If you read my last blog post, you’ll know the Cowichan Valley, is gearing up to be British Columbia’s next powerhouse wine district. This southern Vancouver Island community is as rich in wine passion as they are grape-growing potential.
Vancouver Island is already widely respected for its restaurants and ‘locally sourced’ culinary philosophy. With Mother Nature’s bounty of fresh local seafood, farm produce and wild forest foods at its door, the Cowichan Valley is proud to be a Canadian flag-bearer for ‘eating local’. What’s more, Island restaurants have shown fierce allegiance to their Cowichan viticulture neighbours, championing the wine maxim ‘what grows together, goes together’. The outstanding natural balance between wine fruitiness and fresh acidity makes Island wines a beautiful match with just about any style of cuisine. In fact, many restaurants prepare menus to compliment the local wines vs. treating wine as a compliment to food.
Jess Howard, Director of Food Service at the legendary Sooke Harbour House in Sooke, Vancouver Island, is a huge supporter of Cowichan wines. “Go to any restaurant on the island and you’ll see Cowichan Valley wines on the list,” says Howard. “At Sooke, we offer a fine dining experience and Island wines are critical to that guest experience,” she says. “Some wineries, like Unsworth, Emandare and Venturi-Schulze are permanent additions to our list, and other Island wineries we rotate through,” says Howard. Indeed, Sooke Harbour’s menus are celebrated for promoting seasonal, organic cuisine and regional wines. “These wines are exceptionally food-friendly. The low alcohol, good acidity and medium-bodied wines that we get with cool climate growing makes them perfect for food pairing,” she says. “The wine industry here is young. Appreciation for the amazing wines on this Island community is only going to get better,” she predicts.
Did I mention Cowichan is about as Cool as Cool-Climate Grape-Growing Gets?
Just google ‘climate change’ to appreciate the current race amongst global vintners to purchase cool-climate vineyards that ensure natural, crisp acidity. Fortunately, the Cowichan Valley has fresh acidity in spades. In fact, all winemakers I spoke to say the Cowichan Valley has a magical climatic troika: long summer days filled with photosynthesis-rich sunlight hours, warm dry summers and temperate winters (ahem – warmest average temperature in Canada), and reliably cool evenings. Add to this, the picturesque Cowichan Valley beauty, and you’ve got the makings of a premium wine destination.
For now (read: climate change a grape changer), cool climate varietals like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Ortega, Gewürztraminer and a host of hybrids perform best in the Valley. These hybrid grapes hail from similarly ‘weathered’ northern European regions like Alsace, Germany and Switzerland and include Maréchal Foch, Cabernet Foch, Petite Milo, Leon Millot and Cabernet Libre and Sauvignette – to name a few. Indeed many of these cold-hardy hybrids – promising late blooming and early ripening – deliver wines with tremendous complexity, rich mid-palate fruit, and cool climate freshness that promise great drinking now and in the future.
Charme de L’Isle – The Sparkling Wines of Cowichan Valley
The real heavy hitter in the Cowichan Valley these days is a ‘Prosecco’ inspired, sparkling partnership called Charme de L’Isle led by Unsworth Vineyards. A unique, regionally specific, registered name, Charme de L’Isle exploded on the Island wine scene in 2010 and features only grapes grown in the Cowichan Valley and Saltspring region. The name offers a fun spin on the Charmat tank or Prosecco method, where the second fermentation happens in a pressurized stainless steel tank and the wine gets bottled under high pressure. Of course, the Cowichan Valley has the same cool climate temperatures that have made Champagne famous and more recently,Champagne- method sparkling in the UK, Wales and Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley here in Canada.
According to the Vinexpo 2016 study by IWSR – the world’s largest database measuring the alcohol market – global sparkling wine consumption is expected to rise by 7.4% through to 2019 which means the world will be drinking 2.7 Billion bottles of sparkling wine a year. Consumption of non-Champagne sparkling wines, driven by the Charmat method or Prosecco styles, is leading the way.
“When we first bought Unsworth in 2009, very few people gave Vancouver Island wines a second thought,” says Unsworth CEO Tim Turyk. “My consultants were telling me we should focus on a Charmat or Prosecco method sparkling strategy. It would make us unique from the other 350+ wineries in BC and it would help build awareness of Unsworth and Vancouver Island wine. It also made the most sense given the terroir and cool climate strengths of the area,” says Turyk.
Turyk and his winemaking team canvassed Cowichan Valley and Gulf Island wineries to see who was willing to commit to purchasing the equipment (pressurized fermentation tank and counter-pressure bottling line) and a future of Charmat style sparking. “We were betting on the future because the Prosecco boom hadn’t really happened yet,” says Turyk. “We found four partners in our community who agreed to help us create Charme de L’Isle, a ‘Made-on-Vancouver Island’ brand of sparkling. Averill Creek’s Andy Johnson was the first partner to climb onboard. Salt Spring Vineyards (across the Strait) and Enrico Winery also joined in,” he says. According to Turyk, the strength-in-numbers strategy would help pay for the tank and the associated shipping costs. The strategic plan sees individual wineries making their own base wine and Unsworth winemaker, Dan Wright, supervising the second fermentation, working with the individual wineries on dosage decisions.
“It wasn’t an easy ride getting the equipment from Italy, but we wanted a tank that offered 5 (atmosphere) bars of bottle pressure which is what you get with Champagne,” he said. In the world of bubbles, the higher the pressure, the more fine the bubbles, the better quality the sparkling experience. “This is not your average, low pressure wine,” says Turyk.
Eight years later, it appears awareness of Cowichan Valley wines has changed dramatically. What I personally like about Tim’s attitude is his appreciation that in order to build his own Unsworth wine brand, he needs to build the Island brand first. “People are pleasantly surprised by the quality of our Valley wines and our sparkling strategy definitely helped,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of promotion and a lot of pouring, and we’re way over on our marketing budget, but it’s paid off. We’re on almost every wine list on the Island and on many BC mainland lists.”
Jess Howard of Sooke Harbour agrees. “Charme de L’Isle is hugely popular at our weddings and by the glass in our fine dining room and the Copper Room. Sparkling makes it a special occasion and the beautiful bottle presentation that Unsworth has for their Charme de L’Isle, the lovely taste profile and the great pricing makes this wine really special for our guests.”
When I started my wine journey in the Cowichan Valley it was clear the wines were a well-kept secret beyond the island. These are beautiful, impressive cool climate wines and Charme de L’Isle is a smart, inclusive winemaking strategy that will definitely help grow the Island brand. I don’t expect these wines will be a secret for much longer.
Charme de L’isle: Charmat x 4
The interesting thing about the Charme de L’Isle cross-island collaboration is each winery decides on which grapes to blend to create the base wine and each local winery manages the bottle design and brand presentation. The cuvee is then delivered to Unsworth for the second tank fermentation and bottling.
Unsworth Vineyards – Charme De L’Isle – $21.65 – Vancouver Island DVA
Varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignette – a unique Vancouver Island grape variety
CDL Facts: 11.5% alcohol, Residual Sugar 5 g/L, pH 3.2%
Tim Turyk wants readers to know that his son was the brain-child behind the clever name, Charme de L’Isle. That said, Turyk is taking credit for the gorgeous, frosted Italian bottle that oozes class. “It’s a rare bottle and you have to print directly on the bottle, which isn’t easy,” sighs Turyk. But then, who ever said owning a winery was easy?
Tasting Notes: Light, fresh summer fruit bouquet, with good fruit concentration. Vibrant citrus notes, green apple and apricot on the palate. Dry, beautifully balanced with an elegant, fine stream of bubbles and distinct mineral finish.
I had Charme in proper stemware at the winery and then in a tin camping cup, kayaking the gorgeous northern British Columbia waters of the Johnston Strait. It definitely added sparkle to that magical occasion.
Enrico Winery – 2016 Charme De L’Isle – Celebration – $24 – Vancouver Island DVA
Varietal: 100% Enrico Pinot Gris
CDL Facts: Residual Sugar 4 g/L, Alcohol 12%
Enrico Vineyard’s 50 acres of vines are located 10 kilometres inland from the eastern coast in south Cowichan Valley. The winery is verdant and charming and the day I was there, a vintage car show was on display alongside the rows of grapes while kids honed their strategy skills at the oversized chess-board.
I sampled Enrico’s version of Charme de L’Isle along with some amazing Cabernet hybrids – Cabernet Libre (Braveheart) and Cabernet Foche (Long Sword), both of which are proof positive that hybrids can produce outstanding wine. Sadly, the Charme/Celebration was sold-out.
According to Enrico winemaker, Dean Canadzich, it’s almost impossible to keep Charme on the shelf: “The nice, fine bubbles, beautiful aromatics and friendly price point make this an amazing Charmat sparkling.” Canadzich notes all four of the Charme partner wines are excellent and all participating wineries make the wine a little differently. “We stir the lees for a week which gives our Charme a rich, buttery character and the single varietal “gris” adds lovely fruit character and really pretty aromatics.” Canadzich says Enrico has been making Charme with Unsworth since 2012 and each year, it’s a little different. “Over the years we’ve mixed up the varietals but we’ve had great results with Gris. We’ll be expanding the product line going forward and plan to add a blush.”
Tasting Notes: Enrico’s Charme de L’Isle is a NWAC 16 Gold Medal Winner. This is delicate, zesty sparkling wine with fine bubbles and refreshing acidity. Lovely perfumed aromatics, it’s citrus-rich with hints of honey and spring flowers and nutty, marzipan notes on the finish.
Averill Creek Vineyards – Charme De L’Ile – $21.48 – Vancouver Island DVA
Varietals: 100% Island Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir
Perched on a hill in a stunning garden setting, Averill Creek is a winery with ambience to bottle. Sub-branded ‘Island Sparkle’, the Charme is as successful a wine here, as it is at the four other wineries.
Tasting Notes: We enjoyed our Charme on the outside patio overlooking the Valley. This light body sparkling is fresh, bright and perfect for summer drinking. Floral notes mix with crisp apple fruit and pears and finish with a distinct wet stone streak.
Saltspring Island Vineyards– 2014 Charme De L’Ile – $24.00 – Gulf Islands DVA
Varietals: made from 100% Salt Spring Island Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Petite Milo
CDL Facts: Residual Sugar 13.9 g/L, Alcohol 12%, pH 3.27, Titratable Acidity 6.8,
My, oh my, this is another beauty of a vineyard. I slipped across the Georgia Strait (30 minute ferry ride from Crofton in the Cowichan Valley) to Saltspring Island to explore this hippie happy, organic everything, gem of an island. Set against the beautiful Mount Maxwell range, the winery joined forces with Unsworth in 2014 and has so far created one batch or 300 cases of Charme.
According to Saltspring Vineyard’s manager Heidi Crouse, the experience with Unsworth was fantastic. “It’s such a tight community in the Valley with the Wine Island Grower’s Association and all the winemakers supporting each other. Everyone is working to help build the wine-producing reputation of the region.” According to Crouse, the Saltspring Charme offers more of a citrus taste profile. “It’s a beautiful product and our visitors love it. We sold out a while ago but we will definitely do this again. It’s been such a positive experience for us.”
Tasting Notes: Crisp and fruity, this Charme de L’Isle offers an off-dry sparkling experience with hints of mandarin orange, green apple and almond nuttiness. Fine bubbles deliver a fresh, exhilarating fizz. Enjoy in the gardens with the local ducks and a picnic lunch!