Nota Bene, the flagship red made by Black Hills Estate Winery since the 1999 debut vintage, has been anchored most years by Cabernet Sauvignon.
Nota Bene 2015, which is just being released, is a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon – the second highest percentage since the 57% in the 2010 vintage.
The juxtaposition of those two vintages is fascinating. The 2010 vintage began with a cool and late spring, leading to a long, but cool, summer. The winery had to remove leaves to give the fruit more sun exposure; as well, there was some reduction in the crop to assure ripeness. Then a long autumn allowed for extended hang time, assuring ripe fruit at harvest.
The 2015 vintage “experienced record-breaking weather,” according to Black Hills viticulturist Steve Carberry. Spring was usually early; June was the driest on record, followed by a warm summer and, with the exception of a cool period in September, a long warm fall. The grapes for the 2015 Nota Bene were picked between September 16 (likely the Merlot) and October 22.
The 2010 Nota Bene had 14% alcohol while the 2015 has 14.8%. In fact, the 2011 Nota Bene, with 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, has 14% alcohol. The 2011 vintage was notoriously cool.
That data tells me that the key to producing a high quality Nota Bene in both tough vintages and big ripe ones is very disciplined grape growing. The wine is one of the most collectible reds from the Okanagan.
Here is an excerpt from my new book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s best Wineries. The book also has the specifications and tasting notes for all the preceding vintages of Nota Bene.
Nota bene suggests that a person should “take notice”. That is exactly what happened with the very first vintage of Nota Bene in 1999. The acclaim from critics and consumers gave it a cult status that the wine has enjoyed ever since.
The founders of Black Hills were two couples who had left city jobs in 1996 to plant 36,000 vines, mostly Bordeaux red varieties, in a vineyard on Black Sage Road. Senka Tennant, one of the quartet, was tasked with making the wine. She made the first three vintages of Nota Bene with advice from Rusty Figgins, a Washington state winemaker who had made numerous Bordeaux-style blends at prestigious Leonetti Cellars.
There was a jarring disconnect between Nota Bene’s image and the original winery. The production facility was a homely Quonset hut more appropriate for tractor storage than winemaking. The tasting room, when open, was a plank across two upended barrels. However, the success of Nota Bene enabled the partners to build a new and well-equipped winery in 2006.
To allow one of the founding couples to retire, Black Hills was sold in late 2007 to a group of investors called Vinequest Wine Partners Limited Partnership. Many of the investors were Nota Bene collectors who now had an even more compelling reason to buy the wine. Senka Tennant’s final Nota Bene was the 2007 vintage, and she has been succeeded in the cellar by Graham Pierce.
Vinequest has since expanded Black Hills with the purchase of a neighbouring vineyard in 2011 on which, in the following year, a $1 million wine shop was built. The winery at last had a tasting room commensurate with Nota Bene’s prestige.
Black Hills has the ability to produce more than 5,500 cases from its two vineyards. The volume of Nota Bene, however, is capped at 3,500 to 4,000 cases. The wine’s quality is consistent; it is always made with three estate-grown Bordeaux varieties. It was aged in oak for a year until 2014, when the winery extended barrel-aging to 16 months. The current oak regime is 80% French, 20% American; one-third of the barrels are new, one-third are a year old, and the remaining third are two years old. The red wines remaining after each Nota Bene blend is assembled go into a solid second label called Cellar Hand.
Here is a note on the new release:
Black Hills Nota Bene 2015 ($59.90 plus tax). The blend is 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc and the wine was aged 16 months in barrel (90% French, 10% American and a third new). The richly dark colour and the generous 14.8% alcohol reflects a vintage that was among the warmest ever in the Okanagan. The wine begins with an enticing aroma of cassis and vanilla with hints of cherry and chocolate. The ripe flavours echo the cherry and cassis mingled with cedar, earthy minerality, leather and tobacco. The ripe tannins are firm but the texture is rich and elegantly polished. The wine is already approachable but will improve even more with time in the cellar – for at least to 2025. 94.