Island Terroir The terroir has always drawn me to it. Much like a magnet, it has pulled me in and caressed me with the intrinsic aspects of its landscape. Originally a French term, terroir is used to signify the particular characteristics that a local environment bestows on a crop such as wine, coffee and tea. The soil, the terrain, the microclimate of a place, all aspects of terroir, can really make you feel connected somewhere. The terroir gives a product the identification of ‘place.’ I recently had the opportunity to travel from my Santa Barbara home to the terroir of southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia where a growing number of vineyards and wineries (more than forty) have established themselves over the last two decades. Unlike the larger and more commercial establishments of Washington and Oregon, as well as the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia’s interior, the wineries on Vancouver Island tend to be family run and are often the result of vineyard dreams from earlier professions. Establishing the grape on the Island, as it is commonly referred to, resulted from a government study in the early 1980’s that helped to identify grape varietals that might be grown
successfully. The Pacific Ocean’s moderating influence keeps temperatures from getting either too hot or cold and grapes are able to hang on the vines longer than their interior counterparts in the Northwest. Interesting grape varietals such as Ortega and Blattner thrive with this extended growing season and result in wines of outstanding delicacy and balance. The unique terroir of the region comes through in the soft acidity and rich fruit character of these Island wines and becomes the ‘somewhereness’ in their taste. With a little of this background knowledge in hand, and a little bias towards my hometown wines of Santa Barbara County, I embarked on a reconnaissance of some of the wineries in the southern Vancouver Island area. There are two main areas that I visited, the Saanich peninsula, adjacent to British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria, and the Cowichan Valley, about 30 miles (50 kms) north of Victoria. I explored along the Old West Saanich Road, a charming, winding road that took me through beautiful coniferous forests and past bucolic landscapes. I passed by the picturesque Starling Lane Winery, too early in the day to visit their tasting room, and carried on to Dragonfly Hill Vineyard and Winery. 1
Here I found the oldest vines on the peninsula growing, some of which were planted twenty years ago by winemaker Carol Wallace as cuttings from the Zanatta vineyard in the Cowichan Valley, thirty miles to the north. Dragonfly’s unique terroir elements of artesian water, limestone, great drainage, and its previous life as an apple orchard and strawberry field are well reflected in the taste of the wines Carol produces here. Dragonfly’s Ortega, a blend of Ortega and Pinot Auxerrois grapes, is one of the winery’s popular white wines and exhibits bright floral aromas and hints of green apple in flavor. I had to leave with a bottle to enjoy again later with friends. Carrying on along West Saanich Road took me to the lovely Deep Cove area where Muse Winery occupies a prime niche and the cool ocean air wafts through the vines of Pinot Gris, Ortega and Marechal Foch. Peter and Jane Ellmann spent a long time looking for just the right winery location and immediately felt a connection to this place. In the tasting room Jane talks of their terroir and tells me it is a little different here with the soils having a little more clay to them. Wines such as their Pinot Gris pick up more elements of the soil giving it a slightly earthy flavor. Muse’s Marechal Foch is a full
bodied red wine with deep color and soft tannins that also exhibits a light earthy quality to it. I was delighted to read the back labels of Muse’s wines while enjoying the convivial experience in their tasting room. Their Pinot Gris has been given the name, “Legally Blonde,” with a back label description of, “A festive giddy gal with lots of snappy one-liners. A crisp wit and a tart approach to life…she plays well with others.” I had to agree.
Driving about thirty minutes north of Victoria up Highway 1 took me past spectacular ocean and island vistas and into the Cowichan Valley, an area that boasts the highest average temperature in Canada. With ideal growing conditions, this area has the longest history of winemaking on the island and has the most established vineyards. I have a strong preference for Pinot Noir so I was particularly interested to see how these wines reflected the terroir of the area. I found my way to Rocky Creek 2
Winery and was greeted by owner Linda Holford who escorted me to the cosy tasting room that overlooked rows of Blattner vines (a hybrid Cabernet-Marachel Foch grape). Rocky Creek produces a tasty Pinot Noir that has won several awards. The velvety soft wine had a little fruitiness to the taste but also hints of cloves and pepper. I even detected a lingering butterscotch taste that was unexpected. I was finally beginning to understand the term, liquid art, because just as with any visual art, winemaking requires not only a special skill set but a unique and individual creative talent. Winemaker Mark Holford clearly has an artistic ability with his wines. My taste buds were happily primed for the next treat offered. Like many of the island wineries Rocky Creek uses the abundant fruit (blackberries grow like weeds) on their land to create a dessert style wine. This is not the stuff of my grandfather’s backroom winemaking skills (or lack thereof) but rather a taste explosion of the terroir. You can taste the sun and the rain, the earth, the air. You can taste the Island in this wine. Perhaps it was the previous glass of Pinot Noir clouding my tasting ability, but as I had heard suggested by island friends, the blackberry wine was delicious
enough to pour over gelato. I was offered small bits of salted dark chocolate to pair with a second tasting of the blackberry wine and my taste buds sang with a sensual glee. I left Rocky Creek with a bottle to verify my experience with friends in Santa Barbara.
Giddy with my taste adventures so far I had one last stop to make for the day, at the Merridale Cidery. Vancouver Island has two cideries, Merridale in the Cowichan Valley, and the Sea Cider Farm back on the Saanich Peninsula. Driving up Merridale’s winding gravel entrance road brought me to a parking area surrounded by thirteen acres of apple orchards. I was excited to finish my day tasting some fruity effervescent ciders but as luck would have it a power outage was forcing the cidery to close for the remainder of the day, just as I arrived. Before departing I managed to acquire a bottle of their Traditional Cider, closest in style to 3
English cider. A later tasting allowed me to savor this cider that I found to be crisp, dry and just sparkly enough for the apple flavors to emerge.
Time allowed for only a brief sampling of this emerging wine region. I regret that I did not get to Vancouver Islandâ€™s only Meadery, where hundreds of thousands of honeybees stand in for grapes in the production of honey wine. Mead occupies an important niche in human history, thought of as the ancestor of all fermented drinks. My next visit to this region will have to begin at the Tugwell Creek Meadery, to gain a better appreciation of history of course. I am certain there is nothing compared to the nectar of a honeybee to tell you the secrets of its terroir.