I don’t think it would be a stretch to describe Culmina’s Sales and Marketing Manager, Sara Triggs as a tour de force. Like Gordon Fitzpatrick who you met in my last post – Sara is a second-generation winemaker, and like Gordon, a descendant of Canadian winemaking royalty.
Sara’s parents are Don and Elaine Triggs (see feature photo), a wine power couple if Canada ever had one. Perhaps the name Jackson TRIGGS rings a bell? Yes, we’re talking those Triggs. Half a century of winemaking and brand building experience in Ontario and British Columbia has quite possibly made them the most recognized wine family in Canada.
Of course, the JT days are long over. Don Triggs closed that chapter of his life in 2006, resigning as Vincor’s CEO the day after selling the company to U.S. based Constellation Brands (CB launched a hostile takeover bid which “went friendly”).
But farmers at the core, they had stamina, resilience and a lot of heart for growing grapes and making wine. Act II would be an all-in-the-family venture with second generation, Sara Triggs (daughter #3) shoring up the ranks. Sara was busy saving the world, working in Foreign Aid in Europe. But when the call came from her parents, the opportunity to get in as a partner on the ground floor of a new winery launch proved too good to resist.
Making a Fresh Start
Keen to start anew in western Canada, the Triggs chose a magnificent parcel of land south of Oliver in the beautiful southern expanse of the Okanagan Valley. With award winning brands like Road 13, C.C. Jentsch, Tinhorn Creek and some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in Canada in neighbouring vineyards, they knew they were in the right ‘hood’. Deep test pits were dug in the vineyards to assess terroir. Esteemed Bordeaux viticulturalist Alain Sutre was brought in to vet the site selection, assess the individual blocks and ensure vineyard development and grape clonal selections were optimized for soil, aspect and sunlight. The purchase was finalized in 2007 and Culmina Vineyards was born. Culimina, btw, means peak or summit in Latin, a fitting metaphor for the landscape and next chapter of the Triggs’ family plan.
Sara says it was that hands-on, sense of accomplishment and years of growing up in a family and community of grape growers that lured her back. When we pulled into the Culmina parking lot, I admit I too was a little nostalgic. Both Elaine and Don grew up in rural Manitoba not far from my grandparent’s homestead. Their parents were farmers and that grower sensibility had shaped their work ethic and approach to business. While I grew up in the big city (Winnipeg), my childhood summers were spent visiting my hard-working relative’s family farms where I got to ride the combine, milk cows and pick vegetables. The Triggs were a little bit of home.
The Oliver area and Golden Mile Bench sub-appellation has a proven track record for Bordeaux style red blends. Phenolic ripening in the northern latitude and hot desert microclimate is virtually guaranteed. “My parents really wanted something in this area,” says Sara as we walk the beautiful property. “But it had to be smaller and estate focused, this time.” While the Triggs had planted and nurtured Niagara’s respected Delaine Vineyard (Don + Elaine) before the sale of the company, the industrial scale of Jackson-Triggs required buying grapes from many different sources and countries (Chile, U.S.).
“This is a fresh story for our family,” says Sara. “It’s about making the highest quality wines possible.” Sara says with Culmina, they wanted to be in total control of the fruit source. “In the end, my parents decided they’d rather not inherit other people’s decision-making so they decided to create a virgin site and build their own vineyards from scratch.”
“And why was this area never planted?” Sara asks as we tour the hills of Culmina’s lowest vineyard “Because of all of the rocks!” she says with a certain pioneer spirit. “The Triggs never shy away from a challenge.”
The Golden Mile Bench sub-appellation – currently the only sub-appellation in the Okanagan Valley – is a mix of fluvial and alluvial soils including river rock, sand and loam soil. Glaciers receded creating ancient riverbeds, pulling all the silt, organic matter and debris down through the southern valley. In its wake was a geologically rich mix of heat absorbing/reflecting stone, gravel and calcium carbonate (limestone, chalk) soils.
“It took us a year and a half to prepare the vineyards and we pulled out one and a half Olympic swimming pools worth of rocks,” says Sara, nudging one of those river rocks down the hill. “It took many more months to secure results from the temperature study and from all the temperature probes we’d put in across the various vineyards,” she adds.
The Triggs did a full winter and summer suitability and capability analysis to make sure they were matching clone with rootstock, on the right parcel of land. “It was a full two years – 2007 to 2009 – to prepare, order and plant the grapevine material on the first two benches,” she recounts. In the end, the 22.6 hectares (56 acres) of vineyards resulted in 44 micro-sites or separate vineyard blocks. “For us, it’s all about doing right by the terroir.”
In keeping with the family focus, the vineyards were named to celebrate their roots: The 19.4-hectare/48- acre Arise Vineyard is named after Don Trigg’s maternal ancestors’ 17th century Barbados home. Arise Vineyard – the largest of the Trigg’s parcels – offers south and southwest orientations at 384 – 449 metres. With 1800 Growing Degree Days (GDDs), it’s planted with Don’s prized Bordeaux varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.
Stan’s Bench – named after Elaine’s father – faces south and southeast – rising to 472 meters. It has a range of climatic conditions with one parcel of the vineyard at 1500 – 1580 GDDs and planted with Chardonnay and Riesling. At the other end of the vineyard, temperatures rise, thanks to a heat-retaining rock wall. Here, the sunlight, alluvial soils and mineral content and1,600 – 1,800 GDDs are perfect for Malbec, Viognier and Petit Verdot.
The family bought a third bench – Margaret’s Bench – named after Don’s Mother. “We had elevation, mountain shadow, north and east facing aspects and huge variation of soil types to deal with as we considered our other white grapes,” Sara explains. “We needed more winter hardy white varieties for our mountain vineyard that was 200 meters higher, at 561 – 593 meters. We have 200 fewer growing degree days (GDD) on Margaret’s so it’s much cooler and a no-go for white Bordeaux varietals. The heat maps, terroir analysis and hardiness studies indicated white burgundy (Chardonnay), Riesling and a first in the Okanagan – Grüner Veltliner.”
The Triggs staggered the plantings across the vineyards to get in some lessons learned, planting Arise’s Bench and Margaret’s Bench in 2009 and Stan’s bench in 2015. They planted to high density to increase competition between the vines and force the roots deep into the soil and sub-soils. “It’s like a kid with a trust fund,” says Sara, “a vine that’s given it’s own root system isn’t always the best scenario for the end wine. You’ve got to reign them in!”
Strong proponents of science and innovation, the Triggs family is using all the technology tools available to optimize sustainable grape growing and support their overarching goal of excellence in winemaking. With increasing demand on water resources in the Okanagan Valley, they’ve installed a precision irrigation system, which is fine-tuned to match the needs of the vines and soil on a row-by-row basis. The irrigation only starts when the monitoring system indicates the vines need water. The other goal, says Sara, is to keep the cover crop alive to protect the vine’s root system and create a cooler microclimate for the vine. In a dessert area known for extreme summer heat and low precipitation, it also allows the vine to maintain photosynthesis (keep growing) by cooling the roots. When it gets too hot – around 36° C – vines get lazy and shut down (full disclosure: I shut down too).
Spraying is minimized, says Sara, and Culmina only uses organic sprays. The vineyard is Salmon Safe Certified to ensure run-off from the agriculture in the area doesn’t harm salmon and wildlife in the rivers and streams.
Also cool – Culmina has installed what Sara calls R2D2 probes in 20 locations across the vineyards. The GIS technology – essentially an uber-precise digital vineyard monitoring system – allows the Triggs to collect data on humidity, temperature, precipitation and wind speed at three different depths and at 30- minute intervals. These maps of the vineyard’s 44 unique terroir parcels means the vineyard team can micro-manage the vineyard’s micro-climates and assess vineyard vigour (the growth of the canopy) and grape production.
Welcome to state of the art grape growing. The Jetsons have nothing on The Triggs.
And the wine?
At Culmina, the innovation in the vineyard extends to the cellar where “gentle” is clearly the watchword. Winemaking and vineyard management falls to Bordeaux native Jean-Marc Enixon, who was hired in 2016. Also supporting team Triggs as consultants are former vineyard manager and winemaker, Pascal Madevon and oenologist, Alain Sutre who’s been with the Triggs since 2006.
The winery – which opened in August 2013 – is built into the mountain and uses gentle, gravity flow design to move fruit and fermenting juices (vs. more aggressive hydraulic pumps). The crusher and destemmers are all state of the art and offer a more gentle transition with the goal of ensuring a perfectly intact berry is moved to the fermentation tank. Imported, hive shaped fermenters ensure gentler circulation of C02 gases making it easier to break the cap, allowing for gentler extraction of colour and tannins (less bitterness). A basket press is used for all the top tier wines. The basket press, says Sara, is a much more delicate process. Stems and seeds are never pressed so hard that they crack, which can release bitter green tannins. And somewhere in the barrel room is a peristaltic pump, which Sara says is used to move the wine. “It’s what aquariums use to move fish,” she adds for effect.
The winemaking team is experimenting with wild yeast, especially with their whites. “We’re still young,” she says, pragmatically. “We’ve got four vintages under our belts and we’re busy understanding what’s working and what isn’t. Right now it’s all about creating a baseline and then we’ll go from there.”
Growth and results seem to be following the perfect start-up growth curve, she says. “In our first year we produced 500 cases, the next year 1,000, year 3 was 3,000 and our 4th vintage was 8,000 cases.”
Elaine joined us in the lovely tasting room to help add context to Culmina’s vintages. Don Triggs was in Alberta so hopefully I get to meet him on my next visit.
Culmina is an incredibly welcoming experience and the Triggs and their team are producing knockout wines. The purity of the fruit, the freshness and the balance has contributed to an amazing line-up of wines. The BC wine-drinking community is SO fortunate to have this family contributing to the incredible wines being produced in the region and there is no question in my mind that the clearly resourceful Sara Triggs will steer the Culmina Family Estate forward with her passion and wine smarts.
Culmina Wines are available at the winery and through Culmina’s Fellowship Wine Club. If you are out of province, you can order online for temperature controlled shipping. Here in Ontario, the LCBO carries Hypothesis and Dilemma, which you’re going to want to try.
2016 R&D, White Blend
From the estate’s three vineyard benches, this delightful blend of Chardonnay, Gewürtztraminer and Viognier is pure summer in a glass. It’s exceptionally floral with delicate aromas of citrus, stone fruit and honeydew melon. In the interest of R&D, I persevere noting flavours of pear, apricot and nectarine with a lively, fresh finish and a hint of sweetness. That delicious experience of smelling fresh rain on rock underfoot, wafts from this wine. Delicious.
2017 Unicus 14.0% ABV
From Margaret’s Bench – the highest block on the Culmina vineyard – this 100% Grüner Veltliner boasts great texture and aromatics, due largely to the time spent in a concrete Amphora (18%) and concrete Egg (25%). Bottled just weeks before we enjoyed it at the winery (Feb 2018) the wine offers lovely, precise varietal aromatics of grapefruit, stonefruit and citrus. On the palate, steely notes of grapefruit, citrus and pepper follow with almost a skin-contact sensory profile. Really unique and utterly delicious with a pronounced acidity that makes me want more. Sadly, we couldn’t buy this wine; it sold out that fast.
2015 Dilemma – 14%ABV
The name Dilemma is a nod to the family-planting quandary:
Q: do they keep the existing 20-year old vines on the property or do they rip them out?
A: they gave it a vintage…. then started anew.
This Chardonnay from Margaret’s Bench represents the third vintage for this fruit. The early bud break, warmer than average temperatures and cooler fall, encouraged optimal sugar, tannin and phenolic ripeness.
According to Elaine, the third year for the new vines represents a huge jump in quality. With a southeast exposure, the morning sun offers consistent ripening while ensuring great lines of acidity. Bin apple, pear and cardamom pod aromatics beckon. On the palate, I’m tasting delicious baked apple, brown butter and gingerbread toasty notes. Ripe, delicious, balanced and fresh. This wine will only get better with time.
2017 R&D Rosé
A blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, this dry-ish Rosé is made using the Saingée method, which requires bleeding off a portion of the individual red wine lots at an early stage of the fermentation process. The contact with the skins and seeds adds palpable structure to the wine, and a delicious textural component. More R&D required: a lovey nose of citrus, minerality and red berries. On the palate, the flavours are ripe – interestingly, citrus, marmalade, a hint of ginger and wet stone flavours with distinct skin contact texture. Sadly, this is not available outside of the winery and the release is sold out.
2015 R&D Red Blend
The third R&D offering in the line-up is a rich, bold Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. This Merlot dominant blend offers an exceptionally inviting nose of cassis with spice box aromatics. The palate is ripe, pure fruit. It’s an easy drinking, approachable wine, with blueberry, ripe black plumb and vanilla pod flavours.
2014 Merlot 14% ABV
From the Arise Vineyard, this full-bodied fleshy and concentrated Merlot is a reflection of a warm, near perfect growing season with cooler fall days and nights adding acidity and lift. On the nose, the wine wafts floral, violet perfume, warm spice and dark berry fruit. On the palate, concentrated fruit delivers flavours of mocha, spice and ripe cherries and ripe summer plum with easy drinking, smooth tannins. I will try to hold off drinking this wine that’s resting in my cellar, for at least a little while.
2013 Hypothesis 14.0% ABV
This is the flagship wine at Culmina. It’s a big Bordeaux red that performed nicely with the warm, fall shoulder season ensuring full phenolic ripeness. This wine charms with all the classic Bordeaux aromas – cassis, spice, herbal and hints of cedar. It’s an elegant, opulent wine with lively acidity, concentrated dark fruit, graphite and mocha. Good structure and fine-grained tannins ensure 5 – 10 years of aging potential.
Feature Photo Credit: Pangcouver