Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Upper Bench releases blockbuster reds.

Photo: Gavin and Shana Miller

Judging from three new red wines, Penticton’s Upper Bench Estate Winery is being turned around brilliantly by winemaker Gavin Miller and his wife Shana, an accomplished cheesemaker.

The three reds, all from 2012, can fairly be described as blockbusters. A Zweigelt, a Pinot Noir and a Merlot, each wine is bold and packed with fruit.

The estate-grown Zweigelt has been described by another winemaker as the “best in Canada.” While I know of only two or three good Canadian Zweigelts, this really is a superior bottle.

The variety, a red which makes Austria’s best reds, was planted in this vineyard by Klaus Stadler, the German brewmaster who opened the first winery on this property in 2001 under the name, Benchland. He released one or two vintages of Zweigelt. His wine was a lean and simple red. Part of the problem was that Klaus would not hear of using oak barrels. A stainless steel brewer through and through, he feared that porous barrels simply were too susceptible to hosting harmful bacteria.

The Benchland wines had such a lukewarm reception that Klaus sold the winery in 2004 and returned to Germany. The new owner, Keith Holman, renamed the place Stonehill Winery. The wines did not improve. In 2010, Stonehill and Holman’s six other wineries slid into receivership.

Gavin Miller came along the following year. Backed by pulp and paper tycoon Wayne Nygren, he took over the winery, renaming it Upper Bench for the street it is on. Previously, Gavin had been a winemaker first at Poplar Grove and then at Painted Rock. Shana, who had learned her craft at Poplar Grove, converted part of the winery to cheesemaking.

The back label on each of the newly released reds provides the clue about why these wines are so satisfying. Gavin has provided the tonnage of grapes per acre for each wine. The tonnages range between 3 ¼ and 3 ¾ an acre. Those are yields that, especially in a fine vintage like 2012, result in wines that are generous in concentration and ripe in flavour.

And Klaus would be horrified to learn that each wine has been aged in barrel between 14 and 18 months. The fact is that serious red wines need barrel aging.

Here are notes on the wines. Consult the winery website for cheese pairings.

Upper Bench Zweigelt 2012 ($25 for 180 cases). The vines were cropped 3.27 tons an acre. The wine begins with aromas of plum, blackberry and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, black currant, vanilla and liquorice. (The winery’s notes also speak of Turkish Delight, pomegranate and orange peel.) A hint of black chocolate emerges on the finish of this richly-flavoured wine. 90.

Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2012 ($28 for 331 cases). The vines were cropped 3.4 tons an acre. This is a robust, earthy Pinot Noir with aromas of black cherry and spice. On the palate, there are notes of raspberry with chocolate and cherry on the finish. The tannins are smooth, if muscular, leading me to think this will benefit from three or four years of further age. 89-90.

Upper Bench Merlot 2012 ($30 for 440 cases). The vines were cropped at 3.63 tons an acre. The wine is a tour de force of aroma and flavour, with a fine concentrated texture. Dark in colour, it begins with aromas of black cherry, mulberry, and black currant. On the palate, there are bold flavours of black cherry, spice, vanilla and chocolate. The alcohol of 14.3% indicates that very ripe grapes were used (the grapes were picked in early November 2012.) 92.


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