Sunday, July 19, 2009

Champions of the wine islands

Tasting room at Salt Spring Vineyards (above). Vineyard and winery at Garry Oaks Winery on Salt Spring Island (below).

At the recent Victoria Festival of Food and Wine, I had the privilege of moderating a panel dedicated to wines that were called Champions of the Islands.
The point was to focus on some of the best wines produced exclusively from island-grown grapes. A number of the wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands make only estate-grown wines deliberately. That is the policy of Venturi-Schulze Vineyards, which is run by Giordano Venturi, Marilyn Schulze and her daughter, Michelle (pictured above).
They understand why some of their peers also offer wines made from Okanagan grapes. There are varieties, such as Syrah and Merlot, that simply do not ripen on the wine islands but are popular with consumers. Some very fine wines are made with Okanagan fruit. Church & State Wines in Saanich has just won a Lieutenant Governor's Award of Excellence with its Okanagan Syrah.

However, the seminar I moderated concerned itself with outstanding wines made in the challenging terroir of the wine islands. While the current season is likely to produce superbly ripe island wines, the last two years were cool and wet. It took very fine grape growing and imaginative winemaking to produce an island champion.

At Venturi-Schulze, Giordano, the winemaker, turned a potential disaster of inadequately ripe grapes in 2007 into a triumph - a wine called The Bad Boys ($26.10). It is a blend of Zweigelt and Pinot Noir, both red varieties, but this is a white wine. The grapes, lacking the colour that year for red wine, were pressed and the juice was fermented in new French oak barrels. The technique tamed the acidity, captured fruity flavours, in a wine with a rich texture and a light bronze blush.
Those at the seminar also sampled the winery's Brandenburg #3 2007 ($36.50 for a half bottle), a dessert wine made in a highly original manner. Giordano concentrates the flavours and aromas of Madeleine Sylvaner juice by simmering it.The initial purpose is to make balsamic vinegar. However, a portion is fermented as a wine. Relatively low in alcohol, this wine is like drinking a very elegant ribena juice, but better.

The most reliable red variety on the wine islands is, arguably, Marechal Foch. The grape ripens reliably even in cool years, yielding dark and full-bodied reds that, because the tannins are soft, are early-drinking wines. Two of the leading producers are Starling Lane Winery and Alderlea Vineyards.
Starling Lane is owned by three couples, some of whom are pictured above. The winemaking partner is John Wrinch (stripped shirt), a radiologist in Victoria and one of four (!) doctors involved with island wineries (not counting Bryan Murray of Victoria Spirits).

Starling Lane has produced several vintages of Marechal Foch that is generous on the palate, including the 2007 vintage that was tasted at the seminar. It sells for $23 at the winery, when and if it is available. Even less was made in the 2008 vintage because the Foch grapes left hanging in the Wrinch vineyard into a rainy November were attacked by mildew. In a warmer season, the grapes would have ripened earlier, before mildew had a chance.

Alderlea is operated by Roger Dosman (below) and his wife, Nancy.

Roger has always released his Marechal Foch under the proprietary name, Clarinet, because, as he once remarked, "it is too good to be called Foch." Aged in oak, like the Starling Lane wine, Clarinet also has th generous texture and plummy flavours to distinguish this variety when made well.

Blue Grouse Vineyards owner Hans Kiltz (above) is a former veterinarian. (He was the first medical person to enter the island wine business when he opened Blue Grouse in 1993.) Unlike some of his peers, he will not place little tents over the vines for a few weeks in spring to kick-start the growth. He just works with what nature gives him. Nature was not kind to island grape growers in 2007. Even so, the Blue Grouse 2007 Pinot Gris ($23) was applauded as a triumph by fellow winemakers at the seminar. It is a delicious wine, full of fruit flavours and with a crisp, refreshing finish, reflecting superior viticulture as well as fine winemaking.

Andy Johnston, a retired doctor, opened Averill Creek Estate Winery in 2006 with the ambition to make, among other varietals, outstanding Pinot Noir. This is a variety made well by all producers on this panel. They all believe that the islands have the soils and climate to grow Pinot Noir with good colour (perhaps better than the Okanagan) and with attractive feminine flavours. The Averill Creek 2006 Pinot Noir ($32) is a wine with beautiful elegance.

At Garry Oaks, owners Marcel Mercier and Elaine Kozak grow (among other varieties) an Austrian red called Zweigelt. This variety is showing a similar ability to Pinot Noir at ripening on the islands. Because the variety is unfamiliar to most consumers, the winery releases it under a proprietary name. Zeta 2006 ($25) is a full-bodied red with spiced cherry flavours.
Their next door neighbour is Salt Spring Vineyards, now owned by Joanne and Devlin McIntyre, both doctors, who took over the winery last year. The portfolio included a sparkling wine called Karma, now renamed Morning Star. The name change is part of the added attention that the new owners, who love Champagne, are giving to the production of this fine, dry, bottled-fermented wine.


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