Photo: New island vintner Mike Rathjen
Several years ago, a wine agent named Richard Massey began organizing Vancouver Island winemakers, cider makers and distillers to host a taste every spring in Vancouver.
The most recent one is now concluded and it was a revelation. I don’t remember so many consistently good wines at previous tastings. I was generous in my scores, as a result.
The island has benefitted from a string of good vintages. Secondly, recent investment there in winemaking and viticulture shows, complementing the growing experience of the winemakers.
Because most of the producers are comparatively small, it can be hard to find the wines off the island. But they all have tasting rooms. Now that ferry fares are little more than the cost of gas for an Okanagan trip, perhaps it is time for a bit of island wine touring.
This week’s three-hour tasting was not quite long enough. I missed a couple of wineries and I had no time for distillers, cideries and meaderies. There is an astonishing number of spirit producers now on the island and it seems they also have tasting rooms.
If you go, here are wineries to look up.
Alderlea Vineyards near Duncan was acquired last spring by Julie Powell and Zachary Brown. On their business cards, they both call themselves proprietor and winemaker.
They have taken over a winery that was opened in 1998 by Roger Dosman. Alderlea wines had already achieved a good reputation because Roger was meticulous both in the cellar and, particularly, in the vineyard. Julie and Zachary benefit from a mature and healthy vineyard. They continue to farm it sustainably, without chemical pesticides or herbicides. The wines are all vegan.
Alderlea Bacchus 2017 ($20.25 for 320 cases). The vines are “midway through their third decade,” the winery says. The grapes are crushed when they are still cold and the fermentation is long and cool (never above 12C) to preserve the aromas and flavours. The wine is crisp, with floral and spicy aromas and flavours of lime and kiwi. 90.
Alderlea Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($23.70 for 300 cases). This is not an easy grape to grow on the island. Alderlea prides itself in having the largest block in the Cowichan Valley; and has a few more rows coming into production this year. Think of this wine as a Sancerre white – herbal on the nose with flavours of green apples and lime. The finish is crisp. 91.
Alderlea Pinot Gris 2017 ($22.55 for 400 cases). Twenty-six hours of skin contact has given this wine a slight blush and lifted the aromas and flavours. There are hints of strawberry and mango on the palate. The finish is crisp. 90.
Alderlea Pinot Noir 2015 ($25.40 for 200 cases). The wine is intense and complex, with aromas and flavours of cherry, blackberry and spice. The grapes are from the second-oldest Pinot Noir block on Vancouver Island. The complexity is the result of the vineyard having six clones – four Dijon clones and two Alsace clones. 92.
Alderlea Clarinet 2015 ($23.70 for 550 cases). The grape here is Maréchal Foch. Roger Dosman once explained he called the wine Clarinet “because it is too good to be called Maréchal Foch.” The wine was aged on lees for 18 months in neutral French oak which accounts for the soft and ripe tannin structure. It has aromas of fig and cherry, leading to flavours of black cherries and blackberries. 90.
Alderlea Merlot 2015 ($25.40 for 100 cases). Merlot vines are rare on Vancouver Island because the vineyards seldom get the heat units to ripen it. Alderlea must have its vines in a hot spot and perhaps tents them to accelerate their maturity. As well, 2015 was a hot vintage. This delicious wine begins with aromas of cassis that lead to flavours of black currant, blueberry and cherry. 90.
Alderlea Matrix 2014 ($23.70 for 150 cases). This is a blend of Cabernet Foch and Cabernet Libre with some Agria and, for the first time in 2014, 15% Merlot. Also in 2014, 30% new French oak was used in aging the wine, perhaps to tame the rustic personality of the hybrids. In succeeding vintages, more Merlot and new French oak have been used; in 2017, five percent aromatic whites were co-fermented with the red varieties. The wine has aromas and flavours of blueberry, black currants, prune and coffee. 89.
Averill Creek Vineyard was opened in 2006 just north of Duncan by Andy Johnson below), a former doctor, and his wife, Wendy. They farm a fairly large vineyard, with Pinot Noir comprising the largest portion of the plantings. Andy’s ambition is to make one of Canada’s best Pinot Noirs. The wines are all well-made.
Averill Creek Charme De L’ile NV ($23.78). Averill Creek is one of several Vancouver Island that produce popular Charmat method sparkling wines and sell them under the Charme De L’ile brand. This is made with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. It is a crisp, refreshing sparkling wine with notes of citrus and apple. 90
Averill Creek Pinot Grigio 2017 ($21.48 for 1,800 cases). This is a light, lively, refreshing with aromas and flavours of citrus and peach. 91.
Averill Creek Pinot Noir 2015 ($26.08). This elegant wine dances lightly across the palate, with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry. The refreshing fruit flavours linger. 90.
Averill Creek Pinot Noir 2014 Somenos Series ($44.48 for 300 cases). This is a full-bodied Pinot Noir, with aromas of cherry and toasted oak, echoed on the palate. The long finish has notes of mocha and spice. 92.
Averill Creek Prevost 2014 ($21.48 for 2,000 cases). The winery describes this as its “Cowichan claret.” It is a blend of 60% Maréchal Foch, 25% Cabernet Libre, 10% Cabernet Foch and 5% Merlot. The soft, ripe tannins make this an easy-drinking red. It has aromas and flavours of black cherry, plum and fig with notes of chocolate on the finish. 90.
Averill Creek Cowichan Tawny NV ($30.60 for 375 ml). This is a fortified blackberry “port” done in the solera style to develop more complexity. Andy Johnston calls it “Christmas cake” because the wine is redolent with spicy fruitcake flavours. 90.
Blue Grouse Estate Winery, which opened in 1993, is where one-time veterinarian Hans Kiltz made about 20 vintages, all of them interesting. When he retired, the winery was purchased by Paul Brunner, a mining engineer and a wine enthusiast. Bailey Williamson, (right) a seasoned Okanagan winemaker, was recruited to manage the cellar. Under new ownership, the winery has continually expanded. The spectacularly designed winery now is the showpiece in the Cowichan Valley.
Blue Grouse has just cleared more of its forested site to plant more vines. The original 8½-acre vineyard had already been doubled to 15 acres and will be doubled again. The vineyard expansion increases the winery’s supply of estate-grown fruit. A full production, the vineyard should support 8,000 cases.
Blue Grouse Paula Sparkling 2014 ($30 for 30 cases). This traditional method sparkling wine is a blend of Müller Thurgau, Ortega, Pinot Auxerrois and Riesling. The wine is crisp, with citrus and apple flavours mingled with toasty notes. The wine is creamy on the palate but crisp on the finish. 90.
Blue Grouse Quill Pinot Gris 2017 ($20). Quill means the wine partly or wholly with purchased fruit. This is a fine textural wine with aromas and flavours of pear and citrus. 88.
Blue Grouse Estate Pinot Gris 2017 ($22). By fermenting 20% of this in French oak, Bailey has added layers of texture and flavour. It still retains the classic notes of pear, apple and citrus. 91.
Blue Grouse Quill Pinot Noir 2015 ($24). The grapes are from another Cowichan Valley vineyard. The wine, fermented with wild yeast, is juicy with silky tannins and flavours of cherry. 89.
Blue Grouse Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($27). The winery web site says this is sold out. If you have some, lay it down for several more years, for it has only just begun to develop to its potential. There is plenty of cherry on the nose and palate. 91.
Emandare Vineyard is an exciting winery that opened near Duncan in 2015 after Mike and Robin Nierychlo, (below) in 2013, bought an 8.5-acre dry-farmed vineyard that had fallen into neglect. They have turned the vineyard around and now make interesting wines. The vineyard had been planted somewhat
Emandare Siegerrebe Gewürztraminer 2016 ($23). This is a field blend of 63% Siegerrebe and 37% Gewürztraminer. The wine begins with floral and spicy aromas that lead to flavours of citrus and green apple. It is crisp on the finish. 90.
Emandare Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($30). Emandare has the oldest block of Sauvignon Blanc on Vancouver Island (coming up to 18 years). The wine begins with aromas of lime, continuing to a complex bouquet of melon, gooseberry and citrus flavours. 91.
Emandare Rosé 2017 ($25). This is another field blend: 64% Maréchal Foch, 19% Tempranillo, 10% Siegerrebe, 4% Malbec and 3% Carménère. The wine is juicy on the palate, with a bowl full of fruit flavours – raspberry, strawberry, watermelon and cranberry. The finish dry and crisp. 90.
Emandare Clara 2017 ($28 for 375 ml). Mike and Robin called this wine Clara to celebrate the birth of their daughter. It is a back-sweetened Siegerrebe dessert wine, hitting just the right note of sweetness that is splendidly balanced with acidity. It is delicately aromatic with flavours of lime. 90.
Emandare Pinot Noir 2015 ($45). This wine was aged in neutral oak to preserve the bright fruit flavours that the vineyard provides. The wine has flavours of cherry, raspberry and cranberry. The texture is still firm enough to suggest the wine has a few years of potential to develop further in the bottle. 90.
40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery, which is located within earshot of the Comox air base, was acquired in 2014 by Brenda Hetman-Craig and her husband, Layne, (below) from founder Bill Hamilton. They have re-energized the winery, now one of the island’s most popular tasting rooms. They have relied on
40 Knots Chardonnay 2017 (tank sample). This wine display’s Michael Bartier’s mastery of this varietal. This wine is brimming with flavours of apple and citrus. 90.
Kukatás Wines is new to the island. It is a label owned by Daniel Dragert and his winemaking partner, Mira Tusz (below). Daniel is the winemaker at Averill Creek. The bulk of the grapes come from the three acres of Pinot Noir and Ortega in the Saanich Peninsula that formerly supported a winery called Domaine Rochette. Daniel and Mira’s winemaking style produces quite complex wines.
The name of this winery reflects the owners’ shared Hungarian heritage. The word, they explain means “research, inquisition, exploration or quest.” To buy these wines, call the producers at (250) 858-2339. And keep an eye out for a traditional method sparkling wine which is in progress.
Kukatás Ortega 2015 ($18.75 wholesale for 125 cases). This savoury white was fermented with wild yeast, one-third in barrel, two-thirds in stainless steel. There are herbal and floral aromas leading to a rich palate with flavours of citrus. The finish is dry. 90.
Kukatás Pinot Gris 2016 ($18.75 wholesale for 60 cases). This wine was barrel-fermented with natural yeast. It was allowed to go through malolactic fermentation and has extended lees contact. The result is a richly textured wine with flavours of ripe pear and apple, along with a hint of vanilla. 91.
Kukatás Rosé 2015 ($18.75 for 170 cases). This wine counters the usual rule that rosé wines are not made to be aged. Mira and Daniel maintain this wine has an aging potential of 10 years, or more. The wine is made with Pinot Noir. The grapes had four days on the skins and were barrel-fermented in French oak with wild yeast. A deep-coloured rosé, it has flavours of cherry and ripe strawberry. 91.
Kukatás Pinot Noir Whole Bunches 2016 ($NA). This wine has the texture to develop well in the bottle for many years. It is an intense wine, with aromas and flavours of cherry. 90.
Kukatás Pinot Noir 2016 ($NA). This is a bold, deeply flavoured Pinot Noir with aromas and flavours of cherry and vanilla. 91.
Rathjen Cellars is a new winery getting ready to open this summer in the Saanich Peninsula. Vintner Mike Rathjen has, as he puts it, “inherited” vineyards that supplied two Saanich wineries, Dragonfly Hill Vineyard and the now-closed Starling Lane Winery. He also took over Dragonfly Hill’s license and has been operating from there while he completes his own facility nearby.
He was mentored in winemaking with his brother-in-law, Mike Nierychlo. When he started making wine in his Victoria home, he referred to his cellar as the wine bunker. He appropriated the name for two of the labels.
Rathjen Cellars Wine Bunker White 2016 ($20). This is a blend of Schönburger, Epicure and Petit Milo. The aromatics of the Schönburger lift the nose of a wine that is a mouth full of tropical fruit flavours. 89.
Rathjen Cellars Pinot Gris 2016 ($30). This crisp, refreshing white has aromas and flavours of citrus, pear and apple. 90.
Rathjen Cellars Rosé 2016 ($20). This is a blend of 2/3 Gamay Noir and 1/3 Pinot Noir. A dry wine, it has a delicate rose petal hue and aromas and flavours of raspberry. 90.
Rathjen Cellars Wine Bunker Red 2015 ($22). This full-bodied red blend is 50% Gamay Noir, 25% Pinot Noir and 25% Maréchal Foch. It has flavours of plum and black cherry with a hint of coffee and chocolate. 90.
Rathjen Cellars Pinot Noir 2015 ($35). The wine is made with four clones of Pinot Noir (not identified). The flavours are bright, with notes of cherry, and the wine has a silky texture. 91.
Salt Spring Vineyards and Winery, which opened in 2003, is operated by two doctors, Joanne and Devlin McIntyre (below). They can claim to be the oldest winery on Salt Spring Island because, as the story goes, the inspector dropped off their license before going next door to Garry Oaks Vineyards.
Salt Spring Karma 2014 ($33.90). This is a traditional method sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wine’s instant appeal begins with its creamy impact on the palate, where flavours of apple mingle with toasty lees. 92.
Salt Spring Pinot Gris 2017 ($20.90). One-third of the blend was lightly oak-aged for texture. The wine is still crisp, with flavours of citrus and pear. 90.
Salt Spring Rosé 2017 ($18.40). Made with Pinot Noir, the wine has a pale rose petal hue. It has aromas and flavours of raspberry and strawberry, with a crisp, refreshing finish. 90.
Salt Spring Millotage 2017 ($21.75). This proprietary red is a blend of Leon Millot and Pinot Noir. The wine has a juicy texture, with flavours of plum and cherry. 90.
Salt Spring Blackberry O.M.G. NV ($20.87). The winery says that there is a pound of wild blackberries in each bottle. You can believe it when the berry flavours explode from the glass and on the palate. 91.
Venturi Schulze Vineyards was opened in 1993 by Giordano Venturi and his partner, Marilyn Schulze. They are noted for their meticulous viticulture as well as for Giordano’s creativity in the cellar. Among the legendary products here is a very fine balsamic vinegar.
Venturi Schulze Madeleine Sylvaner 2014 ($15.79). This is a bargain for a wine almost sold out. With good acidity, it has aromas and tangy flavours of pears and green apples. 88.
Venturi Schulze Brut Naturel 2013 ($32.10). This is a traditional method wine made from Auxerrois grapes. It begins with aromas of herbs mingled with toasty lees; this is echoed on the palate. The finish is crisp. 90.
Venturi Schulze Millefiore 2014 ($23.10). The name means one thousand flowers. The wine is a blend of Siegerrebe and Ortega. It delivers a bowl of tropical fruit flavours with spice and herbs on the dry finish. 90.
Venturi Schulze Siegerrebe 2016 ($20.99). This is a refreshing wine, with aromas of spice and herbs leading to intense fruity flavours (lime, lychee). 91.
Venturi Schulze Pinot Gris 2016 ($24.99). Because the ferment stopped when it decided it was finished, there is a slight amount of residual sugar here. It is delicious, with peachy flavours. 90.
Venturi Schulze Raven The Thief 2016 ($29.99). This is a blend of Zweigelt and Pinot Noir, a really good pairing. The wine is juicy and brimming with red berry flavours (cherry, cranberry) and plum. The wine was named for a raven in the vineyard that was stealing eggs. 90.
Venturi Schulze Pinot Noir 2014 ($45.10). This wine is from one of the island’s best recent vintages. It is a rich wine, with cherry and plum flavours blended with notes of oak and spice. 91.