My book research has taken me to some really interesting places in B.C. While the research phase is mostly complete, in some ways I really hope it never ends. I will probably just begin to concoct reasons to go on more research trips. Writing for a blog no longer counts since it never really returns anything to make paying for all of that the research worth it. Unfortunately, podcasting doesn’t do it either but I’m still working on that one.
This past summer, I was privileged to be able to meet with winery owners, wine makers, and archivists while visiting Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island. The last time I visited was in 2012, I was sick, and couldn’t smell or taste a thing. I relied on my wife to be the designated taster and bought only a few bottles on the whole, rainy trip. It peaked my interest though because the last few times that I’d tried wine from Vancouver Island, I was not really that impressed.
Vancouver Island to me was grey skies, rain, logging trucks, tiny highways with lots of stop lights, and views that were off-limits unless you were on a ferry or had waterfront property. Victoria, like all capital cities in North America from Albany to Washington, DC, are always touristy, transient, and freakishly sanitised so that everything appears lovely at all times, just so that visiting diplomats get only the best impressions of the province, state, or country. Get outside of the city however and things start to get interesting.
Vancouver Island is remarkably diverse. There are parts that remind me of southern Ontario (which may or may not be a compliment) and there are other parts that remind me of nowhere else that I’ve ever been – all within an hour’s drive. The wines reflect that diversity too but they’ve managed to be bundled up into a tidy promotional package that they’ve beautifully called “The Wine Islands.”
What I learned on my previous trip that was confirmed and raised on this recent one is that Vancouver Island is an amazingly interesting place to make wine. Forgot the wineries that bring in grapes from the Okanagan, make wine from it, and then try to hide it or downplay it somehow (you know who you are), there are some spectacular wines out there. Wineries are doing great things with Pinot Noir, Marichel Foch (I know – it’s one of those big, scary hybrids that we’ve all be told are from the bad old days of B.C. wine’s past…), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Ortega, and others. They don’t taste anything like Okanagan wines AND THAT’S AWESOME! They are finally starting to taste like the place that they come from.
The Saanich Peninsula is particularly important in B.C. wine’s history (you’ll have to read the book when it comes out to find out why) and there is a small cadre of wineries there who are making awesome, creative wines there. The Cowichan Valley is the most populous in terms of the number of wineries and there is a reason for it. It’s a warm valley in a rain shadow that had dried, browned grass growing between the vines when I was there in late July. (Sound familiar at all?) There is also the Comox Valley farther north, which seems like quite a stretch north but is still below 50 degrees of latitude. Plus, after Parksville, the speed limit is 120 all the way to Comox so, you can safely stretch a bit…
Here is my take of wines from Vancouver Island: They are our version on Italy.
Let me explain. What I mean is that in general (very generally), the wines here exhibit a bright, fruity quality that I’ve always equated with traditional Italian wines (before they got all “Parkered” when everyone started oaking the crap out their Chiantis). They are not overtly tannic or grippy in any way. They are briskly acidic, fresh, and elegant in a way that hotter places cannot get away with. The alcohol levels are way more in check than some Okanagan wines, and with a much lower risk for frost, the growing season is longer. The result, if done right, is amazingly complex wines that are just begging to help make your meals that much more awesome. Try using a Wine Islands wine in place of an Italian wine next time you have lasagna, spaghetti, or any other Italian-style dish.
That style of wine is particular trendy right now (Dolcetto anyone?) and if the Wine Islands can play their marketing cards right, they could come out of this trend with a stable, well-respected industry that consumers will know to reach for at the wine stores.
That is the key of course to any wine region but particularly to the Wine Islands. The turnover rate of this region is far higher than the Okanagan. Wineries are easy come, easy go here. The lucky ones like Blue Grouse, Cherry Point, and Beaufort have been able to attract new owners. Others (Godrey-Brownell, Echo Valley, and Marley Farm) have not. It is frontier wine production in a lot of ways.
The Wine Islands is a region that is worth supporting and I hope that you do. When you head to a quality wine store in the future, ask for an adventure. Ask them if they have any wines from Vancouver Island or any of the Gulf Islands. It’s a great way to experience the taste of the coast and is always going to be cheaper than the ferry.
Cheers from wine country!