Monday, February 22, 2016

Upper Bench's Yard Wine and Friends

Photo: Gavin and Shana Miller

Gavin and Shana Miller, the operators of Upper Bench Winery & Creamery, have had the tradition of making a barrel or so of red wine for themselves and to share with family and friends.

They called it called, simply, Yard Wine. This year, for the first time, Upper Bench has released a vintage of Yard Wine to their consumers.

The back label explains the tradition. “Our Yard Wine is a tribute to a wine we lovingly made for years, from the tiny vineyard at our old home in Naramata. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, all picked on 25th October [2013] and co-fermented – exactly the way we used to make it.”

Even the label looks like it was sketched on the kitchen table with an HB pencil on ordinary buff stock. It could be the label of an amateur winemaker. Gavin is hardly an amateur, but the market will tell him if it is willing to pay $30 for a bottle of wine with such a homely label.

The label did not bother me but it did upset my tasting companion – until the wine was tasted. This is a pretty good wine. Appreciate the label for the whimsy it is.

As I said, Gavin is not an amateur. Here is an except from John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide:

The winery has undergone a profound transformation since 2011 when Gavin, backed by a silent partner, businessman Wayne Nystrom, acquired what was then known as Stonehill Estate Winery in a bankruptcy court auction of the winery and its three hectare (seven acre) vineyard.

Rebranding the winery, which is within Penticton’s city limits, has enabled Gavin and Shana to make a new beginning with high quality wines and cheeses. “I am really pleased we got this winery,” Gavin says. “I always thought it had good bones, this place. It was never used to its potential.”

 Born in Britain in 1965, Gavin was a sales manager in London when he came to Penticton on vacation in 1995 and met Shana. They lived in London for a year before returning to the Okanagan in 1997. Drawn to wine after a year as a sign maker, Gavin took Okanagan College courses. That launched him on a career that began in the vineyard at Lake Breeze, the cellars at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards, the tasting room at Sumac Ridge and then winemaking, first at Poplar Grove and then at Painted Rock, where he made award-winning wines before leaving after the 2010 vintage.

Shana, a Nova Scotian, was working in Montreal when, on a whim, she decided to move to the Okanagan.I was 25 at the time and had a pretty stressful accounting job, which I hated,” she recalls. Travelling with four cats, she needed to stay on a farm. Ian and Gitta Sutherland, who were just planting the vineyard for Poplar Grove Winery, welcomed her. When Poplar Grove subsequently added a cheese plant, Shana acquired the art of cheese making. “Cheese is like wine,” she says. “It is all made the same way.”

Here are notes on the winery’s current releases. I am including the Upper Bench cheese pairing recommendations for each wine, as made by Shana.

Upper Bench Riesling 2014 ($22 for 94 cases). This wine begins with aromas of citrus and pear with a hint of petrol. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and apple. The wine has good weight. The bright acidity is nicely balanced with a touch of residual sugar but the finish is dry. Cheese: Upper Bench French Gold. 89.

Upper Bench Pinot Blanc 2014 ($19 for 128 cases). This is a straight-forward treatment of one of the Okanagan’s most underrated varietals. It has aromas and flavours of apples with a hint of guava on the palate. The acidity is moderate but the wine still is refreshing: Cheese: Gold, Italian Gold, French Gold and Brie. 89.

Upper Bench Chardonnay 2014 ($25 for 235 cases). The wine begins with lovely tropical aromas of citrus and pineapple with a hint of toastiness from the oak. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit, apple and guava. This was fermented with wild yeast and that perhaps accounts for the sense of terroir in this complex wine. Given the bright acidity, this wine will age well for a few years. Cheese: Gold. 91.

Upper Bench Merlot 2013 Four Shadows Vineyard ($30 for 320 cases). This is a bold and concentrated wine that should be decanted to let the aromas and flavours develop in the glass. It begins with aromas of black cherry, vanilla and chocolate, going on to flavours of plum, coffee and chocolate. The wine has been aged 18 months in second and third use French oak barrels. Cheese: King Cole. 91.

Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2013 ($28 for 281 cases). Here is the wine for those who don’t care for feminine Pinot Noir. This is a robust wine that has been boldly oaked (16 months in French oak – 30% new). It has aromas of black cherries, prunes and spice, leading to flavours of cherry and raspberry. With breathing, the wine shows a classic velvet texture. Cheeses: Okanagan Sun, Grey Baby and Gold. 90

Upper Bench Yard Wine 2013 ($30 for 292 cases). The wine begins with aromas of cherry, cassis and plum. On the palate, there is a medley of red berry flavours, including blueberry and black currant leading to spice, chocolate and dark coffee on the finish. The long ripe tannins give this an ageable structure but, with decanting, it is drinking well now. Cheese: King Cole. 90.


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