Sunday, July 14, 2019

Upper Bench Altitude and other big reds

Photo: Gavin and Shana Miller

The current releases from Upper Bench Estate Winery include a new red blend called Altitude.

Perhaps that is an allusion to the elevation of Upper Bench’s estate vineyard at the eastern edge of Penticton.  Or perhaps a hint of where winemaker Gavin Miller believes the wine fits in his portfolio.

If that is his meaning, the wine does not disappoint. Gavin has established a house style with his reds: the wines are generous and full-bodied, usually the result of limited the crop load to achieve intense flavours. He also gives the wines adequate barrel-aging to polish the tannins and the texture.

Small yields and expensive barrels force Upper Bench to price many of its wines aggressively to get a return on the investment. However, the value is there. The wines will not let you down if you open them for a special occasion.  These are not wines for Tuesday night.

I have dipped into the Upper Bench web site for a bit of background on the winery and its proprietors:

Gavin Miller came to Canada in 1997 and was inspired by the burgeoning wine industry in the Okanagan. He then embarked on a 12-year career journey starting in vineyards, then into the cellar, working for most of the established wineries in and around Penticton and the Naramata Bench, notably making award-winning wines for the likes of Poplar Grove (2004-2008) and Painted Rock (2007-2010).

Shana Miller (The Big Cheese) began her love affair with cheese in 2002, when she was taught the art of cheesemaking by the original cheesemaker at Poplar Grove, Sandra Chalmers. For the next three years, as the head cheesemaker until 2006, Shana truly developed her passion for the pure, timeless art of cheesemaking.

Gavin and Shana had long dreamed of combining their passions and in early 2011 that dream became a reality when they found the perfect property and partners, the Nystroms. The couple’s relationship with Wayne and Margareta Nystrom dates back to 2005. Having lived next door to Poplar Grove Winery, the Nystroms quickly fell in love with Gavin’s first class wines and Shana’s gorgeous cheeses.

The Nystroms always had a deep admiration of the passion the Millers displayed in what they made, so, when Gavin ran into Wayne at the local Safeway and pitched his idea, it was a fairly easy decision for the Nystroms to make. Wayne and Margareta have a blended family with nine children, one of them, Tessa Sjöblom, initially started by helping with some of the design concepts before the company had been aptly christened Upper Bench. With her degree in Bachelors of Business Administration (BBA), Tessa quickly fell into a marketing, advertising and communications role.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Upper Bench Riesling 2018 ($23.10 for 575 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lime and gooseberry. It delivers zesty flavours of lemon and lime with a spine of minerality. The finish is crisp and dry. 90.

Upper Bench Pinot Blanc 2018 ($20.80 for 525 cases). There is four per cent Muscat blended into this wine. The wine begins with aromas of apple and a hint of spice. On the palate, the wine delivers flavours of apple, citrus and melon. The spine of minerals supports a crisp, dry finish. 90.

Upper Bench Yard Wine 2016 ($34.60 for 334 cases). This is 60% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with cigar box and vanilla. It delivers flavours of black currant, cedar and chocolate. The firm tannins suggest the bottle should be cellared a few more years. 91.

The winery explains the name thus: “This is a great wine with a great story. Yard Wine is a tribute to a wine that Gavin lovingly made for years, from the tiny vineyard at their old home in Naramata. It is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, picked on October 31st and November 4th and co-fermented, exactly the same way he always made it.” He slipped some Cabernet Sauvignon into this vintage which like accounts for the firm tannins.

Upper Bench Merlot 2015 ($32.30 for 584 cases). The wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The begins with aromas of cherry and plum mingled with vanilla. The palate is generous, with flavours of plum, cherry, cassis with a hint of raspberry and cedar on the finish. 91.

Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2015 ($41.50 for 136 cases). This wine, which has five percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, was aged 21 months in French oak (33% new). The wine begins with rich aromas of dark fruits (cherry, plum) mingled with cinnamon and cassis. The palate fulfils the promise of the nose: it is a full-bodied with ripe tannins and flavours of plum, fig and chocolate. The finish is persistent. 93.

Upper Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($46.10 for 162 cases). This wine, which has 5% Merlot in the blend, was aged 21 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of black currants and blueberries mingled with dark chocolate and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of dark cherry, cassis, blueberry jam, plum and chocolate. Polished tannins give this wine a svelte, elegant texture and a long finish with a lingering note of spice.  94.

Upper Bench Altitude 2015 ($46.10 for 208 cases). This wine is 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was aged 20 months in French oak (30% new). It begins with aromas of plum and black cherry mingled with vanilla. On the rich palate, the wine delivers flavours of cassis, plum, fig and chocolate. The long, ripe tannins give this wine an almost juicy texture. There are savoury notes on the finish. A sophisticated blend. 93.


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