A Little History
The Vancouver Island region has always been generous with its edible feasts. First Nations peoples harvested clams, oysters and salmon from the Salish Sea, augmenting their diet with venison and seasonal feasts of blackberries, bulbs and roots. Once European pioneers began arriving in the 1840s, farmers cleared the land and provided dairy products, meat, grain, vegetables and fruit to the growing population of new settlers.
Today a thriving artisan food community has again taken root on the Island. A regional diet here means pairing good eats with a remarkable array of wines, beer, spirits, mead and cider. Our first commercial vineyard was established in the Cowichan Valley in 1970. Vintners tested more than 100 grape varietals before concluding that Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, and Ortega fared best in the climate and soil. The Island’s first winery opened in 1992, and today some 80 vineyards cultivate grapes for more than 40 wineries. The vibrant contemporary beer scene can trace its history back to Canada’s first in-house brewpub, which began serving craft ales in Victoria three decades ago.
The great grape of Burgundy has become the Island’s most-planted red variety and with good reason. Although notoriously temperamental (its nickname is the “heartbreak grape”), it produces a medium-bodied, elegant, long-lived wine that pairs well with salmon and lamb.
Usually just called Foch (pronounced fosh), this grape is a hardy, cold-tolerant hybrid. It produces a full-bodied, earthy red wine with deep colour and jammy flavours. Soft tannins make it easy to enjoy young. Pair it with heartier dishes like grilled meats or winter stews.
Named for the Spanish philosopher and poet, Ortega is a German cross of Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe, two other Island varieties. Early ripening Ortega produces a crisp, light wine with a bright floral aroma and citrus flavours. A great match for local shellfish and crab.
A popular grape in both Alsace and Oregon, Pinot Gris is developing two distinct styles on Vancouver Island. Unoaked Gris produces a crisp, light style that is sometimes finished off-dry. Oaked Gris is richer and spicier, often with a distinctive copper hue.
Several wineries make outstanding sparkling wines, most based on the traditional methods of France’s Champagne region. To achieve the desired character, the base wine (cuvée) is often a blend of varieties – some sweetened, others brut naturel. Sparkling blackberry wines are a local favourite.
The best cider comes from high-quality apples with the right balance of sharpness (acidity) and bitterness (tannins). Island ciders come in a variety of styles: dry, still, and barrel-aged; young, fruity and bubbly; and smooth and sweet.
Bursting with flavour, wild blackberries are used to produce dessert and dry table wines that have won international acclaim. Other unique taste sensations include blueberry, strawberry, apple, pear and raspberry wines, as well as blueberry mead.
Vinegar is a derivative of water, wine, cider and other fermented juices. North America’s only producer of ancient-method balsamic is in the Cowichan Valley and the product is coveted by chefs across the continent.
Since the Hudson’s Bay Company first established breweries at outlying forts, local brewmasters have turned beer making into a fine art. Taste the results of more than 150 years of experience at Vancouver Island’s renowned breweries and micro-breweries.
Archeologists have learned that mead was popular in Northern China at least 9,000 years ago. The intoxicating result of naturally fermenting honey and water must have been discovered by chance long before that, however. Island meaderies flavour their products with wine, fruit, or spices. Styles range from light, dry table wine to sweet, oak-aged dessert wine.
There is a growing culture of artisan distilling on the Island. Sample clear and colourless fruit brandies as well as eaux de vie, vodka, gin and single-malt whiskey.