B.C. Wine Culture

Unsworth Vineyards pioneered the Charme De L’Ile bubble; now the winery helps others produce their own sparklers. Sean Fenzl photo

Family-run, hyper-local and utterly beautiful, the province’s island wineries are waiting to be explored

If the Okanagan Valley is Canada’s Napa North, Vancouver Island’s wine region is our little slice of Sonoma.

Like that rural corner of California wine country, the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands wine regions invite exploration, weekend drives down pretty back roads to small, family-run wineries, their vineyards nestled amidst bucolic farmland and carved into forested slopes with ocean views.

Summers are short and dry, with hot days tempered by cooling breezes off the surrounding sea.

Wedged between the central highlands and the protected waters of the Strait of Georgia, the Cowichan Valley has the hottest microclimate on Vancouver Island and is home to more than a dozen wineries. Just across the Saanich Inlet, more small vineyards are popping up among the corn and blueberry farms, while enterprising vintners tend grapes in the Gulf Islands, from Pender and Salt Spring to Mayne.

Wines with a view across the Saanich Peninsula at deVine Vineyards. deVine Vineyards photo

This tiny wine region—with only about five per cent of the total B.C. acreage—began with early experimental plots of German varietals, plantings of unusual vinifera and hybrid grapes such as Ortega, Bacchus, Léon Millot, Petit Milo and Marechal Foch.

Today, there’s a second wave of growth, as new investors rebuild wineries and replant vineyards, and creative young winemakers push limits with organic viticulture and wild fermentation.

The region invites exploration, weekend drives down pretty back roads to small, family-run wineries, their vineyards nestled amidst bucolic farmland and carved into forested slopes with ocean views.

A unique coastal style is emerging: fresh whites and beautiful bubbles, delicate island rosés, eclectic blends and some impressive Pinot Gris and Pinot Noirs.

Vancouver Island Pinot Gris broke through this year at the 2018 WineAlign national wine awards, with Alderlea Vineyards, Unsworth Vineyards and newcomer Rathjen Cellars winning silver medals, and Pender Island’s Sea Star Vineyards taking home bronze. Sea Star and Salt Spring Vineyards also won gold medals at the competition for their Pinot Noir-based rosé wines.

But Ortega—a German cross of Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe—is the signature island varietal, producing soft whites with sweet floral and peach aromas.

Island terroir also yields fruit with the kind of searing acidity that makes great sparkling wines. Several wineries make traditional “champagne method” bubblies, such as the Venturi-Schulze Brut Naturel or the hand-riddled Paula Sparkling from Blue Grouse Estate Vineyards.

Charme De L’Ile is another unique island creation. Its name is registered by growers to designate estate-grown island Prosecco-style wines, made using the charmat method.

Unsworth’s award-winning Charme De L’Ile was the original, a barely-blush sparkler made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Sauvignette. With the only pressurized fermentation tank and bottling line on the island, Unsworth also bottles bubbly for Averill Creek Vineyard, Enrico Winery and Salt Spring Island Vineyards.

Island reds are generally lighter and winemakers save their best grapes for reserve wines. Somenos Pinot Noir from Averill Creek, Emandare Pinot Noir or Blue Grouse Estate Pinot Noir are excellent examples. Many also turn to the low-tannin, earthy French hybrid Marechal Foch for reds with extra colour and body.

But production remains small, so you’ll need to visit the wineries to taste many of these unique wines. Happily, all are within easy driving distance of Victoria.

Blue Grouse Estate Vineyards is eco-friendly by design. Derek Ford photo

In the Cowichan Valley, enjoy the impressive west coast architecture at the new winery at Blue Grouse or stay in their Grouse House guesthouse in the vineyard. Visit the new tasting room at Unsworth and dine in the historic farmhouse restaurant. Don’t miss Averill Creek Vineyard, the tiered, gravity-fed winery set high on a stunning slope, and Venturi-Schulze, where you can also taste their traditionally made balsamic vinegar. Emandare and Alderlea vineyards both have innovative “next-gen” owners and, in Saanich, deVine Vineyards has craft spirits on the tasting menu, too.

The island wine region is small, hyper-local and evolving quickly—and all just a lovely afternoon drive away.

Cinda Chavich is a Victoria-based food and wine journalist. She covers food and drink for YAM, EAT and TasteReport.com, has written for The Globe and Mail, WestJet and Maclean’s, and is author of The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook.

Cinda Chavich is a Victoria-based food and wine journalist. She covers food and drink for YAM, EAT and TasteReport.com, has written for The Globe and Mail, WestJet and Maclean’s, and is author of The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook.

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