While Canada is perhaps best known for its wines from the Niagara Peninsula in the east and the Okanagan in interior of British Columbia, Vancouver Island has its own claim to part of the Canadian wine story.
Despite a myriad of diversions on my visit to Vancouver Island — whales, bakeries, goats, views, cider and racing cars — I did manage to visit two wineries.
The island has 37 licensed wineries, according to winebc.com, which reports, “Winemaking began around 1920 with wines produced from loganberries by the District of Saanich based Growers’ Wine Company.”
By 1990, however, the island was growing grapes, more than 100 varieties, including unusual ones like ortega and auxerrois.
I followed a wine route north from Victoria into the Cowichan Valley; but vineyard sightings were few amidst the lush forests and farmlands. Wineries mingle with pastures, orchards, and gardens.
My first stop was Unsworth Vineyards, whose sparkling wines I’d admired at a winemakers dinner at the Oak Bay Hotel in Victoria.
Unsworth is the kind of winery where the first person you meet, the man observing the chickens roaming through the grapevines, is the owner.
Tim Turyk worked for more than 40 years in Canada’s fishing industry before he decided to try something different. He and his wife, Colleen, bought a small vineyard in the Cowichan Valley where his family from the mainland had vacationed for several generations. (Turyk named it Unsworth, his mother’s maiden name.)
The Turyks have developed the vineyards and winery, built a tasting room and opened a restaurant in the 19th century farm house on the property.
At dinner in the farmhouse, Turyk and his son Chris, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, poured Unsworth wines. The farmhouse restaurant is overseen by Chef Maartyn Hoogeveen and Manager Mark Niven, the menu has a sophisticated simplicity, inspired by ingredients from nearby farmers, local fishermen and their own garden.
The island’s cool temperate climate makes their best grape-growing bets white wines and pinot noir, Tim Turyk said. Unsworth makes riesling, pinot gris and a white from the sauvignette grape variety grown on the island. Sauvignette is part of the blend that makes up their Charme de l’Ile sparkling wine. Another grape unique to Vancouver Island is the Petit Milo, which they bottle as a single varietal. www.unsworthvineyards.com/
The second winery I visited was Vingeti Zanatta. It’s billed as “Vancouver Island’s first estate winery” and I wasn’t sure what to expect: I found another charming farmhouse surrounded by a few vineyards. And the people carrying boxes from the parking lot into the farmhouse were the owners.
Thirty years ago Dennis Zanatta, an immigrant from Italy, decided to plant grapes on what had been a dairy farm. Today his daughter, Loretta, and her husband, Jim, make the wines and run the winery.
Elaine Williams was presiding over the tasting room in what might have been the farmhouse parlor, and the backrooms have been turned into an outstanding restaurant, run by Chef Fatimah de Silva.
Williams poured a sampling of the Zanatta wines including their elegant pinot nero, made from grapes grown on the winery’s steepest gravel slopes.
One of their most popular wines, Williams said, is Damasco, an intriguing blend of four white grapes ortega, auxerrois, muscat and sylvaner. Light and fresh with a hint of sweetness, it’s “summer in a bottle,” Williams said.
The stars of the tasting, however, were the sparkling wines, which are made in the méthode traditionnelle: a raspberry-colored Allegria Brut from pinot noir and a Brut Tradizionale from pinot noir grapes, another is 100 percent Cayuga grapes.
They also make a limited production and usually sold-out deep red sparkling wine from a blend of cabernet sauvignon and castel grapes. Loretta Zanatta created the Taglio Della Nonna Rosso Bruit as a tribute to her grandmother. It was sold out in the tasting room, but the restaurant had a bottle. So, on a rainy day I sat in by the fireplace in the back room and drank Taglio Rosso with de Silva’s interpretation of “Pork and Beans”: pork belly braised in red wine with 10 secret spices with smoked bacon and white bean cassoulet. I will say this: that meal and wine and the conversations alone are enough reason to buy a plane ticket to Victoria.
Now here’s the shocker: The prices for these wines. Unsworth wines range $20 to $31 (for the pinot) a bottle (Canadian dollars) with the Charme de l’ile $25. The Zanetti wines top-priced wine was the scrumptious Taglio Rosso and the other sparkling wines were around $25 a bottle; but the popular Damasco was $14.91 and Ortega $14.35.
And the U.S. dollar, people kept reminding me, is so strong against the Canadian dollar — well, the only question is how much wine you can carry home.
I was asked by several people: Is Vancouver Island the Napa of the North? Here is what I think: I visited wineries that are small, family-owned and driven by the challenge of producing premium quality wines, sat down to eat dinner in an old farmhouse with one vintner, and met another unloading boxes from her station wagon. It harkens back to a Napa Valley that one might have discovered 50 or 60 years ago; but I’d hazard a guess that the wines they are producing on Vancouver Island today far surpass in quality to most of the wines you might have tasted in Napa then.