Thursday, March 23, 2017

Harry Von Wolff’s legacy

Photo: Harry von Wolff

When Harry von Wolff, Nanaimo’s pioneering winery owner, died in 2005 at age 71, there was unfinished business at his Chateau Wolff Estate Winery.

One item was completing a full roof over the winery’s production building, which is just half covered. Harry had ordered a new roof but it arrived shortly after his death. It was returned to the manufacturer.

Matt and Natalie Riga, the new owners who revived Chateau Wolff in 2014, put on the new roof last summer. It was part of a renovation of the production facility that included installing a temperature-controlled barrel cellar. But they kept the gravity feed design designed by Harry to move wine gently, without pumping.

They have, in fact, been careful at preserving the legacy of Harry. They retained the name of the winery even though it had been closed almost a decade when they bought it. They have researched both the history of the property and Harry’s biography. Even though the brand was dormant, Harry’s spirit lives on because he was such a larger-than-life figure.

He had been a member of an old family of landowners in Latvia until World War 11. The Soviet occupiers of Latvia sent his father, who had been a German officer, to a Siberian prison camp from which he was not released until 1955.

The rest of the von Wolff family took refuge in Poland and then postwar Germany.  Harry, with his mother and grandmother, immigrated to Canada in 1953. He worked on an uncle's ranch in British Columbia's Peace River 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. He managed hotels in such locales as Haiti, the Queen Charlotte Islands and Jasper.

In 1977, Harry and his wife, Helga, moved to Nanaimo and another bewildering career change: he opened a shoe repair shop. Eventually, that became the Island Boot and Saddle Shop, marketing western wear to the equestrian set. Harry took to wearing black Stetsons and belts with wide silver buckles.
He also became a competent amateur winemaker. After planting a few vines at his home, Harry began looking for property at the outskirts of Nanaimo for a vineyard. In 1987, he and Helga bought an eight-acre site. The timber he harvested helped pay for the vineyard and to import vines from France.

An admirer of the wines of Burgundy, he planted Pinot Noir and a small block of Chardonnay in the best site, a southwest-facing slope against a sunbathed cliff. “I love Pinot Noir and I don’t follow the general line in North America that Pinot Noir is difficult,” Harry told me in a 1993 interview. “You’ve got to have the right site and the right microclimate. And most of all, you don’t mess with it – keep it natural.”

He made his first commercial vintage in 1996 and opened the winery in 1998. He expected to be making wine for a couple of decades. Sadly, that was not to be.

After his death, his family and other winemakers continued to grow and sell the grapes while try to sell the property. By the time Matt and Natalie came along in 2013, the vineyard was in rough shape. Even so, the mature vineyard, mostly planted in 1990, appealed to them.  “Old vines produce less wine but they produce better wine,” Matt says.

Matt was born in Trenton, Ontario, 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 in Victoria. Natalie has a sociology degree from the University of Victoria. (Photo: Natalie and Matt with daughter Siena.)

They first came to Victoria in 2007 to visit friends and fell in love with Vancouver Island. “We decided we were going to stay there fulltime,” Natalie says. Family reasons took them back to Trenton where, in 2010, they opened a popular bistro. “We had been talking about a small restaurant in Victoria,” Matt says. “We both love cooking and everything that goes along with that.”

Wines goes with that. They were soon looking for winery properties. They found that Chateau Wolff was for sale. It was the opportunity they wanted to return to Vancouver Island late in 2013. Matt set about pruning and rejuvenating the vineyard.

To make their first vintage in 2014, the couple recruited Mackenzie Brisbois, a consulting winemaker from Prince Edward County in Ontario. “She showed us the ropes in both the vineyard and the winery,” Matt says. “It worked out really well. I had underestimated what goes into winemaking and tending to a vineyard.

She returned to Ontario after that vintage, with Matt and Natalie handling winemaking in subsequent vintages. They have learned well. The wines are clean and fresh – perhaps one instance where Harry’s legacy is not honoured. His Pinot Noir, for all that he kept it simple, was usually over-extracted, probably because he punched down the cap so frequently during fermentation that he actually got up at night to do it.

Here are notes on three current Chateau Wolff wines. The best place to find them is in the tasting room. The tasting room also has a very small release of Chardonnay and, soon, a 30-case release of a bottle-fermented cider from the cider and heritage apple trees on the property.

Chateau Wolff Estate Viognier Blend ($18 for 110 cases). This is a blend of 85% Viognier – grapes both from the Nanaimo Estate and from the Okanagan – with estate-grown Siegerrebe and Bacchus. The wine has delicate floral and herbal aromas, with flavours of grapefruit and melon. It is crisp, lean and dry – the perfect wine for seafood. 88.

Chateau Wolff Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($25 for 165 cases). A wine with a good colour, this begins with aromas of cherries and plums. On the palate, the cherry flavours are complimented with spicy oak from the nine months the wine aged in French oak. The tannins are evolving nicely toward what Harry would have admired in a Burgundy. 90.

Chateau Wolff Estate Syrah 2015 ($25 for 185 cases). The grapes are from a small vineyard on the Naramata Bench from which the winery also bought fruit for its 2016 vintage. The wine aged in French oak for 12 months. The wine has a hint of white pepper in the aroma, along with dark fruit, which is echoed on the palate. 90.


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