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
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
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
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.
Upper Bench Riesling
($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.
($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
($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
($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
($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
($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.