Van Island: BC’s new hot spot
When the wraps came off the bottles at this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in BC wine, there was one particularly welcome surprise. For the first time ever in the prestigious competition’s 13-year history, a Vancouver Island winery was among the winners. The wine awarded was Tempest Ortega 2014 from Enrico Vineyards in the Cowichan Valley.
To put things into perspective, there were 425 wines entered by 116 wineries, meaning that the wine received support throughout the process, to be awarded one of just 14 medals.
For the past two or three decades — at least since the inception of the Okanagan Wine Festival competition (recently re-named the BC Wine Awards) — the staging of white flights to be judged at most competitions has pretty well been defined something like this: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, white blends and “other” white varieties, that could range everywhere from Madeleine Sylvaner to Pinot Auxerrois and not a few wines in between, including Ortega.
While there’s no denying the Okanagan’s success, unquestionably, Vancouver Island has lingered far too long in its shadow. Whether due to small volumes, a string of difficult harvests a few years back and the reality that most Island wines rarely make it off the island, these wineries still have a relatively low profile. Although, signs of change now abound, as BC’s smaller regions, once considered too marginal to be taken seriously, are now starting to show their potential.
Enrico’s win also comes at a timely moment: this summer a survey was underway to determine how best to move forward with sub appellations in BC, following this year’s confirmation of Golden Mile Bench as the province’s first Sub Geographic Indicators (GI). Vancouver Island and its surrounding Gulf Islands will no doubt be part of the discussion. It’s quite likely that the spotlight on the Cowichan will serve to highlight the need to also address the “catch-all” convenience of the current geographical indicators that have been in place since the early 1990s.
Somehow, the generic label of “Vancouver Island” just doesn’t cut it in a province where the boundaries of winemaking are being pushed further every year. While the original GI tended to be umbrellas, in terms of grouping similar, smaller regions, the fact is that the Cowichan Valley is unique, as are the Saanich Peninsula and the Comox Valley. Even considering the North and South Gulf Islands (a good 120 km apart) as one entity would seem to be less than ideal, when matters of more precise origin on the label are being widely discussed.
Enrico is a relatively recent addition to the Cowichan scene. The vineyard was established in 2007 (followed by the winery in 2009) and varieties grown include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Ortega, Cabernet Foch, and Cabernet Libra. Enrico’s winemaker is Daniel Cosman, whose full time gig is at Unsworth Vineyards, another newbie making waves on the island.
Cosman worked in the Fraser Valley and the Cowichan for several vintages before joining the Unsworth opening team assembled in 2010 by owners Tim and Colleen Turyk. They had moved to the valley after retiring from their successful commercial fishing business. Tim Turik grew up spending summers on close-by Shawnigan Lake and wasted little time in purchasing the historic farm and acreage that the family has now shaped into Unsworth Winery and Restaurant — which bears his mother’s maiden name.
It’s very much a family run affair: Tim and Colleen’s son Chris is assistant vineyard manager and handles marketing. He’s also a certified sommelier, which comes in handy at the restaurant. Daniel’s wife, Sarah Cosman (also a trained viticulturist and oenologist) is the general manager, while chef Steven Elskens is married to restaurant manager Christle Pope.
There’s a sense that Unsworth is part of a new breed of island winery that promises to take things to the next level, along with the likes of Averill Creek and a handful of others. Of particular note here is the hospitality — that makes the restaurant a must-visit proposition. The 1900s farmhouse has been well restored, with a sensitivity that very much retains the feel of the old home, while adding an airy extension and patio overlooking the vineyard. Elksens’s locally focused plates are as good as I’ve tasted at any winery restaurant, in Canada or elsewhere.
Daniel Cosman says the island thrives or fails very much at the mercy of Mother Nature, who he likes to refer to as a “cruel mistress.” He offers Tasmania and Champagne as climatic comparisons to Vancouver Island. Like many Island winemakers, he’s keenly aware of the risks and limitations. And driven by the understanding that success, always, flows from the right grape for the site.
His wines demonstrate an across-the-board cleanness of style. Unsworth offers a unique interpretation of the acidity that very much defines island wines. Cosman works with Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignette, Petit Milo, Marechal Foch, Cabernet Libre. (Sauvignette is the new name given by Unsworth to Epicure.) Riesling — for which he considers the Cowichan Valley not ideal — he brings in from Naramata.
Petit Milo — “It’s astonishingly similar to Riesling,” says Cosman — ripens before the rain comes and grows very manageably straight. Many of the varieties now grown on Vancouver Island were test planted at around the same time as the Okanagan trials that served to establish the modern industry, he says. For example, Sauvignette was originally planted in the 1980s, on Salt Spring Island.
Contrary to popular belief, BC’s commercial winemaking history actually had its early beginnings on Vancouver Island, when, in 1927, the Growers’ Wine Company started making sparkling apple drinks and loganberry wine in Saanich. Growers Cider is made to this day. The first modern vineyard was established at just about the same time that the early Okanagan pioneers were getting started, with the first commercial vineyard started almost by chance — in 1970, near Duncan.
Dennis Zanatta, a dairy farmer of Italian heritage, like many Italian-Canadians had penchant for making his own wine and planted a few vines on his property. Over the years his interest grew and he eventually planted some hybrids such as Léon Millot, which came from the Federal Government’s Plant Health Centre in Saanich, BC.
A spin-off from the Okanagan’s Becker project, the Duncan project (1981-1986) undertook similar trials of varieties that might prove suited specifically to Vancouver Island. A number of sites were involved in the provincially run program, including one acre supplied by Zanatta.
The trials of some 150 varieties at three sites proved to be invaluable in examining the suitability of many varieties that form the backbone for coastal plantings today, ranging from Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer to Ortega and Bacchus.
While Unsworth Vineyards is fundamentally a newcomer from the ground up, recently unveiled Blue Grouse amounts to a dramatic makeover of one of the Cowichan’s longest-running pioneers.
Founded as a labour of love in 1989 by Hans Kiltz and family, Blue Grouse has been a trailblazer in forging a path for earlier ripening German varieties such as Ortega, Bacchus and Siegerrebe. Kiltz very much understood the need to resist being seduced by commercial pressures to plant more trendy varieties of the times and focused on planting what worked.
Over the years Blue Grouse built a reputation for producing one of the most consistent Ortegas in the small region, very much helping to establish it as the Island’s flagship white.
When the small winery and vineyard were purchased by the Brunner family, the new owners embarked on an expansion that has truly transformed the small estate winery while managing to stay true to Hans Kiltz’s original vision, which has now grown to 31 acres.
Paul and Cristina Brunner, and their daughter Paula-Cristina, are well along the path to transform Blue Grouse into one of the area’s top destinations. They’re a globetrotting family with connections to Chile, Peru, South Africa and the US, who have visited many of the world’s more prominent wine regions.
For winemaking, Brunner turned to Bailey Williamson, who used to work with Road 13 Vineyards in the Okanagan. He, too, has very much grasped the need to work only with varieties that make sense for this sometimes-borderline region. Williamson is a huge fan of the Cowichan Valley, which he identifies as one of the warmest regions on Vancouver Island, an ideal microclimate that is perfect for growing any number of varieties. But he insists it’s crucial for those to be the correct varieties, to allow him to showcase the vineyard’s true potential.
Interestingly enough, the grapes that are emerging as the Blue Grouse stalwarts are, in fact, the very same varieties that Hans Kiltz had originally decided to work with. Early signs are that Williamson’s Pinot Noir program will prove to be one of the region’s more impressive, with strong showings from 2012 and 2013. The new sparkling wine program, using island-grown varieties, also has plenty of potential.
All too often new ownerships choose to deliberately ignore what has gone before. Not so in this case. The Brunners are truly gracious in their acknowledgement of the Kiltz family. In fact, they have dedicated the entire mezzanine, along with its balcony overlooking the vineyard, as a tribute to the Kiltz family and their vision. The winery itself is impressive enough, but this thoughtful gesture obviously flows from people with a real understanding of the kind of commitment it takes to start a successful winery from scratch. It’s heart-warming to see Hans Kiltz getting the recognition he so well deserves after all these years.
Blue Grouse Architect, Joe Chauncey says his design was inspired by the grouse itself, reflected in several features. The winery sports a roofline that mimics the curve of the bird’s head and neck, while even the natural tones of wood and stone are a nod to the Grouse’s distinctive plumage.
Chauncey’s clean, modern design makes the most of the south facing aspect looking down the vineyard and beyond to the rolling hills of the lush Cowichan Valley. Whether from the patio (which runs the length of the building), the main foyer or from the mezzanine, this beautiful structure with its expansive glass takes full advantage of the vistas and setting.
The Brunners are also in no hurry to add more hospitality such as a boutique inn or full service restaurant, even though the new winery does have a commercial kitchen and excellent reception facilities. Paul Brunner says that may or may not come in time. For now, he says, the winery needs to solidify its reputation as a serious producer. However that already appears to be unfolding.
“We want to make great wines, not just good wines,” he says.
Above image: Blue Grouse winemaker Bailey Williamson and owner Paul Brunner
Blue Grouse Paula Sparkling ($25)
A blend of this wine, perhaps as much as any other I’ve tasted recently from Vancouver Island, is a really good example of what could be taking place on a broader scale. It’s superbly textured, with just a little sweetness and is a shoo-in for seafood and Asian plates.
Blue Grouse Black Muscat 2012 ($30)
Hans Kiltz planted this variety and it remains the only one known of its kind in the country. Almost indigo in the glass, it sports an intense cassis nose, with a spry palate of blackcurrant, mulberry, spice and peppery notes. Very limited availability.
Blue Grouse Pinot Noir 2013 ($24)
Lifted cherry notes on top with bright fruit and some earthy notes before an elegant, quite fruit driven palate with firm acidity, good length, definite minerality and well balanced tannins.
Enrico Tempest 2014 ($18)
This 100% Ortega jumps out of the glass with white flower and orchard fruits, followed by a juicy, citrus and peach toned palate with an excellent balance of fruit and acidity to produce a textbook example of what this variety can do. Think mild cheeses and cold cuts or just plain sipping.
Averill Creek Foch EH 2014 ($24)
A fun approach to much maligned Marechal Foch yields lively up front red fruit berries on the nose before an approachable light to medium bodied, quite fruit driven palate with a slightly herbal rather than foxy edge with just a touch of tannin. Like many a lighter red, a few minutes in the chiller makes all the difference.
Averill Creek Gewürztraminer 2014 ($20)
Delicate floral and spicy notes on the nose, followed by orchard fruits, citrus and hints of ginger on the palate with a zesty ending.
Unsworth Pinot Gris 2014 ($22)
Lees aging (“How we deal with island acidity,” says Cosman) brings remarkable texture, orchard fruits, purity of flavours, structure and great fruit acid balance.
Unsworth Pinot Noir 2013 ($24)
Earthy and mushroom notes with pure, sweet fruit, dark cherry over strawberry with juicy acidity and some oak notes.
Unsworth Rosé ($18)
Well balanced, delicious expression of Pinot Noir with integrated 10% neutral oak: cranberry, cherry with apple and citrus background and lingering acidity. Best of Class All Canadian Wine Championships.
Unsworth Allegro 2014 ($20)
Straw colour with an orchid pink hue, this refreshing blend of Petit Milo and Sauvignette offers orchard fruits on top, followed by pear and apple on the palate, nicely fruity but dry, with a hint of nettle that’s somehow reminiscent of Pinot Auxerrois.