When you have had enough of the quaint charm of Victoria, it is time to take a break in wine country.
Yes, wine country. The Saanich Peninsula currently has eight producers – include a very good maker of gin and an excellent cider house – that operate tasting rooms. Some are open weekends only and others are open all week from May to October.
These producers are within half an hour of downtown Victoria. Those who prefer not to drive can easily book tours with one of several tour companies.
During the recent Taste festival in Victoria, a food and wine festival dedicated to British Columbia wines, Tourism Victoria hosted a small Saanich Peninsula tour to illustrate the variety of tour options that are available. Only three producers were included on this leisurely tour. It would have been no trick, moving at a faster pace, to visit six, but Victoria and fast pace don’t seem to go together. That’s part of Victoria’s charm.
The first stop was Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse. Now in its fifth year, Sea Cider sells its ciders in private wine stores all over British Columbia and has recently broken into markets in Washington and Oregon.
The idea of making European-style ciders came to owner Kristen Jordan, who was born in Medicine Hat, when she was studying at a college in Wales in 1985. The pubs all had local ciders on tap and she developed a palate for them. She already had a strong interest in apples from a family-owned orchard in the Shuswap.
After immersing herself in a career as an international consultant on food security issues, she bought a former sheep farm on the SaanichPeninsula with a view eastward to the Haro Strait. Here, she planted about 50 varieties of apples on four hectares (10 acres). All 1,200 trees are on dwarf rootstock. It gives the orchard a rather stunted appearance but it also means that the pickers don’t need ladders to gather the fruit.
The cidery, which was built in 2006, has a spacious rustic tasting room – a design probably inspired by those Welsh pubs. And in the spirit of a good publican’s ploughman’s lunch, Sea Cider also offers simple but delicious food to go with the ciders.
We have grown up in British Columbia with apple ciders that are refreshment beverages. Ciders in the European style, while tasty on their own, have flavours and textures that, much the same as wine, pair well with food. At Sea Cider, most are dry or only slightly off-dry sparkling ciders, with moderate alcohols of 6 to 8 percent.
Flagship ($15) is crisp, light and refreshing, with a green apple tang on the dry finish. Kings & Spies ($15) is crisply dry, with a refreshing finish and with good body. It is named for two heritage apple varieties but it is likely to have many more in the mix because Sea Cider buys apples through a social program for local food security, in which pickers harvest the fruit of Victoria area hobby farms.
Rumrunner ($17) has always been one of Sea Cider’s most interesting products, a full-bodied, generously flavoured cider with 12% alcohol. Production includes aging the cider in barrels which are first saturated with a Newfoundland rum called Screech. The result is a cider tasting like baked cinnamon apples, but not as sweet.
In total, there are usually eight or nine ciders on offer here, including Pomona ($25 for a 375 ml bottle), a dessert style product made from crabapples and modelled after Icewine.
The second and third stops on the day were on Old West Saanich Road, a narrow and winding road that – in the classic Victoria pace – cannot be taken too fast. There are actually four producers on this country thoroughfare. Starling Lane Winery is by any measure one of the best wineries on Vancouver Island. Because production is small, the wine shop generally opens on weekends only.
Nearby is Dragonfly Hill Winery, another tiny producer open on weekends or by appointment.
The two we visited are across the road from each other. Victoria Spirits also opens its tasting room and retail store on weekends. If one of the distillers is on hand, they will throw in a small tour to see the German-made still, a work of art as stills sometimes can be.
This producer opened in 2004 as a winery called Winchester Cellars. It was then owned by Ken Winchester, who trained as a distiller inScotland and began making Victoria Gin. Winemaking stopped when he left but the new owner, Victoria doctor Bryan Murray, continued making spirits. Peter Hunt (right), his stepson, harnessed his science degrees to take over as master distiller.
Selling for $50 a bottle, Victoria Gin definitely ranks among the world’s fine premium gins. It is a complex product with 10 botanicals flavouring the blend. As good as this gin is when taken straight, I would suggest taking a bottle of tonic water with you to the tasting room.
Victoria Spirits makes about 1,200 bottles of gin each month, along with a barrel-aged product called Oaken Gin and another spirit called left coast hemp vodka. As well, Peter is working on making a malt whisky.
De Vine Vineyards, on the other side of Old West Saanich Road, occupies a hill top with a dramatic vista over the Strait of Georgia with Mt. Baker on the horizon on a clear day. This view is one reason why the winery, open Thursday through Sunday and by appointment, has added a large patio in front of the wine shop. Here, you can sit with a glass of wine and take in that stunning view.
The winery is a family operation opened two years ago by John and Catherine Windsor. The owner of a real estate portfolio, he bought this Saanich property several years ago as a second home. The Windsors planted vines (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner) to enhance the beauty of the east-facing slopes on the property. The original idea was to sell the grapes to Winchester Cellars. When their neighbour decided against making wine, they retained Ken Winchester as a consultant to launch their own winery. He mentored their daughter-in-law, Natalie, who has now become a very capable winemaker.
De Vine opened its tasting room last year with wines made with Okanagan fruit, in part because the organically-grown vines here are young and in part because it gives the winery more options. Judging from the taste of the wines, de Vine has found vineyards in the Okanagan that grow excellent fruit.
Roussanne 2011 ($20) and VRM 2011 – Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne – ($21) are two 90 point white wines made with Okanagan grapes. Both show rich fruit flavours and aromas, with the Roussanne showing added complexity from having spent a little time in new French oak. Gamay Noir Rosé 2011 ($18) is peppery with cherry flavours and with a dry finish. 89. The winery currently offers a quaffable, full-bodied red, Dornfelder 2011 (88 points), from a grape rarely seen on its own because it often is used to darken the colour of red wines.
From its own vineyard, de Vine has released Pinot Gris 2011 ($15), a light but crisp white with aromas of citrus and with tangy citrus flavours, making it a refreshing wine. 88.
Natalie also makes a fortified dessert wine that changes its constituent fruit every year. Epiphany 2011 ($19) is made with Dornfelder and black currants, giving it a good dark hue and a lovely cassis aroma. The port-style wine is deliberately made not to be overly sweet. 88.
Future releases will include Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir, all from Okanagan fruit. This tasting room merits several visits through the season.
- by John Schreiner at Goodgrog
- North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
John Schreiner is Canada’s most prolific writer of books on wine. Since his first book in 1984, The World of Canadian Wine, he has written 15, including multiple editions of The Wineries of British Columba, British Columbia Wine Country and John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.