Friday, March 13, 2015

Upper Bench impresses BC Wine Appreciation Society

 Photo: Upper Bench's Gavin and Shana Miller

Upper Bench Winery & Creamery has become a must-visit Penticton area winery since Shana and Gavin Miller took it over late in 2011.

Initially, the prime attraction was probably Shana’s cheese. She had learned the craft of making cheese at the superb Poplar Grove Cheese Company. The Upper Bench cheeses are equally superb.

If the wine took a little longer to impress, it is just because Gavin had a lot of work to do to turn around the vineyard. The wines, which include outstanding estate-grown Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, have now taken their place among other quality Okanagan wines.

Gavin and Shana recently showed their wines to the B.C. Wine Appreciation Society, to general acclaim.

In the Society’s newsletter, Russell Ball wrote: “With Upper Bench only four years young, there is plenty to look forward to from Gavin and Shana. They recently acquired a Naramata vineyard containing Cabernet Franc – a key red missing from their Penticton acreage. About 300 cases of a new 2013 Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend will be released under the title of ‘Yard Wine’.

“The name is an homage to wine they used to make for themselves from their own home’s micro-vineyard of little more than 100 vines. As the Estate Vineyard recently reached twenty years of age, we can expect even greater complexity and evolution under Gavin’s watchful eye, with more specialization amongst Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. And thanks to Shana, there will always be plenty of delicious cheese with which to pair it all!”

The Upper Bench vineyard was actually planted in 1998 by Klaus Stadler, a former brewmaster from Germany. Three years later, he opened Benchland Winery. When the venture did not succeed, he sold it in 2004 to a local orchardist called Keith Holman. The winery was renamed Stonehill, becoming one of seven wineries owned by Keith.

All seven slipped into bankruptcy in 2010. In the court-supervised auction, Gavin, backed by businessman Wayne Nystrom, bought the winery.

By then, it was a bit of a fixer-upper. In 2012, the new owners converted one end of the building into a creamery. Gavin cleaned up the wines that he inherited. He has now overhauled both the production facilities and the vineyard.

Among other varieties, Klaus planted two acres Zweigelt, the leading Austrian red. In the 2012 vintage, Gavin made a delicious ripe and juicy Zweigelt (see below).

Unless you are Austrian, however, you are probably not buying much Zweigelt. Recognizing that, Gavin grafted half of those plants to Cabernet Sauvignon, even through it is a late ripening variety. The winery’s 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was made with grapes cropped at just 3.1 tons at acre and picked on November 4.

Gavin believes he can pull off acceptable Cabernet Sauvignon most years with careful attention to the viticulture. “It is the heartbreak grape of the Okanagan, not Pinot Noir. When done properly and cropped correctly, it can be stunning,” he asserts. “But Merlot is what grows best on our site.”

Here are notes on the current wines.

The three wines marked with * were reviewed in a blog post here last year. The reviews are reproduced because the wines were tasted again at the recent B.C. Wine Appreciation.

Upper Bench Pinot Blanc 2013 ($19). The mature grapes used for this wine give it a mineral backbone, along with the variety’s classic apple aromas and flavours. The finish is crisp and dry. 88.

Upper Bench Riesling 2013 ($22 for 404 cases). This is a well made Riesling, beginning with honey and citrus aromas that lead to intense marmalade flavours. The balance of acidity and residual sugar is exquisite, with the sweetness lifting the aromas and flavours while the acidity gives the wine a crisp, refreshing finish. The wine is drinking well now but will also age superbly. 91.

Upper Bench Chardonnay 2013 ($25 for 396 cases). Half of the wine was barrel-fermented in new French oak. However, the oak is well integrated, subtly supporting the aromas and flavours of tangerine, mango, peach and apple. The wine was not allowed to go through malo-lactic fermentation. As a result, the finish is fresh and tangy. There is a hint of cloves on the finish. 89.

* Upper Bench Zweigelt 2012 ($25 for 180 cases). The vines were cropped 3.27 tons an acre. The wine begins with aromas of plum, blackberry and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, black currant, vanilla and liquorice. (The winery’s notes also speak of Turkish Delight, pomegranate and orange peel.) A hint of dark chocolate emerges on the finish of this richly-flavoured wine. 90.

* Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2012 ($28 for 331 cases). The vines were cropped 3.4 tons an acre. This is a robust, earthy Pinot Noir with aromas of black cherry and spice. On the palate, there are notes of raspberry with chocolate and cherry on the finish. The tannins are smooth, if muscular, leading me to think this will benefit from three or four years of further age. 89-90.

* Upper Bench Merlot 2012 ($30 for 440 cases). The vines were cropped at 3.63 tons an acre. The wine is a tour de force of aroma and flavour, with a fine concentrated texture. Dark in colour, it begins with aromas of black cherry, mulberry, and black currant. On the palate, there are bold flavours of black cherry, spice, vanilla and chocolate. The alcohol of 14.3% indicates that very ripe grapes were used (the grapes were picked in early November 2012.) 92.

Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2012 ($35 for 154 cases). By cropping the estate Merlot vines at just 3.4 tons and acre, Gavin achieved a full-bodied and concentrated wine, turbocharged by aging 20 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of black cherry, plum and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of blueberries, black currants and chocolates. The texture is generous but firm enough to allow the wine to age gracefully for 10 years. 92.

Upper Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($35 for 188 cases). This wine was aged 20 months in French oak (40% new). There is a hint of oak in the aroma, along with aromas of mint and black currant. On the palate, there are flavours of black currants, cola and dark chocolate. The long ripe tannins make this wine approachable now but it should also age gracefully for 10 years. 90.

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