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Visiting British Columbia’s Wine Islands

BC’s Gulf Islands aren’t located in a gulf. Instead, the twenty or so islands are nestled against the sheltered southeastern coast of Vancouver Island and are bordered by the Strait of Georgia.

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With a balmy climate sometimes compared to the Mediterranean, the Gulf Islands are a favorite retreat for outdoor adventurers-and, more recently, wine lovers.

Grape growing is relatively new to the Gulf Islands. The first vines in the region were planted on Vancouver Island in the 1980s; commercial sales didn’t really begin until the late 1990s. Now, business is booming and the awards are sailing in. Currently there are seven wineries and about 100 acres planted to grapes on five Gulf Islands.

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Salt Spring and Garry Oaks

Salt Spring and Garry Oaks

Salt Spring Vineyards and Garry Oaks Vineyards, both located on Salt Spring Island, are just down the road from each other, but visiting the neighbours makes it clear just how truly individual the Gulf Island wine growers are. All the wineries work with similar climatic conditions, grape varietals and watering restrictions. And all of them practice a combination of sustainable and organic methods. But none of the wineries produces a wine that tastes like any other.

My husband and I stopped in at Salt Spring Vineyards first. Owners Bill and Jan Harkley were away, but Colleen Bowen was in the busy tasting room helping a group of tourists make their way through the wines. “The wines go well with food. They’re meant to be enjoyed,” Bowen explained as she paired each wine with a local cheese.

A few of the wines, including the yummy Apple Pie made from organic Salt Spring apples, were already sold out. (This was true at all of the vineyards, as production does not yet keep pace with demand.) But the 2006 Millotage was available. A combination of Salt Spring-grown Leon Millot and Marechal Foch, it carried a big fruity flavor. There was also the 2006 Pinot Blanc, made with grapes grown on Salt Spring and the Saanich Peninsula, which smelled of kiwi and had a delicate tropical flavor. Bowen said the real hit was the sparkling 2005 Morning Star, which is blended from Saanich Pinot Noir and island Chardonnay.

From the casual friendliness of Salt Spring Vineyards, we made our way to the elegant beauty of Garry Oaks Vineyards. Owners Elaine Kozak and Marcel Mercier do everything at the winery and Kozak left her culling work to walk us through the terraced vines. “Coastal grapes ripen less predictably than in other regions,” she said. “We need to work with what we get. Sometimes we need to get creative.”

We sampled the 2006 Pinot Gris first. The dry white wine was light and fresh with hints of pear and citrus. The estate-grown 2005 Pinot Noir-with a scent of cherries and a fruity, smoky finish-was so good I had to ask if they were truly sold out of everything. Kozak explained that the vineyard produces 1,700 cases a year and, between farm-gate sales and supplying regional restaurants, “everything goes.”

That evening, we returned to our hotel, a Sussex-style manor called the Hastings House. In the intimate dining room, with the memory of the Garry Oak Pinots still lingering, I ordered the chef’s menu and paired it with a Garry Oak Pinot Gris. Chef Marcel Kauer put together a delicious meal: a Bright Farm tomato and Moonstruck feta cheese salad to start, followed by oysters with shaved fennel and wild artic char with a Chanterelle mushroom risotto.

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Morning Bay and Saturna Island

Morning Bay and Saturna Island

The next morning we caught the early ferry so we could tour two more vineyards, on two more islands: Pender and Saturna.

Keith Watt and Barbara Reid were waiting at Morning Bay Vineyards. Morning Bay is one of the newer Gulf Island vineyards and that year’s release included the first of their estate-bottled wine. The waterfront location does have its challenges-the grapes were less ripe than the ones on Salt Spring-but Watt says he believes the climate can work for him. “The long season leads to a low alcohol wine. It tends to be crisp and food friendly. And you can drink it all afternoon.”

The 2006 Bianco was their first estate release. A blend of Schonberger, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling, it’s light and crisp, and gently perfumed. The 2006 estate Gewurztraminer had a bright citrus flavor that would pair nicely with local seafood. Watt said one of their most popular wines is a rose called Chiaretto (he proved the point when a local stopped in to buy a bottle). The 2006 Chiaretto is made from estate grown Pinot Noir and has a smooth, light, fruity flavor.

After finishing at Morning Bay, we headed to the dock at Poet’s Cove for a picturesque boat ride to Saturna Island. Saturna Island Family Estate Winery is the oldest in the Gulf Islands. The 60 acres of vines produce a sufficient quantity (and quality) of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Merlot grapes to fill the 12,000 cases the winery bottles annually.

In the tasting room, I made my way through the wines. The Gewurztraminer, which I liked on a previous visit, was sold out. But the crisp 2006 Pinot Gris made a great choice for patio sipping. We also tried the two Chardonnays; the 2006 unoaked was creamy feeling and tasted of green apple, while the 2005 oaked version had a classic buttery finish. There were also two Pinot Noirs available. The 2006 had a wonderful full-bodied feel with a cherry finish.

A little while later, we returned to Poet’s Cove. I sorted through our wine purchases and decided the perfect hot tub wine was Morning Bay’s Bianco. Glass in hand, we watched the moon rise over the forest and toasted the winemakers of the Gulf Islands.

Winery Contacts:

Saturna Island Family Estate Winery
8 Quarry Rd., Saturna Island, BC
(250) 539-5139

Morning Bay Vineyard
6621 Harbour Hill, Pender Island, BC
(250) 629-8351

Salt Spring Vineyards
151 Lee Rd., Salt Spring Island, BC
(250) 653-9463

Garry Oaks Winery
1880 Fulford-Ganges Rd., Saltspring Island, BC
(250) 653-4687

BC Ferries (reservations are recommended for some Gulf Island runs)

Where to Stay:

Hastings House Resort
Suites and cottages range from $295.00 – $900.00 per night
160 Upper Ganges Road, Salt Spring Island, B.C.
(250) 537-2362

Poets Cove Resort and Spa
Rooms and cottages range from $175.00 – $600.00 per night
Tours can be arranged to wineries, art galleries and the Salt Spring Market
9801 Spalding Road, South Pender Island, BC