Everyone loves a big red wine, but what’s a winery to do when it’s located in a region suited to crisp whites and light-bodied reds?
There are two schools of thought on the matter, both of which are playing out right now in Vancouver Island’s wine industry: you can either import full-bodied red grapes from elsewhere (usually the Okanagan) or you can simply work with what will grow locally. The handful of larger producers on the Island are increasingly opting for the former, in an attempt to reach a broader customer base.
Rocky Creek is one of the wineries following the latter path: its wines are 100-percent Island grown and made, which means the winery’s had to experiment with different plantings to develop its portfolio.
“We’re definitely a winery in stages,” Linda Holford says. “We’ve really focused on developing and on the vision of the quality of the product.”
Linda is sitting in the little garden patio outside the tasting room of Rocky Creek Winery, located in the heart of the Cowichan Valley’s wine industry. It’s a quaint spot, very similar in scale to the area’s other small wineries, though the gardens definitely make it distinctive; she encourages guests to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy their wines al fresco.
If you look for the namesake creek, however, you’ll come up empty-handed: Rocky Creek is actually located some distance north in the little town of Ladysmith, where Linda and her husband Mark first settled after uprooting their corporate careers in Calgary’s oil-and-gas industry some 10 years ago.
“Mark saw Salt Spring Island [Winery] was selling their press and so he said, ‘I have a harebrained idea,'” she recalls. That idea was to make use of the Cellared in Canada designation to start up a commercial winery from their home, which was in a subdivision on Rocky Creek—hence the name. Under the Cellared in Canada designation, wineries can import cheap, bulk grapes from elsewhere—typically California or South America—and sell the wine under a Canadian label. It was designed for use by wineries to supplement their income during tough times in the early days of Canada’s wine industry, but it has since attracted a lot of (justified) criticism for being outdated and damaging to the image of Canadian wine.
The Holfords tried to use Cellared in Canada very differently, however, buying grapes only from a local Vancouver Island vineyard.
“With that loophole, we started the first home-based winery in Canada,” Linda says. “We thought, oh we’ll just bottle as we sell; it’s a little bit lower risk so we don’t have to worry about getting into this big investment of a farm.”
Unfortunately, their plan was short-lived due to the nature of Cellared in Canada wines: they are designed to be mass-produced and therefore the government taxes them very steeply (about 60 percent). Realizing that their operation was unsustainable, the Holfords decided to throw themselves fully into the wine industry and established a winery and vineyard on their current property in the Cowichan Valley.
Since then, Rocky Creek has experimented with various grapes to arrive at the current lineup of wines, which is fairly typical of the region: several crisp whites, a sparkling wine, a couple of light-bodied reds and a rosé, the latter of which is made using the saignée method to increase the concentration of the vineyard’s red wines. Rocky Creek has some more unusual offerings too, including Vancouver Island’s only wine made from Tempranillo and an absolutely delicious blackberry wine. While blackberry wine is a signature of the Cowichan Valley, most of it tends to be sickly sweet and dessert style; Rocky Creek’s version is distinctively dry and tastes of the clean, pure fruit from which it is made.
The Holfords also had some experiments that didn’t go as well, such as a grove of olive trees and a planting of the Spanish grape Albariño, which simply didn’t take. They’ve got high hopes for a hybrid variety, Cab Foch, however—it might be the answer to all those people asking for a big red wine.
“It’s an early ripening, disease resistant [variety] that has potential to be like a Cab[ernet Sauvignon],” Linda explains. “Everyone comes here wanting a heavy red, and now the bigger players are thinking the only way to survive is to buy big reds from the Okanagan. But Mark and I are passionate to develop what this region is.”
Vancouver Island’s trend towards developing a crowd-pleasing portfolio, replete with full-bodied red wines, is a bit disconcerting. It could potentially inhibit the growth of the region’s signature style; you’d never see a winery in Burgundy importing Cabernet Sauvignon so as to please the masses. Wineries like Rocky Creek are therefore not only encouraging, but necessary: it’s wonderful to try new things, but only when it’s in service to the region—not at the expense of it.
Rocky Creek Winery
Mel Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at melpriestley.ca