My final winery visit was with Culmina Family Estate Winery located in Oliver, just around the corner from Road 13 Vineyards. I had been planning on visiting this winery since it opened but have not yet had a chance. I first heard of Culmina when I met Don Triggs in the summer of 2012. He and his wife Elaine moved on from their wine careers in the Niagara region and decided to start a new winery in the Okanagan in 2006. They spent a long time to find the perfect location for the winery, scientifically measuring the precipitation and temperature at various locations until they selected the land that fit what they wanted to do. They wanted to produce Bordeaux-style red wines, but as you will see below they also produce some really nice white wines too.
Don and Elaine wanted this winery to have longevity so they asked their daughters if one would like to join them at Culmina, and their daughter Sara said yes. As I entered the winery, located on an elevated bench, overlooking the Okanagan Valley, I was struck at the beauty of this valley. These grapes have such a great view! Sara entered the patio where I was enjoying this beautiful landscape and let me know that she would be taking me on a tour of the vineyards, plus winery, and finishing by tasting through a flight of their wines. I was delighted.
The Three Benches of Culmina
Before getting into Sara’s trusty vehicle which would take us up steep hills along rough dirt roads, she started at the vineyard beside the winery. These vines are on their Arise Bench. On this bench, there were some existing Chardonnay vines when they purchased the property but most of the bench was planted by the Triggs’ Family. Sara spoke to me about the vineyards with such enthusiasm. I could hear how much she loved the land, the vines and the wines that they produced. This bench is the warmest of the three benches where they grow grapes, and as such, this is where they grow their red varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. The Arise Bench has similar Degree Days at 1,516 vs 1,565 in Bordeaux. We looked at the soil and Sara pointed out a larger stone that had a white coating on top, which is characteristic of this area. The white coating is calcium (and maybe other minerals?) from the soil which formed on the top of the rock as it precipitated from the fluvial processes that made the bench.
Hopping in the car with Sara, we drove for several minutes uphill, along rugged paths, over streams until we reached Margaret’s Bench, their highest bench, located at 595 meters asl. At this elevation, there are fewer Degree Days, at 1,280, but being a cooler climate, it is good for growing white varieties. It was named ‘Margaret’s Bench’ in honour of Don’s mother. On this bench they planted Grüner Veltliner, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Stepping in Sara’s car again we drove through Margaret’s Bench to a mid-tier bench named ‘Stan’s Bench’ after Elaine’s father. This is an elongated bench, stretching north to south along the mountainside. This middle elevated bench allows them to grow both red and white grape varieties. On this bench there is Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Between the three benches, they identified 43 unique blocks to plant different grape varieties. Let me tell you about their wines now.
My Tasting Notes
All the wines I tasted from Culmina were of excellent quality and happily recommend each one.
Culmina Unicus 2017 (~$27) – Unicus is Latin for “unprecedented” or “only” and this I believe was the only Grüner Veltliner wine produced in BC at the time. There are now 3 wineries producing Grüner. The grapes for this wine come from Margaret’s Bench. This is the 3rd vintage of this wine for Culmina, but I think they really figured out how to treat this grape to its best advantage. The grapes are fermented in 3 different ways: 18% in concrete amphora, 25% in concrete egg, and 57% in stainless steel.
This wine has a wonderful, strong apricot aroma together with grapefruit. The wine is high, medium bodied and has high acidity. There are lots of vibrant fruit flavours; grapefruit and passion fruit, along with stone fruits. I also picked up some salty minerality and a light green edge. A bit of pepperiness on the finish. –
Culmina Decora 2016 ($21) – Decora means “pretty” in Latin. Made from the Riesling grape, one can say that wines from this grape can be quite pretty. This Riesling is made in the German style where some juice is not fermented (suss-reserve) and then is added back to the fermented wine to add back some level of sweetness according to the winemaker’s preference. Culmina has been experimenting with the amount of suss-reserve to add to their wine, and they have determined that less is better.
This wine has a medium intensity nose, with aromas of lime, other citrus, and floral. It is dry, medium body with high acidity, but still has some smoothness. Tart citrus, flint and a hint of orange on the palate, with some chalkiness behind. The wine finishes with a hint of honey. This wine can age nicely. –
Culmina Saignée 2017 ($24) – This rosé wine is made with a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc, consisting of more than 15 lots of fruit, with each being fermented separately then blended. Quite a lot of work to do to produce a rosé. This wine is pale orange in colour. It has light strawberries and sage on the nose. It is dry with high acidity, yet still some roundness. Tart red berry fruit, strawberries and salty minerality on the palate. Medium plus length with some pepper on the finish.
Culmina No 004 Stan’s Bench Chardonnay 2016 ($39) – Culmina has a Number Series of wines where they want to explore terroir. These wines may be one of a kind, or could continue in the future. No. 1 was a Riesling, No. 2 a wild fermented Gruner Veltliner, No. 3 a Stan’s Bench Riesling, and now No. 4 is a Stan’s Bench Chardonnay. This Chardonnay is as well fermented with indigenous yeasts, with 40% fermented in stainless steel and 60% in used French oak barrels.
This wine is light lemon coloured, with a green tint. Really ripe apple, and tropical fruit aromas along with some butterscotch. Dry, medium body, angular mouthfeel. Flavours of tropical fruit, sweet spices, butterscotch and some pepperiness. I as well picked up some salty minerality in the background. –
Culmina Dilemma 2015 ($34) – It was a dilemma for Culmina when they bought their property as some of the land had old vines, in this case, Chardonnay. But through their analysis of soil and climate, Chardonnay is not the best grape for those vines. So the dilemma. Pull the vines and plant a more appropriate grape, or keep the vines. The eventual answer was pull and replant, but in the meantime, they did produce Chardonnay from the old vines.
This wine is deeper golden in colour with ripe pears and baked apple on the nose. Full body, round with light butterscotch, pears and apple pie flavours, and a toasty lingering finish. You also get a touch of sweet spices on the finish. –
Culmina Merlot 2014 – This is the second release of this wine and it comes from the lower Arise Bench. The wine was fermented in 15% new and 85% one-year old French oak barrels and spent 16 months in barrel. The wine has also gone through malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity in the wine. It is opaque garnet in the glass. Medium intensity nose, with aromas of sweet ripe black fruit, ripe raspberries and a hint of vanilla. Medium to full-bodied, dry with firmer tannins. Juicy ripe black fruit flavours and light sweet spice. Vanilla shows up on the mid-palate. –
Culmina Hypothesis 2013 ($46) – Hypothesis is a red Bordeaux blend, but is not necessarily made every year. This vintage is 38% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Franc, and 26% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was fermented in French oak barrels; 60% new and 40% one-year old. The wine also underwent 100% malolactic fermentation. The wine is deeply coloured garnet, but still translucent. Ripe red and black fruits, raspberries and a hint of cedar on the nose. Medium plus body, dry, and round. Ripe red and black fruits, and light vanilla and sweet spice flavours. Finishes with fine tannins. A light and elegant red wine. –
Culmina Malbec 2015 – I was treated to try this wine as it is not yet released to the public, but you can get a peek through me. The Malbec grapes come from the Arise Bench, using French oak barrels for fermentation; 50% one-year old and 50% two-year old barrels. 100% malolactic fermentation. The wine is an opaque ruby black in colour. Light intensity nose; dusty, leather, black pepper, black fruit and vanilla aromas. Medium plus to full-bodied, medium acidity, round with firmer tannins. Black fruit and sweet spices on the palate.
Where Can I Buy These Wines?
Your best way to buy these wines is to order direct from the Culmina website. BC Liquor stores carry a few of their wines. You can also get some of their wines through EverythingWine.ca. There may be other private wine shops that carry Culmina’s wines as well. Enjoy.