Photo: Chateau Wolff owners Matt and Natalie Riga with daughter Siena
Chateau Wolff Estate Winery, which has been dormant since founder Harry von
Wolff died in 2005, has been revived brilliantly by Ontarians Matt and Natalie
They opened their renovated tasting room last summer. Their
debut vintage of 2014 was about 300 cases and most of those wines are entirely
or almost sold out. In 2015, they have raised production to about 550 cases,
thanks to their Herculean work to restore a vineyard that had fallen into
They have chosen to revive the memory of the founder both by
keeping his original name for the winery and by retaining some of his
artefacts. Harry also operated a store specializing in western-style garments
and he was often garbed in those styles. One of Harry’s Stetsons now hangs on
the tasting room wall.
“It was pretty personal, taking over the property [in
2014],” Natalie says. “At the time, his house was still there and not
everything had been taken out of the house. There were all of his wine books
that he had used. We have them in our office now. We go through them and read
things … you can never read too much about wine … and he has his own notes in
some of them. We have never met this man but we know quite a bit about him.”
It is one of those strange coincidences that Harry was born
in Riga, the capital of Latvia, while the surname of the current owners
Matt was born in Trenton
, in 1981 while Natalie is from London, Ontario
Both set out on career paths quite unrelated to wine. Matt, with a degree in
sociology and a minor in criminology, spent several years as a youth counsellor
Natalie has a sociology degree from the University of Victoria
They first came to Victoria
in 2007 to visit friends and fell in love with Vancouver
. “We decided we were going to stay there fulltime,” Natalie
says. That plan was upset in 2009 by a health crisis in Matt’s family, causing
the couple to return to Trenton
“That took us on a whole other journey,” Natalie.
Matt had grown up working in a popular Italian restaurant
owned by an uncle and aunt. So in 2010 Matt and Natalie opened their own
restaurant, The Port Bistro.
“We had been talking about a small restaurant in Victoria
,” Matt says.
“We both love cooking and everything that goes along with that.” Their bistro,
which served what they called gourmet comfort food, also put them in touch with
the wineries in nearby Prince
That fired their interest in a winemaking career. Soon they
were exploring the wineries and volunteering to help at crush. After running
the bistro for two and a half years, they decided against careers as
restaurateurs. They began searching for winery opportunities, first in Prince Edward
, then Niagara and finally on Vancouver Island
“We both wanted to move back to Vancouver
,” Natalie says. “We had a hard time leaving Victoria
Moving back to the island was something we had in our hearts.”
An internet search led them to Chateau Wolff which Sotheby’s
International Realty had listed for $859,000. Located on the western outskirts
of Nanaimo, the
property included five acres of vines, most planted in 1990. The mature
vineyard appealed to Matt and Natalie. “Old vines produce less wine but they
produce better wine,” he says.
The property also came with the larger than life stories of
Harry von Wolff, (right) who had purchased the property in 1987 to develop Nanaimo’s first winery.
He had been a member of a prosperous family of landowners
until World War 11 and the Soviet occupation of Latvia
left his father in a
Siberian prison camp and the rest of the family as postwar refugees. Harry, with his mother and grandmother, immigrated
in 1953. He worked on an uncle's ranch in British Columbia
country for a year and then began
a peripatetic career through fifty-eight different jobs over eleven years. A
hotel management course in Switzerland
led to a career in the hotel business that fostered his interest in wines.
With his wife, Helga, Harry settled in Nanaimo in 1977 and prospered in retailing
western clothing and footwear. Harry now became a competent amateur winemaker
and, after planting a few vines at his home, established this vineyard. An
admirer of the wines of Burgundy,
he planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the best site, a southwest-facing slope
against a sunbathed cliff. His first commercial vintage was 1996 and he opened
the winey in 1998.
After his death at age 71 in 2005 (Helga died shortly
thereafter), his survivors struggled with the vineyard, leasing it to another
Nanaimo winery, then selling the grapes and then finally letting it grow wild
until Matt and Natalie came along late in 2013. Matt estimates that he pruned
“about five years of wood” prior to the 2014 and 2015 vintages.
The couple recognized that they “could not wing it” and
recruited Mackenzie Brisbois, a graduate both of Niagara
and the University of Guelph
with experience both in vineyards and in wineries. She had been an assistant
winemaker at Norman Hardy Winery, Matt and Natalie’s favourite Prince Edward
winery. Ready to
take on the challenge of helping the new owners turn around Chateau Wolff, she
arrived in April 2014, staying through the season and the crush before
returning to Prince
“She showed us the ropes in both the vineyard and the
winery,” Matt says. “It worked out really well. We couldn’t believe it was
happening. I had underestimated what goes into winemaking and tending to a
vineyard. We have learned that the vineyard is the most important place because
that is where it starts. We were lucky to find someone like Mackenzie.”
Matt and Natalie (and their 18 month old daughter, Siena) handled the
vineyard and the winemaking themselves in 2015. When they needed help picking
the grapes, they invited about 25 volunteers. Matt dipped into his experience
as a chef, roasting a pig over a spit to feed the volunteers. Some already have
their names on the list for picking in 2016.
The hand of an experienced winemaker shows in the quality of
the wines that launched the Chateau Wolff revival. These excellent wines,
because production is limited, are available at the tasting room (open now on
weekends and by appointment) and in a handful of Nanaimo
liquor stores and restaurants. They are well worth seeking out.
Here are notes on all the wines they released, except for
Chardonnay, which is sold out.
Chateau Wolff White
Blend 2014 ($15). This is about 85% Viognier with Bacchus and Siegerrebe
completing the blend. The wine begins with fragrant floral aromas, leading to
flavours of apples and pears and a crisp finish. 88.
Chateau Wolff Pinot
Noir 2014 ($25). Aged in French oak for nine months, this wine has spicy
aromas and flavours of cherry. It has good intensity on the palate and the fine
tannins give it a good texture. 88-90.
Chateau Wolff Syrah
2014 ($25). Syrah grapes were purchased from Naramata Bench vineyards (and
were purchased again in 2015) so that the winery could make a big red from a
variety not grown on the island. This wine begins with an appealing aroma of
red fruit and white pepper. It has classic gamy flavours of meaty red fruit and
pepper. There is a hint of spice and raspberry on the long finish. 90.
Chateau Wolff Rouge
2014 ($18 for 375 ml). This fortified wine from the estate’s Dornfelder
grapes is a tribute to the port-style wine that Harry called Grand Rouge. This
wine begins with appealing sweet fruit aromas leading to flavours of black
cherry, fig and liquorice. 88.
Chateau Wolff Sparkling Cider (Not for sale). This excellent cider is an extension to the traditional Wolff portfolio. Closed with a crown cap, it opens with froth of bubbles. You need to pour the first class promptly. It has fresh aromas and flavours of apples, with a defining note of tannin on the crisp, dry finish. With just 7.5% alcohol, this is easy to drink. 88.