. The finish is crisp and dry, like a fine Provence rosé. 90.


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