BC’s Island WinesBeauty through Authenticity
There are currently 50 wineries between Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, which are two separate Designated Viticultural Areas (DVA). Most of the wineries in this coastal region lie in the Cowichan Valley, 50 km from Victoria.
The Cowichan Valley takes its name from a Coast Salish word Khowutzun meaning “the warm land”, which both describes the climate and the people here. This tucked-away valley has Canada’s highest mean temperature with long, dry summer days and mild, damp coastal winters, perfect for growing grapes to make classic European-style wines.
The first estate winery to open its doors was Vignetti Zannata Vineyards in 1992. This winery was one of several farms to participate in “The Duncan Project”, which was an experiment the provincial government ran from 1981-1986 to explore successful grape varietals on Vancouver Island. Since then the region has grown to sustain 250 acres producing award-winning, cool climate styles. With average temperatures climbing, wine lovers can expect Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to grow and improve upon an already unique and elegant regional style.
This “Island Style” is known for crisp and fresh German white varietals, light and fragrant Pinot Noirs, and complex sparkling wines. The top grape varietals that are grown are Pinot Noir, Ortega, and Pinot Gris. These varietals change their profile from vintage to vintage as the climate on the coast can vary, however, in general the cool, coastal climate makes these wines very elegant, light, and refreshing.
The crisp acidity in the white wines is perfect for the local cuisine, which centres around fresh caught seafood. Travel to the Islands and you can expect to see locals hauling their crab traps up and cooking up their catch on a beach fire with some zesty Ortega to complement the fresh flavours of the West Coast. Ortega is a cool climate German variety parented by Siegerebbe and Muller-Thurgau. It’s a winter-hardy varietal perfect for its Island environment, fast becoming a staple for local wine lovers. Many wineries are producing Ortegas that have elegant blossom scents with juicy green pear, apple, citrus, and almond characteristics.
The regional style of red wine centres on replicating a Burgundian style of earthy and fragrant Pinot Noir. Averill Creek, Blue Grouse Estate Winery, Unsworth Vineyards, and Alderlea are just some of the wineries capturing Vancouver Island’s unique terroir through their Pinot Noir. After a hike on the many trails that snake through the Coastal Rainforest, you can smell western red cedar, salal, wet moss, and fallen leaves in the expressive Pinot Noirs. Pair this wine with fresh salmon cooked on a cedar plank, or smoked and candied salmon on a charcuterie board, and you’ll be convinced that you don’t always have to go “big” with red wine to be blown away.
The other gem that is building a reputation on the Island is sparkling wine. The cool climate allows the grapes to retain mouth-watering acidity that produces excellent base wines destined to become bubbles. Many of the wineries are making sparkling wine through the Charmat method, which uses stainless steel tanks for the second fermentation.
The traditional method of making sparkling wine through hand-riddling bottles undergoing second fermentation is also popular. These traditional sparkling wines exhibit the flavours of some of the greatest Champagnes produced: toasted brioche, lemon curd, earthy mushroom, and spices. Whichever style you choose, crack open some fresh oysters with a bottle of Island bubbles and you’ll have the perfect afternoon.
Wine has always been grown in the world’s most beautiful places; perhaps because the climate is perfect, but also because the people are stewards of the land and keep it so. Winemakers on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands work with what the terroir gives them, rather than forcing it to give them something more generic. This belief and practice results in an authentically West Coast style of wine that pairs with the low key, freshness of the local cuisine. Visit this up and coming wine region and you can experience the wild, coastal lifestyle with wines that are as unpretentious and authentic as the people who make them.
Brianna McKeage is a WSET Level 3 who is a cellar hand at Blue Grouse Winery.
Photo courtesy of Derek Ford at Blue Grouse.