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Food & Wine Donald Triggs looks west to his next challenge – in B.C. wine country

Courtesy of Lionel Trudel

Donald Triggs, the former high-flying multinational wine executive, is back on the ground. A nice piece of ground, too.

The ex-CEO of Vincor International, a Mississauga-based company that had grown to become the world's eighth-largest wine producer before getting swallowed in a hostile takeover nine years ago by American giant Constellation Brands, is the proud patriarch of a family estate now. From a picturesque ridge overlooking British Columbia's south Okanagan Valley, he oversees a boutique operation called Culmina that this year will turn out a mere 4,000 12-bottle cases, a drop in the demijohn by Vincor standards.

Triggs is no longer set on conquering world markets. He's got an arguably equally ambitious pursuit in mind: making a top-notch Canadian red based heavily on the late-ripening, sun-loving Bordeaux variety cabernet sauvignon.

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"Bordeaux varietals are the big challenge in Canada, putting it bluntly," he told me during a recent Toronto visit. "On a lot of sites we can ripen merlot, but we can't get all the way there on cab sauv – and cab sauv is the biggest challenge. That was the intriguing part."

After being forced by Constellation to relinquish not only Vincor's Jackson-Triggs winery but also a cherished vineyard in Niagara cultivated by Triggs and wife Elaine, the couple found themselves rootless, so to speak. A desire to be closer to four grandchildren in Vancouver and Australia prompted them to pack up in 2006 and shop for land in the Okanagan.

Their first move was to enlist veteran French vineyard consultant Alain Sutre, who had worked with such top B.C. estates as Poplar Grove, Burrowing Owl and Painted Rock in addition to a nearby Vincor joint-venture property, Osoyoos Larose. Next, they embarked on an elaborate, surgically precise planting project involving, among other things, grafting selected grape clones to selected rootstock varieties, carefully matched to the specific soil composition of more than 40 distinct soil blocks identified on the 56-acre main vineyard. Arid, gravelly land received drought-resistant rootstocks, while areas with more moisture and poorer drainage received one of four other varieties. "We call it microblock farming," Triggs says.

In addition to cabernet sauvignon, the Triggses – eventually joined by youngest daughter Sara as sales and marketing manager – planted other varieties based on that weather-and-soil analysis, including cabernet franc, syrah and, higher up on a cooler ridge, chardonnay, riesling and gruner veltliner. One year since launch, Culmina has sold out most of its tiny initial production, sadly including a mere 61 cases of the excellent, Austrian-styled $27 grunerveltliner called Unicus (of which there will be much more in subsequent years as plantings come on stream). Hypothesis 2011, the first release of its fine Bordeaux-style blend, is priced in the mid-$40 range in several provinces and will be sold in Ontario in the spring.

Culmina, a name derived from the Latin for peak, may be off to a promising start, but it's joining a lot of distinguished Okanagan company, some of it represented in recent releases below.

Poplar Grove Merlot 2010 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.90

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Founded in 1993 by Ian Sutherland, a self-taught winemaker, this estate near Penticton helped shine a spotlight on a golden stretch of land known as the Naramata Bench. Now majority-owned by Tony Holler, who had come from the pharmaceutical business, Poplar Grove continues to make sumptuous Bordeauxstyle reds like those that brought acclaim to Sutherland, still part shareholder and executive winemaker. This delight from the challenging 2010 growing season is the product of aggressive pruning and crop thinning, which helped ripen the remaining bunches left on the vine. The winery yielded just 80 tons of merlot versus the usual 210 tons. Full-bodied and sweet, it delivers classically smooth merlot-style blackberry fruit along with notes of dark chocolate, vanilla, cedar and warm spice. It would be perfect for seared duck breast or rare beef or lamb. www.poplargrove.ca.

Culmina Hypothesis 2011 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $48 (in B.C.)

Culmina Family Estate's maiden vintage for this flagship red presented a challenge. Cold and wet from the start, the weather proved less than ideal for sun-loving, late-ripening cabernet sauvignon, which accounts for 24 per cent of the mix, behind cabernet franc (40 per cent) and merlot (36 per cent). The result is impressive nonetheless, with more Bordeaux-style restraint and tension than many similarly priced and comparable Okanagan blends. Full-bodied and elegant, it shows nuances of juicy cherry and cranberry along with black olive, cedar and spice, supported by finegrained tannins that suggest a cellaring window of up to seven years. It's a good candidate for roast beef. To be released in Ontario in spring for $44 and eventually in Quebec for $44.

CedarCreek Platinum "Block 5" Chardonnay 2012 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95

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Superb Okanagan chardonnay from the relatively cool Kelowna district, this is Chablis-style crisp, with with great complexity and depth of flavour. It might call to mind green apple squirted with lemon juice and dusted with crushed rocks. Or vanilla, grilled pineapple, butter and matchstick. Some, like me, would call it very Burgundian. I'd also call it to dinner with grilled salmon. www.cedarcreek.bc.ca.

Mt. Boucherie Riesling 2012 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $16

This lovely white sports enough underlying sweetness to be technically considered off-dry, but the texture evolves with such chalky grip that it could also be considered dry. The tension is fetching, with punchy, forward peach and apple fruit answered by zesty lime and an aromatic floral quality. Try it with pork or sushi. www.mtboucheriewinery.com.

CedarCreek Ehrenfelser 2013 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.95

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Off-dry and aromatic, this German grape variety, an offspring of riesling, gets admirable rendition by CedarCreek, which grows some of the oldest vines in the Okanagan, planted in 1977. It's as though the valley's orchard-fruit heritage were transferred directly through to the flavour of this white, with its apple, apricot and peach notes set against fresh, tangy acidity. Match it with spicy Asian fare. www.cedarcreek.bc.ca.

Cellar Hand Punch Down Red 2012 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.90 in B.C.

Cellar hands are sort of the interns of the wine world. Many sign on to scrub tanks, wield hoses and learn the ropes in the hopes of one day crafting their own iconic cuvées. At Black Hills Estate, they give hands a fair shake, letting them take craft this entry-level, crowd-pleasing red blend, made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and cabernet franc. Medium-bodied and smooth, with juicy berries embraced by toasty oak and vanilla, it displays fresh acidity and spicy edge. Nice on its own and versatile at the table, it would go especially well with roast or grilled lamb. www.blackhillswinery.com.

Calliope Figure 8 2013 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.90

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There's a grape quartet here: sauvignon blanc viognier, pinot gris and riesling. And it plays fine music. Light-medium-bodied and dry, but with a suggestion of sweetness, it's silky and simultaneously tangy. With lemon, orange and honey enhanced by a whiff of herbs. It's attractive as an aperitif or with light curries. Available in B.C. private stores and at www.calliopewines.com.

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