Hammocks strung across vineyards in Langenlois, Austria
If you missed my piece on the drink trails of Vancouver Island for Fodor’s, here’s a second look:
With its bucolic farmland, rugged wilderness, and cultural vibrancy, Vancouver Island tends to stun first-time visitors. Add the islanders’ enthusiasm for the art of the beverage, and Vancouver Island makes a strong case for itself. Whether you are a beer, wine, coffee, or tea lover—or a connoisseur of them all—you could spend a week on the island just drinking. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of fresh, local food to keep your stomach full, too. Here’s our guide to the best drinking trails of Vancouver Island and what to eat along the way.
COWICHAN VALLEY ARTISAN ROUTE
This region sits northwest of Victoria and boasts the highest average year-round temperature in Canada. To access this pastoral valley teeming with drink artisans, take the scenic car ferry across the conifer-lined shores of the Saanich Inlet, from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay.
Once off the ferry, head north for a superb view of the valley at Averill Creek Vineyard, the island’s largest estate winery. Proprietor Andy Johnston produces fine-tuned, cherry-scented Pinot Noir utilizing a unique growing method: He wraps his vines in plastic to create a pseudo-greenhouse effect. Before heading east to Alderlea Vineyards(appointment necessary), take a detour north. A curvy, country road leads to an oasis of organic tea plants. The owners of Teafarm start harvesting the plants this year; in the meantime, they source and sell organic, loose teas, handcrafted ceramics, and perform Moroccan and Japanese tea ceremonies in their garden.
Circling south, grab a bite in the quaint fishing village of Cowichan Bayfrom the sustainable seafood purveyor of the same name, before sampling local fizz from Vigneti Zanatta Winery. For those with an adventurous palate, swing down to Venturi-Schulze Vineyards and taste their polarizing and puzzling “Terracotta” wine. Produced from 100% Siegerrebe, the production notes are a well-kept secret. They also craft terrific traditional Modena-style balsamic vinegar. Take a coffee and panini break at the island’s superlative Drumroaster Coffee: All beans are roasted on-site, and they offer multiple brew methods. Wrap-up the day with a sampling of unusual German grapes such as Bacchus, Ortega, and Black Muscat in Blue Grouse’s farmhouse tasting room.
BEER TRAIL IN VICTORIA
Known as the “Craft Beer Capital” of British Columbia (although rapidly being surpassed by Vancouver’s recent surge in urban breweries), Victoria brims with a staggering number of breweries, brewpubs, and taphouses for a city with a population of 80,000.
For a brewery-focused circuit, hoof it to Phillips Beer, or take the ferry from the Empress Hotel to the Swift Street Landing and walk the last five minutes. Phillips’ friendly staff will take you through their rotation of offerings like the hop-infused Electric Unicorn IPA, or the Hop Circle, featuring four varieties of hops. A short stroll from Philips, Vancouver Island Brewery, in business 30 years, is one of B.C.’s original microbreweries. Pass through their storefront and growler station to sample their latest creation, the Sabotage India Session Ale. Another 15 minute walk and you’ll reach Hoyne Brewing Co. and Driftwood Brewery, two highly praised breweries within beer geek circles. Sean Hoyne honed his craft for 13 years at Canoe Brewpub, before finally opening his own eponymous outfit. Driftwood, conveniently next door, created the wildly successful Fat Tug IPA—a must-visit, just be sure to confirm they’re open.
Victoria’s brewpubs include the aforementioned Canoe, situated on the water in a stunning heritage building that once housed the city’s coal-fired generators. Score a patio seat and watch the sun set with a hop-heavy IPA. Swans, set in the ground floor of a boutique hotel, is another old-timer known for its litany of awards and live music. Take a picturesque walk across the harbor bridge to visit Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub; their line-up of beers includes cask-conditioned ales served with elevated cuisine—think a farm-fresh beet salad and a brett-inoculated beer. Finally, for a taphouse that serves everyone else’s beer, Garrick’s Head Pub, one of Canada’s oldest English pubs founded in 1867, offers almost 50 beers.
Note: For an in-depth look that serves as a practical guide to Victoria and Vancouver’s beer scene, pick-up a copy of Craft Beer Revolution, The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries by Victoria local Joe Wiebe.
VICTORIA’S CAFFEINE CRAWL
Coffee enthusiasts are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing the perfect cup, with as many as 11 independent shops dotting the island. Local favorite roaster Bows & Arrows, founded in 2011, doesn’t run a café, though you can visit their operation to sample coffee. They supply seven cafés in Victoria, plus shops throughout Canada and the U.S. Their beans are exclusively carried by Habit, its owners champions of sustainability: they purchase carbon offsets and transport supplies by Dutch cargo bike. Habit has two locations, the original in Chinatown, and a second at The Atrium, with floor to ceiling windows and sleek, modern design. Another roaster-cum-café called Fernwood was opened by a chef-journalist duo, and the adjacent café Parsonage sells the espresso-based drinks, hand brews, and a full breakfast and lunch menu. Other honorable mentions include Heist (727 Courtney St.), a small shop oddly located in a parking lot, which sources its beans from multiple roasters around North America, and 2% Jazz (2621 Douglas St.), a roaster and café open late in the evening and known for unusual coffee-based specialties like coffee-flavored cotton candy and foie gras ice cream affogato.
Mainland tea lovers heading to Victoria should replenish their pantries at Silk Road Tea (two locations), stocked with a range of teas from green, to white, to Yunnan province specialty Pu-erh. If you’d prefer to participate in the traditional British ritual of afternoon tea, served in delicate china on sterling silver platters with cakes and scones, reserve a table at grande dame The Fairmont Empress.
WHERE TO STAY
Vancouver Island has a wide range of lodging, from farmstays to ocean front inns, but for short visits, Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula function best as a base. For urban digs, consider downtown boutique property Magnolia Hotel and Spa. Rooms furnished in a cool palette of grey, lavender, and sand, soothe travel nerves, as does the attentive, informed staff. If you prefer to sleep where you drink, book one of the modern suites at historic Swans Hotel & Brewpub, located in a beautifully restored 1913 heritage building. Nestled in a serene setting near a small fishing village, Brentwood Bay Resort &Spa boasts two on-site restaurants, a spa, spacious rooms (and bathtubs) with water views, and quick access to the Cowichan Valley ferry.
Photo Credit: All photos by Lauren Mowery
Dogs of Munselle Vineyards, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
If you missed my column last week in the Village Voice, here’s a second chance to read about Austrian white wines:
It’s mid-summer, we’re steeping in city heat, and thus reaching for a bottle of chilled wine when evening refreshment hour rolls around (which seems to creep up earlier in the day as the season stretches on). By now, you’ve probably guzzled the last of your Wölffer rosé allotment, dumped out enough wretched Pinot Grigio to fill a kiddie pool, or developed the Sauvignon Blanc overdose blues. The antidote for such vinous malaise: Austrian wines.
The country is home to a wonderland of unusual, high-quality grapes; the whites, in particular, offer a diverse array of styles and regional origins. And as New Yorkers with access to the world’s vast wine library, we can track down many of them.
You’ve probably seen Grüner Veltliner hanging out in your local wine shop or offered by the glass at the wine bar, or perhaps you’ve schlepped a 1.5 liter bottle of Grooner to a potluck in Park Slope. Monika Caha of Monika Caha Selections, in conjunction with the Forstreiter family of Kremstal, developed the Grooner brand specifically for the American market, in part to provide our palates training wheels to discovering the country’s more serious wines.
Statistically, Grüner Veltliner dominates Austria’s white grape vineyard acreage and Americans’ knowledge of Austria’s wines. The rise in its popularity, however, has overshadowed the other fascinating grapes that make up the country’s catalogue of wines.
Not to dismiss Grüner Veltliner; the vines share an electric chemistry with the soils of Austria akin to the charged on-screen energy between Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. It doesn’t taste as profound when grown elsewhere in the world (that’s terroir). I’ve tried Grüner from California (dull), Australia (bland), New Zealand (lacking spice). None come close to the complexity, stony minerality (a debatable term, but with no other descriptor available, I’ll use it), and characteristic white pepper notes that define both outstanding and modest Austrian versions. It’s a bit like Nebbiolo in that respect.
While in Austria’s Wachau region, I drank exceptional terroir-transmitting Riesling. The wines were dry and structured, focused and lively, yet routinely overlooked in favor of neighboring Germany. I came to love, when tended by careful hands, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris). I’d previously erroneously dismissed these two grapes as bland and neutral when grown outside of Alsace, but they are transformed in Austria, developing rich character and body, and nutty complexity with a few years of age. (They didn’t name Weissburgunder after white Burgundy without reason.)
So far, I’ve only addressed the “international” grapes. To help me track down esoteric varieties like Roter Veltliner, Rotgipfler, and Neuburger, I had dinner at Seäsonal with Austrian native and NYC restaurateur Wolfgang Ban. Co-owner and chef, as well as partner at Edi & the Wolf and cocktail den The Third Man, Ban stocks a lot of the wines I hoped to find back in NYC.
I asked Ban which whites he liked to drink; turns out we both shared a fondness for Gelber Muskateller, a grape that delivers generous, exotic aromatics of flowers and nutmeg. “It’s a light, floral wine that’s easy on the alcohol and easy to drink in the summer,” Ban explained. He recommended chilling a bottle for a picnic, and suggested looking for a Gelber Muskateller produced in storybook-pretty Styria, a region known for the finest versions.
“Gelber Muskateller is one of the rare grapes fortunate enough to see plantings increase with increased consumer appetite for it. Our dollars do vote,” he added, commenting on the trend of converting good land otherwise suited to local grapes into Grüner vineyards. (Wines of Austria estimates Gelber Muskateller has seen a 267 percent rise in vineyard plantings as it has grown in popularity.)
I’d heard about the Grüner takeover while in Austria. Production of grapes like Roter Veltliner (the original variety of the Veltliner group), considered the oldest native variety in Austria, has dwindled because the best soils for the grape grow great Grüner, too. Grüner’s international success has tilted growers’ planting decisions in its favor; winning the economics war, and thus soil war, has ironically led to cannibalization of the wine industry Grüner helped introduce to the world.
The trend is unfortunate, as Roter Veltliner can make elegant, supple wines with great aging potential, and no one else but Austrians will likely plant it. However, California has an interesting historical footnote that mentions the rare grape: In the late 1880s, E.W. Hilgard, charged with determining which vines to plant in California, published a report recognizing Roter Veltliner as highly suitable for the state. Perhaps Roter will have a renaissance — in California. In the meantime, Ban says he likes the grape for its harmony with Viennese dishes, and recommends producer Franz Leth.
Another loser not yet lost is Neuberger (a cross between Roter Veltliner and Sylvaner). Ban keeps this wine on his list because he likes the “robust, full-bodied wines that show spice and flowers in youth, and deep, nutty flavors with age.”
More delicious oddities include Zierfandler (aka Spätrot), the yin to Rotgipfler’s yang. These grapes grow almost exclusively in Austria’s Thermenregion, as it has the magical balance of climate and calcareous soils for them to excel. They often combine for a happier marriage than as single varietals; Rotgipfler brings the weight and aromatics, and Ziefandler the tart citrus and acid structure, to create the fun-to-pronounce Spätrot-Rotgipfler. Stadlman, a small producer represented by Monika Caha Selections, produces happy expressions of all three.
Austria runs a small risk of being pigeonholed as a country of Grüner growers, which can be a double-edged sword; just ask non-Sauvignon Blanc producers in New Zealand about the shackles of consumer thirst for the gooseberry- and sweat-stinking grape, and you’ll likely get a long rant.
However, the difference that may preserve Austria’s indigenous varieties lies in the fact that they not only have them, but that most producers and estates own very small parcels of land — the large, commercial wineries found in New World regions don’t really exist here. For now, however, take a break from Grüner — and ubiquitous, international whites — and try something as fun to drink as it is to pronounce three times: Spätrot-Rotgipfler.
No time is a bad time for a glass full of bubbly wine (ok, maybe when operating heavy machinery). Two weeks ago, Williamsburg wine shop Vine Wine, known for its carefully selected natural, organic, and biodynamic wines, dedicated five days to celebrating a niche category of fizz owner Talitha Whidbee believes deserves more consumer recognition: Pet Nat. Although the official celebration has concluded, she keeps shelves stocked year-round with a slew of bubbly options. (See suggestions below).
Pet Nat is short for Pétillant Naturel, and refers to a rustic style of sparkling wine made in the Methode Ancestrale, a term that pretty much sums up the history of the technique: it’s old. Used centuries ago in Europe, the method was nearly abandoned with the advent of commercial yeast, refrigeration, and the pursuit of aesthetics, i.e., crystal clear wines. But modern winemakers with an experimental streak and natural winemaking tendencies have resurrected the practice, applying it to a range of varieties from Chardonnay to Gamay.
To make traditional method sparkling wine such as Champagne, a producer begins by bottling a base wine that has been fermented fully dry. To kick off a second fermentation in the bottle, sugar and yeast are added, and the formation of tiny, prized bubbles begins. Once the yeast have finished working, the dead cells, or lees, are removed from the bottle through the process of riddling and disgorgement, after which a dosage (sugar and wine) may be added to sweeten it to the house style or winemaker’s taste, before closing again with cork and a wire cage.
Pet Nat, on the other hand, generally doesn’t utilize any additions to the wine, thus its appeal to natural winemakers. The fermentation of the wine starts in a tank with native yeast (as opposed to the addition of commercial yeast); before all the natural sugars have been converted into alcohol, however, the juice is transferred to a bottle to finish fermentation. The lees may be left inside rather than disgorged, so the resulting wines are softly fizzy, tend to be lower in alcohol, frequently have residual sugar, and if the spent yeast is left behind, cloudy.
Although the production method sounds rudimentary, Pet Nat is not the kind of wine a commercially-minded producer makes because results are too unpredictable for the mainstream market. Pet Nat’s become the darling of sommeliers looking for new things to saber and adventurous drinkers who find beauty, akin to a snowflake, in the variability that comes with each bottle.
To talk Pet Net, we tracked down owner of Vine Wine and founder of Pet Nat Week Talitha Whidbee (this year was its second season), to find out why she loves this style of sparkling and which producers really dazzle her palate.
How did you come to dedicate a week of tastings to Pet Nat?
I have always felt that Pet Nat is both underexposed and a much larger category than the consumer thinks. By holding a weeklong tasting event, Vine is able to showcase all of the various styles that are made. I also happen to be a fan of Bastille Day and what better way to celebrate that holiday than with low alcohol sparkling wine?
Who are some of your favorite producers and why?
Every year my list of favorite producers changes since there is such a difference in the wines from year to year. Consistently I have found myself drinking Pascal Pibaleau’s La Perlette — this is probably the first Pet Nat I ever tried. Made from Gamay and Grolleau, this wine is earthy and full of wild strawberries, and the most delightful pink color. Les Capriades is another favorite of mine, this year they have released a Pet-Sec which is almost all Chenin Blanc and is dry and focused with an almost salty quality that is sooooo refreshing this time of year. I am a huge fan of Pet Nat made from Ploussard and currently am enjoying the Noct’en Bulles from La Combe aux Reves: it is under 10% alcohol, has tons of bright fruit, and just enough funk to make it interesting. Finally, I have to mention that for the first time in the history of Vine, we will have two Pet Nats from the Finger Lakes and a total of six from America. When I started Pet Nat week, I don’t think we had one from America. It is really exciting to see more American winemakers making Pet Nat.
Why should consumers consider this alternative style of sparkling?
Aside from the obvious reason that it is always the right time to drink sparkling wine, the joy of Pet Nat is that you really get a chance to taste something that is made from passion to express the winemaker’s style. Given how difficult it is to bottle, and the risk involved in making something as unstable as Pet Nat, it seems to me a great way to get to “know” a winemaker. I think there is something also inherently joyous about drinking it, and since it comes in so many styles there really is one for every consumer.
“100% Pet Nat Muscadet aka Melon de Bourgogne!
“I love this blend of Garganega, Glera and Pinella! It takes it’s name, Val di Spin, from the wild valley that the Garganega grows in. Naturally re-fermented “sur lie” in the bottle aka Pet Nat aka delicious!” chasegranoff
“I had the pleasure of meeting the wild man Uroš recently. He is a whirlwind of energy and some of that ends up in this unfiltered, undisgorged, Zero S02 Pet Nat of Refosk and and bit of Syrah. Fresh strawberries and funk.” chasegranoff
Vine Wine, 616 Lorimer Street, 718-349-1718