Each spring at Averill Creek Vineyard on Vancouver Island, the slopes take on a peculiar look. Where you would expect to see verdant vines, the vista is obscured by sheets of grey plastic, draped over each row in an inverted V shape to form elongated tents. They're temporary greenhouses, designed to harness heat and accelerate foliage growth until the warm weather arrives.
Owner Andy Johnston believes that the technique, also used by several neighbouring wineries, is the key to growing world-class pinot noir on the climatic fringe of the wine world. "It turns a $12 wine into a $30 wine," he says.
Greenhouse grapes are part of the hardscrabble story of winemaking on British Columbia's coastal islands, where a blend of determination, ingenuity and luck can sometimes lead to impressive results.
Located at about the 49th parallel, the region sits at the northern extreme of the grape-growing map. Summers are short, but the days are long. In mercifully dry, sunny years, early-ripening noble varieties such as pinot noir and pinot gris can yield fresh, elegant wines. Hardier but less popular varieties, notably marechal foch, can make satisfyingly meaty reds. In poor years, 2007 and 2010 among them, the results can be harshly acidic, coincidentally best enjoyed with a plate of fresh local seafood or cheese.
"The trick with Vancouver Island wines is to at least taste some of them with food," says John Schreiner, a veteran West Coast critic and the author of The Wineries of British Columbia. "They'll show a lot better than if you sat down and had them on their own."
Averill Creek, near Duncan in the Cowichan Valley just north of Victoria, is an essential destination for any wine lover touring this region of lush forests and jaw-dropping ocean panoramas.
The coastal industry, which includes estates on several Gulf Islands, could hardly have a more devoted ambassador than Mr. Johnston. Before starting Averill Creek in 2001, the retired physician honed his oenological skills at estates in Tuscany, Bordeaux, Australia and New Zealand.
Averill Creek's 2006 pinot noir and 2009 pinot noir reserve, richly fruited yet bracingly crisp, would probably impress fans of red Burgundy, the standard-bearer for pinot noir. "For me, this is one of the best places in Canada to grow pinot," says Mr. Johnston, a long-time collector with a keen palate.
While Mr. Johnston holds steadfastly to the grow-local model, other players have chosen a different route to survival in this marginal climate. Muse Winery and Church & State Wines, to name two, source much of their fruit from the warm south Okanagan Valley on the mainland. It's a controversial approach that some say distorts the young region's winemaking identity. Is it island wine? You be the judge.
Averill Creek Vineyard
The attractive modern building, Mediterranean landscaping and quaint patio make this one of the Pacific Ocean's most inviting wine-country destinations. On a slope of Mount Prevost, owner Andy Johnston combines an intense wine passion with his physician's intellectual rigour to craft impressive pinot noirs and pinot grises. Also worth a try is his Beaujolais-like red, amusingly named Foch Eh. Bring some local island cheese and a loaf from True Grain Bread in the nearby town of Cowichan Bay and enjoy a blissful meal on the outdoor patio. 250-709-9986, www.averillcreek.ca.
Roger and Nancy Dosman planted their first vines near Duncan in the Cowichan Valley in 1994, which makes them pioneers by island standards. The converted barn and rustic porch feel more like a conventional farm than a winery, and Mr. Dosman, dressed in jeans and a checked flannel shirt on a day I visited, refreshingly comes across more like a no-nonsense prairie rancher than an effete wine snob. "About 90-per-cent of winemaking is cleaning up," he says by way of summarizing his craft. After years of tinkering with less-successful varieties, Alderlea has settled on a small portfolio of grapes, including pinot noir, marechal foch and an unusual cross between foch and cabernet sauvignon). The small tasting room is closed in the summer and opens during the September-October period when each season's new white wines are released. 250-746-7122, www.alderlea.com.
Italian-born Giordano Venturi speaks with as much enthusiasm about vinegar as wine. A native of the balsamic capital of Modena, he grew up too poor to afford a taste of authentic balsamic, which is aged for years in small barrels and can sell for $50 or more (versus $5 to $10 for ersatz supermarket varieties). With the attention to detail of a fine violin maker, Mr. Venturi has been crafting his own from grapes harvested on the property since 1990. It's a lightly sweet, syrupy nectar ($49.90 for a small bottle) designed for use as a condiment rather than salad dressing. With his wife, Marilyn, a microbiologist, and her daughter, Michelle Schulze, he also makes a top-notch bubbly as well as several still wines. They were the first to tent vines with plastic on Vancouver Island. A newly finished tasting room, complete with a gorgeous bar top hewn from several local hardwoods, and the picnic patio are fine venues to sip. 250-743-5630, www.venturischulze.com.
Formerly called Chalet Estate, this charmingly situated winery on the Saanich Peninsula sits across the road from the chi-chi Deep Cove Chalet restaurant, the latter with its gorgeous view of the water. Peter Ellman, a former marketing executive with a Napa Valley winery, and his wife, Jane, a former manager with the Marriott hotel chain, took over the property three years ago. Keen to establish Muse as a tourist draw, they run a bistro, banquet hall and open-air theatre. "This is just a show winery; we don't want to work too hard," says Mr. Ellman, who purchases much of his fruit from estates in the Okanagan Valley and ages it in fine, hand-me-down oak barrels secured from such top Napa estates as Opus One and Pahlmeyer. The Merlot and Grande Dame Rouge are excellent. 250-656-255, www.musewinery.ca.
Church & State Wines
On the outskirts of Victoria near Butchart Gardens lies Vancouver Island's showplace winery. The imposing chalet-style building, with a wraparound porch, large tasting bar and cavernous restaurant, makes some of the island's top-ranked wines, though most are based on Okanagan fruit from the mainland. The style tends to be oaky and vaguely sweet, reminiscent of many 1990s California fruit bombs, but the pinot gris, made from fruit grown on the property, is an island standout. 250-652-2671, www.churchandstatewines.com.
No, it's not a winery. But a sip of cold, hard cider (the stuff with alcohol) makes for a refreshing detour for those who love the stuff, and I do. Sit at long tables in the large, barn-like tasting room in Saanichton and choose a "flight" of several varieties, ranging from bone-dry to sweet. The dry Flagship, made from empire winter and banana apples, tastes like apple pie washed down with good sparkling wine. 250-544-4824, www.seacider.ca.
Tucked away on a tree-lined rural road near Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula, this rustic building can at first seem like the front for a bootlegging operation. But the gleaming, German-crafted copper still, with its bulbous form, looks more like the Tik-Tok mechanical man of Return To Oz than a makeshift moonshine contraption. Peter Hunt, the Hollywood-handsome distiller of this small, family-run operation, who also boasts a master's degree in molecular biology, makes superb hooch. In addition to the acclaimed Victoria Gin, he crafts fine eau de vies, aromatic bitters and a new offering called Left Coast Hemp Vodka, distilled from locally grown organic hemp seed. How's that for an authentic Vancouver Island tipple? 250-544-8217, www.victoriaspirits.com.
Blue Grouse Estate Winery (for the black muscat); de Vine Vineyards (for The Vixen pinot noir); Saturna Island Family Estate Winery (for the rosé); Starling Lane Winery (for the pinot noir and historic old farm property once owned by "Hanging Judge" Matthew Baillie Begbie, B.C.'s first chief justice); and Vigneti Zanatta Winery and Vineyards (for the bubbly).