Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Bench 1775: rising star on the Naramata Bench

Photo: Bench 1775's Valeria Tait

Valeria Tait, one of the most experienced viticulturists in the Okanagan, has been general manager of Bench 1775 Winery since 2012.

Her strategy since then has been to renew gradually the estate vineyards every year, matching the appropriate varietals and clones to the site. She has made considerable progress since 2014 when the winery was purchased by China-born Eric Liu, a low-profile wine-loving Vancouver businessman.

“He grew up in a household that was very familiar with wine,” Valeria says. “His prior wine experience and education has been with Bordeaux wines. He has always had this romantic dream of being involved in the wine industry. He travelled all over the world. Originally, he thought about being in France but I think there were not a lot of opportunities. So he came to North America and he fell in love with the Okanagan because it is clean and quiet and peaceful. And the wine quality was very good and nobody knew about it.”

He has given Valeria the resources that Bench 1775 needed to upgrade both the estate vineyard and the winery, which is now equipped with modern winemaking tools. And he has given Valeria what she calls “unrestricted freedom” to manage the wine program.

“I have never had such a luxurious working relationship,” Valeria says. “I have access to do whatever I feel is important for the wine. The entire program of the winery is predicated on making the best possible wine with fruit coming from the best possible growing conditions.”

The vineyard at the winery is about 18 acres. “We have a four-acre planting of Sauvignon Blanc and it is a beautiful clone,” Valeria says. “We also have a bit of Pinot Noir, which I also like. But we are revitalizing most of the rest of that vineyard. We are replanting to varietals that are best suited to the site [including Viognier], and that also fit into our portfolio.”

Bench 1775 has recently purchased two smaller vineyards on the Naramata Bench and a 28-acre former orchard in the Similkameen Valley near Cawston, where planting will begin this year.

“We are going to be planting the same reds as those in our portfolio - Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and some Malbec,” Valeria says. Also, small blocks of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are to be planted.

“You are aware that the fruit supply is becoming more scarce,” Valeria says. “It is definitely a growers’ market. So it is really important that we have full control of the vineyards. There was a time when you couldn’t give Merlot away. Now it is one of the most highly sought-after varietals. The supply is very short now.”

Bench 1775 does deal with one grower, the Gill family that owns the Gold Hill Winery. Valeria established a relationship with the Gills while doing some viticultural consulting there. Major red varietals and Viognier grapes are grown in the Gills’ Osoyoos vineyard for Bench 1775.

These sources of grapes (current and future) are giving Valeria exceptional winemaking options, both for single varietal wines and for blends.

Here are notes on current releases from Bench 1775.
Bench 1775 Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($25.90). The wine begins with aromas of herbs and lime. On the palate, there are refreshing flavours of lemon and lime. Partial fermentation in oak has given the wine nice texture. 91.

Bench 1775 Meritage White 2016 ($31.90 for 180 cases). The wine club exclusive is a blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc and 45% Sémillon, partially aged for 12 months in new French oak. It is a complex wine with aromas of lime and zesty tropical fruit mingled on the palate with subtle oak. 90.

Bench 1775 Post Modern Chardonnay 2014 ($23.90). The hallmark of this Chardonnay is that it is released with three or four years of age. The 2014 vintage is now sold out. The 2015 was not available for tasting at this writing. The wine has aromas and flavours of ripe peach and ripe apple mingled with subtle oak. 91.

Bench 1775 Viognier 2017 ($24.90). The wine begins with appealing aromas of citrus, apple and stone fruit. The palate is juicy and packed with flavours of apricot, apple and peach. The finish lingers. 92.

Bench 1775 Brut Rosé 2014 ($21.90 for 533 cases). This is 50% each Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The vibrant pink hue is appealing to the eye. On the nose, the wine is slightly fruity, mingled with a hint of brioche. The wine has raspberry flavours. The bubbles give it a creamy texture. 91.

Bench 1775 Merlot 2014 ($29.90 for 1,000 cases). This full-textured wine begins with aromas of cassis and black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and plum. 92.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2014 ($31.90). This wine begins with aromas of black currant, black cherry and vanilla that are echoed in the palate. There is also spicy dark fruit on the finish. 92.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Franc 2014 Clone 214 ($31.90 for 280 cases). This wine, which was aged eight months in French oak (20% new), begins with aromas of blackberries, raspberries and black cherry. The palate is packed with bramble berry flavours. The ripe tannins add to a full and fleshy texture. 91.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Franc Malbec 2015 ($34.90). On the nose, the floral perfume of Malbec mingles with black cherry and blackberry. The bold flavours include black cherry, and vanilla. 91.

Bench 1775 Malbec 2015 ($31.90). This bright, expressive wine begins with floral aromas mingled with cherry and blackberry. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, vanilla and mocha. 89.

Bench 1775 Syrah 2015 ($28). It is imperative to decant this wine so that it can express its aromas and flavours properly. It was tight straight from the bottle but, with aeration, opened up with aromas and flavours of plum, fig and vanilla. 92.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2015 ($29.90 for 550 cases). The blend is 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 46.5% Syrah and 5.5% Merlot. This gold medal-winning wine begins with the meaty, earth aromas from the Syrah. The palate is ripe, with flavours of plum, black cherry, mocha and vanilla. Decanting is recommended to open the flavours and richness of this delicious blend. 92.


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