Vancouver Island wine & spirits

Vancouver Island wine & spirits

The thing about being an editor for an alt weekly paper while maintaining a full-time day job is that it’s really difficult – okay, almost impossible – to get enough ahead on your writing that you can break free of the weekly article grind and also publish stuff on a blog that pays you in naught but the satisfaction of releasing your unedited (unfiltered! – check out that new blog name, eh?) words to the internet’s gaping black maw.

See – that sentence right there? That would never run in Vue. Hello, run-on. And welcome back, blog!

I’m never going to be ahead in my weekly writing – hell, I’m barely able to be mostly but not really on time with it. So I’m going to try getting some stuff up on here more regularly. Right now I’m starting easy – with some thoughts on my recent wine and spirits coverage.

Blue Grouse & Rocky Creek Winery

I visited a few wineries while on vacation in BC this past summer and was pretty psyched by what I tasted out there. I profiled two of them in Vue: Blue Grouse and Rocky Creek. Both of those are located in the Cowichan Valley, a verdant region in which farms of all kinds proliferate. I highly recommend visiting the Cowichan, especially if you’re burned out of wineries located in more populous areas: even on a lovely summer day during the peak of tourist season, we encountered hardly anyone at either of these wineries. It allows you a chance to really get a good feel for the place; we chatted at length with the winemakers at both.

Another reason to visit Vancouver Island wineries: gorgeous landscapes
Another reason to visit Vancouver Island wineries: they are super pretty. (This is Blue Grouse’s vineyard.)

I didn’t profile the third winery I visited on the Island – Millstone Winery, just outside Nanaimo – purely because it was a pretty quick visit and I didn’t get a chance to really chat up the owners. They are also in the middle of a rebranding and while their wines were good, they were a bit eclectic and I got the sense that the winery lacked an overall focus. I tried their Ortega, Pinot Gris, Merlot and Cabernet Franc – the latter of which I was most impressed with, as it was representative of the variety with red pepper and smoky tobacco flavours. I was also bewildered as to how they pulled off a Cabernet Franc in this area that wasn’t super green and vegetal; clearly they’ve got a secret that many of the other Island wineries would love to discover.

My one reservation about Vancouver Island wine centers around that, actually – everyone is obsessed with making big, bold reds because they think that’s what the market wants. And they are correct in some respect, but I really hate to see a region sacrificing its true identity and importing grapes from elsewhere, purely for the sake of pandering to the lowest common denominator of wine drinkers. Seriously, everyone says they like big reds – so what. They need to try something else. I want to see Vancouver Island focusing on what it does best – crisp, personality-driven white wines and fantastic bubbles – and not worrying about catering to that boorish dude who storms up to the tasting bar and demands a Malbec. Make him drink the Pinot.


Arbutus Distillery

One of the highlights of my trip was visiting Arbutus Distillery, a new craft distillery that opened in Nanaimo just over a year ago. We showed up bright and early at the crack of noon on a Saturday (that’s early in the booze business and also when you’re on vacation, okay), and tasted through their three core products: Coven Vodka, Empiric Gin, and Baba Yaga Absinthe.

So obviously with names like these I was completely sold before I even set foot in the place or tasted a drop – a bottle of vodka with a wonderfully witchy name and a label that GLOWS IN THE DARK REVEALING A COVEN OF WITCHES? An absinthe – which is worth buying alone due to merely existing, since craft examples are pretty rare – that references a particularly creepy part of Slavic folklore?? A gin???

Just take my money.

Seriously, just take it.
Seriously, just take it. (Photo c/o Arbutus Distillery)

Arbutus has a great story and I was happy to chat with the owner, Michael Pizzitelli, just a few days ago for the story I just ran in Vue. (When we dropped by in the summer, he was out peddling his wares at a farmer’s market.) Also, the stuff is totally solid quality too, so I didn’t feel bad about basically flinging my credit card at the cash register as soon as I walked in to the place. The vodka has a lovely caramel undercurrent thanks to being made from a base of malted barley – a growing trend in the craft spirit world which I also wrote about a few months ago in Vue: check out this story on white whisky for additional info and background.

Their gin is floral and lovely: while it tastes fine with tonic, I actually prefer it in various cocktails so that you can better appreciate its nuances; it’s made with lemon verbena instead of citrus peel and it’s not super heavy on the juniper, so it’s more delicate than your average gin. I’ve even enjoyed just sipping a bit over ice, and while I love me some gin there aren’t a lot of brands that I would treat the same way.

Somehow I’ve managed not to crack my bottle of Arbutus’ absinthe since I bought it in July – possibly because it’s 60% alcohol; that alone was enough to make me steer clear when I was just looking for a weekday nightcap. Instead I’ve saved it, and Halloween night this Saturday seems like the perfect excuse to dive in – I’m looking forward to seeing how my party guests take to it.

Coolest packaging ever. (Photo c/o Arbutus Distillery)
Coolest packaging ever. (Photo c/o Arbutus Distillery)

I always feel the need to issue a PSA whenever absinthe is mentioned: no, it won’t make you trip balls. All the stigma associated with absinthe as possessing a hardcore hallucinogenic effect is a bunch of Hollywood-perpetuated BS. (Sorry to disappoint those who were hoping for a legal psychedelic experience.) Absinthe is an herbal liquor with a fascinating flavour profile, so it’s worth drinking in its own right – watered down with ice cold water. If you drink it straight at full strength, you will barf. I’ve seen some jackasses do this at a party; trust me on this one. Watered down, however, it takes on a milky opalescence and releases its aromatic oils. The proper term for this is louche, which also gives you a convenient new way to disparage anyone who neglects to do this: call them a louche-bag.


Emerging Canadian Wine Regions

To cap off my recent coverage of lesser-known Canadian wines, wineries and wine regions, I revisited the seminar I attended at the Northern Lands festival back in the spring and put together a list of some of Canada’s emerging wine regions, with quotes from the winemakers themselves. It was my favourite seminar at Northern Lands and I’ve been nothing but impressed with all of the wines from these regions. I fully agree with Norm Hardie’s sentiment that “the best wines have always been made on the edge of ripeness.” It’s true in Europe, and it’s true in Canada.


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