Island wineries depend on hybrid grapes

The cool, moist climate of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands makes growing Chardonnay difficult and Cabernet Sauvignon virtually impossible. Many of the Islands’ wineries vineyards grow hybrid grapes that ripen early and resist mildew.

Writing recently at about breaking wine trends we can expect to see in North America in 2019, Jon Bonné suggested that the wider wine world was recognizing hybrid grape varieties: “… this is the biggest thing in years to happen for local wine communities outside of the well-known U.S. wine regions, merging the pragmatism of cold-weather grapes with the birth of a new cool.”

Petit Milo is a complex hybrid, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon, the American species Riperia and the Asian species Amurensis. It is one of the Blattner hybrids championed in B.C. by Salt Spring Vineyard’s winemaker Paul Troop.

A crisp white blend of Petit Milo and Epicure wine grapes, Salt Spring Vineyards Evolution $21.75 manages to capture the brightness of Island grown fruit with flavours of Granny Smith apple and fresh sliced pear and subtle undernotes of ripe yellow melon.

Farther north on Quadra Island growing wine grapes in very challenging conditions, SouthEnd Farm Winery makes a rosé from estate grown hybrid Petit Milo co-fermented on the skins of Okanagan Valley Cabernet Franc. SouthEnd Bara $18.69 is dry and crisp, melding the almost tropical peach and lime notes of Petit Milo with a peppery splash of black raspberry.

Many of the Islands’ wineries planted Pinot Noir vines. Warmer, drier summers – attributable to Global Warming – and mature 15 yr. old vines producing more complex fruit are beginning to produce rosé and red wines from Pinot Noir that are finally being recognized for their subtlety and elegance.

Begun in 2001, Andy and Wendy Johnson’s Averill Creek Vineyard was first planted with Pinot Noir vines in 2002 and the winery’s first vintage of ‘The Heartbreak Grape’ was in 2005. Light and elegant, Averill Creek 2016 Pinot Noir $30.68 has an clove and earthy tree bark edge underlying its bright, dry cherry, dusky strawberry and raspberry flavours.

Traditional European winemakers in France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal routinely made ‘natural’ wines … and many still do. More ‘dry’ than fruity, these are wines that have been allowed and encouraged to make themselves – without ‘unnatural’ intervention. Often confused with ‘natural’ wines, ‘orange’ wines are currently maybe even trendier.

Rather than being quickly pressed off the skins to produce cloudy grey-green juice that is then fermented, ‘orange’ wines are deliberately soaked – and frequently fermented – on the skins of the grapes they are made from, much like red wines are made. In Comox, with vineyards very close to the Salish Sea, 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery have been making ‘orange’ wine for three years.

The 2017 vintage of 40 Knots L’Orange $36.90 is a blend of estate grown Schonberger and Pinot Gris, fermented and aged on its skins in an Italian Terracotta Amphora. Intensely sweetly, floral peppery aromas of peach and apricot up front frame underlying flavours that are surprisingly dry – apricot, green apple, pineapple and mandarin orange ride an ever so slightly salty base of crushed almonds and pistachios.

Beyond ‘noble’ Pinot Noir and the widespread well-known hybrid Marechal Foch, some interesting red wines are being made from newer Blattner hybrids – Cabernet Libre and Cab Foch. And when was the last time you tasted a dry Black Muscat?

With roots going back to an experimental vineyard planted in the Cowichan Valley in 1977 by pioneering Island viticulturist John Harper in 1977, Blue Grouse Estate Winery is the only known producer of Black Muscat in Canada. In California, where it is more common, much of the harvest is used to make sweet dessert wines.

While Blue Grouse makes a dessert version, they also make a very limited amount of dry red wine from their Black Muscat. Available in very limited quantities Blue Grouse Reserve Muscat $45.00 flaunts intense aromas of blueberries, blackcurrants, sage and rosemary and surprisingly silky dry flavours of black berries, prunes and figs.

Take a break from sipping fruit bombs and explore the lean and elegant wines from The Islands.

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