Thursday, March 16, 2017

Upper Bench welcomed 10,000 visitors last year

Photo: Upper Bench's Gavin Miller

In its recent newsletter, Upper Bench Winery & Creamery noted, with understandable pride, that about 10,000 visitors had been in the tasting room in 2016, a new high.

The numbers should not be surprising for a winery still within the city limits of Penticton. Yet the winery never saw such numbers between 2001 and 2010, perhaps because the two previous owners produced just mediocre wines.

Upper Bench attracts visitors now because Gavin Miller crafts excellent wines while, Shana, his wife, makes outstanding cheeses.

The Millers teamed in 2011 with silent partners (Wayne and Margareta Nystrom) to take over a winery from the bankrupt Holman-Lang group of wineries. Under two sets of previous owners, the winery had struggled.

The Millers, however, had managed a remarkable turnaround. In 2016, Upper Bench produced 3,500 cases of wine and seems to be selling out everything. That is certainly also true for the cheese, the volumes of which are not published in the newsletter.

Shana learned how to make cheese at Poplar Grove, the original cheese producer on the Naramata Bench. I don’t know whether Poplar Grove now sees Upper Bench cheese as competition. In my view, these complement each other in raising the stature of artisanal cheese making in British Columbia.

The quality of the Upper Bench wines reflects the efforts Gavin has made in the field, including applying organic techniques in the 7.5-acre vineyard.

He trumpets his viticulture when he prints on the back labels the tonnage per acre he allows the vines to produce. Clearly, savvy consumers have begun to pick up on that. Conventional wisdom says that Cabernet Sauvignon struggles to get ripe on the Naramata Bench. But consumers can buy the Upper Bench Cabernet with confidence when they see the production was just 1.8 tons an acre in 2013. Left to their own, the vines likely would have produced twice as much fruit. The back-label information is assurance that Gavin imposes a disciplined production regime on the vines.

The six current releases all taste like well-grown wines, with concentrated flavours and textures.
Here are notes.

Upper Bench Riesling 2016 ($23 for 672 cases). This wine begins with citrus aromas leading to intense flavours of lemon and lime. Bright acidity is balanced with just the right amount of residual sugar, with the result that the wine has good weight and finishes dry. Gavin has emerged as a leading Riesling producer. 90.

Upper Bench Chardonnay 2015 ($26 for 400 cases). This wine was 50% fermented and aged three months in new French oak; and 50% fermented and aged in stainless steel. The minimal oak treatment imparted a creamy texture to this fruit forward wine. The flavours mingle notes of marmalade with peach. 91.

Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2014 ($28 for 305 cases). The dark colour alerts one to expect a big and bold Pinot Noir. The wine begins with cherry aromas leading to intense dark fruits with a spicy note of oak om the finish. The texture silky. 90.

Upper Bench Cabernet Franc 2014 ($30.50 for 93 cases). This wine aged 18 months in French oak (25% new). It begins with a medley of aromas – black cherry, blackberry, vanilla. Full bodied, the wine delivers ripe flavours of plum and cherry with spice on the finish. The texture is concentrated, reflecting the low tonnage (2.69 tons an acre). 90.

Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2013 ($38 for 116 cases). Low cropping (2.6 tons an acre) in a good vintage produce a big, ripe with 14.9% alcohol well balanced by the fleshy texture. The wine begins with aromas of black cherry, black currant and vanilla, leading to flavours cherry, black currant and pomegranate. There are notes of dark chocolate, vanilla and menthol on the finish. 92.

Upper Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($38 for 108 cases). The wine’s alcohol (14.6%) results from cropping the vines at 1.8 tons an acre. There is ripe dark fruit on the nose and the palate. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, cola and cedar. With adequate time to breathe, it delivers flavours of black currant, black olives and black cherry with savoury herbs and cedar on the finish. The wine was aged 20 months in French oak (40% new). The tannins have enough grip to suggest this wine can be cellared at least until 2023. 91. 


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