Friday, April 9, 2010

Averill Creek brings its wines to the Vancouver market

Photo: Andy Johnston, co-owner of Averill Creek Vineyard

Since wine growing resumed on Vancouver Island in the early 1990s, the industry there has lived largely in a cocoon. Because most of the wineries are small, they usually sell everything they make to consumers, restaurants and tourists on the islands.

Averill Creek Vineyard’s Andy Johnston is breaking from that cocoon. The Cowichan Valley winery, whose production now has reached 6,000 cases a year, has recently appointed a Vancouver agent. The Averill Creek wines are beginning to show up in Vancouver wine shops. For the second year in a row, Andy will have a table at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. And this week, he hosted his first tasting with the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society in Vancouver.

To be fair, Andy is not the only island winery selling into the Vancouver market with some regularity. Others in the Vancouver market include Salt Spring’s Garry Oaks Winery and Pender Island’s Morning Bay Vineyards. Venturi-Schulze Vineyards does occasional tastings on the Lower Mainland(by invitation) and sells wine and balsamic vinegar directly. (Venturi-Schulze began opening its Cowichan Valley tasting room two years ago for weekend tastings.) Cherry Point Vineyards has been at the Wine Festival several times and has had wines in various VQA stores. Rocky Creek Winery of Duncan has also penetrated the Vancouver market in the past year and has its wines in eight or nine private stores.

Sea Cider’s excellent ciders products are available in the Everything Wine stores. Tugwell Creek’s meads have shown up in Liberty’s stores. Alderlea Vineyards used to ship its wines to one Vancouver restaurant. Joe Busnardo, the owner of Divino, still has a couple of wine stores in the Vancouver area but I don’t know whether they carry his island-grown wines or the remnants of his Okanagan wines.

Quite possibly, other island wines show up from time to time in Vancouver but whether it is a critical mass is questionable.

I have excluded Church & State from this list even though that winery, which has a facility on the Saanich Peninsula, is quite active in markets off the island. Most of its vineyards are in the Okanagan; the wine is made there and an Okanagan tasting room opens this year.

Among the island wineries, there have always been tensions between those that bring in some Okanagan grapes and those that use only grapes grown on the islands. Now, the estate wineries on the islands have created their own association, promoting wines grown on the island.

I prefer not to take sides on the issue. I just want full disclosure on the labels.

Averill Creek is definitely an estate producer only. Andy has about 30,000 well-tended vines on a 30-acre vineyard in the Cowichan Valley north of Duncan. All of Averill Creek’s wines come from this vineyard.

Andy is a British-born doctor who practised in Alberta for about 30 years before buying his Cowichan Valley property in 2001. Long passionate about wine, he had decided a few years earlier that he had “only so many patient visits in me.” Even before he bought his land, he began working vintages in commercial wineries, notably in New Zealand, to get hands-on experience.

Since Averill Creek’s first vintage in 2004, he has employed professional winemakers even though he has acquired those skills. The reason: it frees him up for work in the vineyard where, in his view, 90% of the winemaking is done.

Averill Creek’s focussed portfolio is an excellent expression of the Cowichan Valley’s terroir and that is why the Vancouver market should be pleased to see these wines. The Okanagan and the Similkameen grow excellent wines, but so do the island terroirs. The wines are bright and refreshing and usually have moderate alcohol levels.

Here are notes on the current Averill Creek offerings.

Gewürztraminer 2009 ($18). The wine begins with a lovely floral and spicy fragrance, delivering lychee and tropical fruit flavours. Crisp and refreshing, the wine has a lingering and dry finish – a good food wine. 88

Pinot Grigio 2009 ($18). Like the previous white wine, the grapes for this are fermented in stainless steel and the wine is bottled within six months of harvest, thus preserving the fresh fruit flavours. This wine has aromas and flavours of pears, peaches and apricots, with the impression of white pepper and green apples on the finish. 87

Pinot Gris 2007 ($18). The object with this wine is to produce a style quite distinct from the Pinot Grigio. This is fermented and aged in barrels (most of the barrels have been used before for Chardonnay at another winery). The result is a complex white with hints of toast, butterscotch and pears on the nose and on the palate. A skein of minerals is woven through the structure of this dry wine, adding to the complexity. The finish is long. 90

Foch-eh! 2009 ($18). This is Averill Creek’s red fun wine, made from Maréchal Foch in the same way that Beaujolais Nouveau is made. This is a dark medium-bodied red with gobs spicy cherry and plum flavours. This is a fine barbecue quaffer red. 86

Prevost 2007 ($18). This is a red barrel-aged blend that is 85% Maréchal Foch, 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Foch (a Swiss hybrid). It has the aroma of blackberries with a hint of smokiness that carries through all the way to the finish. 87

Pinot Noir 2007 ($28). This variety is Averill Creek’s flagship red. Andy goes to great lengths to grow ripe, full-flavoured grapes by tenting most of his Pinot Noir. That is a labour-intensive method for accelerating a vine’s growth in spring under plastic tents in order to get the grapes mature before the mid-October rains. The 2007 vintage on Vancouver Island was cool and wet and challenging but you would not know it from tasting this fine wine. It begins with aromas of black cherries, leather and tobacco. There are bright cherry notes on the palate. The texture is the classic velvet texture one expects from a good Pinot Noir. 89

Cowichan Black 2008 ($18 for a half bottle). This is one of the best port-style blackberry wines anyone makes on the islands. The wine has a lovely core of pristine fruit with the taste of fresh blackberries. It is delicious on its own but Andy also suggests using it in cocktails – or even over pancakes.

Now that would be a breakfast of champions!


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