By Rick VanSickle
SOUTH OKANAGAN, B.C. — The pace of growth in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley is staggering. Every time I return I’m taken aback by the number of wineries emerging from what was once barren land.
They are, for the most part, small, boutique affairs, making top-notch wines for a provincial market that embraces local wine. Most do not make enough wine to get beyond the B.C. border, which seems to suit these new wineries just fine.
It’s an explosion of tiny wineries, niche wineries, that are fuelling the new boom in the Okanagan. Some have planted small vineyards and supplement their grape supply with purchased grapes from growers.
The age of the big winery surrounded by estate grapes has slowed in the Okanagan. The cost of planting vineyards has grown exponentially over the years and that makes it prohibitive for many.
So, when a legend such as Donald Triggs — co-founder of the Jackson-Triggs winery and the mastermind behind Vincor, at one time the largest wine company in Canada before it was sold to Constellation Brands in a blockbuster deal — plants roots in the Okanagan you just know that he’s not going to follow the current trend.
Oh, no, not by a long shot.
The day after Triggs sold Vincor, on June 1, 2006, he began dreaming of his new conquest. The path led to the Okanagan Valley and, after a two-year search for the right soil, climate and conditions for the kind of wines he wanted to make, Triggs found his perfect spot in the south of the valley, well suited for the beloved Bordeaux-style reds he wanted to make.
On a visit this summer, I was treated to a preview of the vineyards and winery that officially opened to the public last August.
Riding shotgun with Triggs in a big honkin’ bright white 4X4 with my nervous-looking sister Kim and her partner Frank sharing the backseat with Barry, a rather well-behaved dog and constant companion of the winery owner, I was struck by the beauty of this spot.
Triggs talked a mile a minute as we slowly began our climb to the highest point of the new Culmina Family Estate Winery on the Golden Mile Bench. It was a slow ascent, I don’t think we ever got out of first gear, as Triggs stopped at row after row of his new vineyard and pointed to the narrow, high density plantings. He told me they are planted at 2,044 vines per acre, with the vines planted every 1.1 meters, in rows 1.8 meters apart.
Special narrow-width equipment was imported from Europe to accommodate the narrow design, whose purpose was to increase competition amongst the vines, forcing the roots to dig deeper into the sub-soils for water and nutrients.
By comparison, most vineyards in the Okanagan are planted at a ratio of 900 to 1,500 vines per acre. In addition, the vines were planted in a unique diamond pattern to more evenly space the distance between each vine. By planting vines equidistant from one another, the vines’ root development and health could be maximized.
For Triggs this is his big dream of crafting iconic wines from Canadian soil and, on Aug. 23, Triggs and his family swung open the doors to his winery to the public for the first time.
Culmina is the culmination of a lifetime of work and study in the wine industry for Triggs and his wife Elaine. A champion of the Canadian wine industry, Donald Triggs set out to build a family operated winery, a vision that both he and his wife shared. Their daughter Sara, who is experienced in the wine industry and carries a Masters in Wine Business, naturally joined in this family adventure in 2012 and manages the sales and marketing of the business.
After meticulously researching for sites, collecting detailed temperature data and conducting water retention and soil analysis studies with Alain Sutre, a Bordeaux-based expert in site selection and winemaking, the ideal terrain was found and acquired on the Golden Mile Bench in the South Okanagan Valley.
Separated into three distinct sites, the property is composed of Arise Bench, Stan’s Bench (in honour of Elaine’s father), and Margaret’s Bench, one of the highest in the Okanagan, a tribute to Don’s mother.
Their legacy covers over 100 acres, of which 56 are cultivated with 2,044 quality vines planted per acre.
Bordeaux varietals were the main driving force that led to the selection of the Okanagan property, luring classically trained winemaker Pascal Madevon (formerly of Osoyoos Larose) to join the Triggs family in their venture. With over 20 years of winemaking experience in Bordeaux and the South Okanagan, Madevon plays an integral role in the development of Culmina wines.
His first creation is a Bordeaux style blend named Hypothesis, which consists of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other varietals include Chardonnay, Riesling and the first Gruner Veltliner to be planted in the Okanagan.
On opening, Culmina released Hypothesis, the Bordeaux blend, a Chardonnay named Dilemma, and a rosé in the Signee style. Next year will see the release of the Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.
The winery is only accepting guests by appointment to ensure that everyone has a highly personal and one-of-a-kind experience with an opportunity to truly discover the newly developed estate, its wines, and their stories.
The tasting room, which wasn’t completed during my visit, features a south facing glass wall that illuminates the space with natural light and leads onto a patio that stretches over the highest point of the estate, overlooking Arise Bench.
Triggs’ ultimate goal is to make wines that fully express the most desirable characteristics of the varieties planted, and the uniqueness of each block of terroir; wines that are elegant, rich, intensely flavoured, and capable of long term cellaring. The winemaking process is guided at every stage by two key principles: Gentle handling of the fruit and minimal intervention.
As we finally arrived at the very top of Margaret’s Bench we hopped out of Triggs’ pickup truck and soaked in one the most spectacular views in the Okanagan Valley.
It was another hot 35˚C day in early August but a slight breeze offered a touch of relief.
I asked Triggs to pose for a photo at the highest point of the vineyard, at 595 meters it is among the highest in the Okanagan, which he did reluctantly. We stood on the rise soaking in the view.
“I love what I do,” Triggs offered. “There’s something about being on a farm. It’s seeing things grow every year. It’s very invigorating.”
As we made our way down the steep gravel road, Triggs zigged and zagged from plantings to plantings. Every vine is meticulously selected for the soil in which it has been planted. I am taken by an unusual planting of dry-farmed Syrah bush vines that are haphazardly planted on the side a steep hill.
Triggs is experimenting with bush vines that will see two years of irrigation and then left to fend for themselves. He calls it an experiment but one that could prove very interesting.
We ended our tour in the winery and finally in the tasting room, which was still being worked on during our visit.
We tasted the first wines from an initial production of 850 cases spread over three different wines. That number will nearly double with the 2012 vintage with the goal of reaching 12,000 cases by 2020.
Note: For a review of the three Culmina wines, see Rick’s Picks.