Rocky Creek’s Linda Holford with José’s Tempranillo, Tim Pawsey photo

One thing about Taste Victoria: we never fail to be surprised by something or someone. Often the finds are wonderfully esoteric but usually worthwhile. These are tough times for growers on Vancouver Island—of grapes, or of just about anything. Two unseasonably wet, late springs and a couple of tough vintages haven’t helped matters, not to mention a soft economy. But no shortage of ingenuity and not a little island pride have gone a long way to building a robust culinary community, many of whom continue to nurture what’s become the area’s most important food and wine festival.

For whatever reason, fewer local wineries participated this year but their numbers were bolstered by a contingent of worthy Okanagan producers, which we think offers a useful forum for both tasters and producers.

Due to limited production, most wines remain hard to find on the mainland, although a few do show up in private stores. The best way to taste Vancouver Island and Gulf Island wines, really, is to just go there.

Here are a few highlights worth tracking down.

Averill Creek remains among a handful of leaders. And it’s easy to see why when you taste their medium bodied, plush cherry toned, silky tannin Pinot Noir 2009 ($26, 90 points) which can hold its own with any Pinot from BC or beyond. Also worth a taste (only at the winery) is a gently buttery barrel fermented 09 Pinot Gris, (think crab they say, and we agree; 89 pts. Winery only.). Averill Creek’s philosophy of engaging with other wine producing regions (particularly in New Zealand and Oregon) continues to help raise the level of their game.

Sparkling wines can be costly and time consuming to make but, given the ripening challenges, there’s no question that more island bubble in the long run just makes sense. It can be only a matter of time before we see a dedicated sparkling winery. (Church & State in Saanich?)

Grab a bottle of Starling Lane’s hard to find, creamy, brioche topped Celebration Brut ($28, 90 pts) if you can, or put in your order for the next release, likely pre-holidays. The fresh and fruity, off-dry Star blend ($19, 88 pts) is a great match with spicy plates, such as Butchart Gardens’ Sechelt sturgeon with piquant salsify kimchee and carrot purée, one of the show’s culinary hits. (Also of note, the well structured, citrus and gently tropical toned Ortega 2011, $19, 89 pts). Salt Spring Vineyard’s méthode Champenoise style Karma 2008 ($29.90, 90 pts), a small-run but now regular item, is yet one more, notch in the sparkling belt.

Necessity truly is the mother of invention, When starlings decimated a large portion of Rocky Creek’s supply of 2010 Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, owners Linda and Mark Holford opted to make Jubilee ($28, 89 pts)—a pretty delicious, strawberry toned, gently yeasty sparkling wine. Plus, also worthy looking for, their layered, quite textured, citrus and apple toned Pinot Gris 2011, $20, 89 pts.)

This is also a winery not afraid to push the envelope. They’re the only Canadian winery (as far as we know) to use the handy, environmentally friendly Zork closure—especially for sparkling (it re-closes). And they make the island’s sole Tempranillo, a tribute to grower José Rodrigo. Not only does the limited edition ($50 / 500 ml) wine help raise funds for Canadian Cancer Society but it also points to a future (in a good vintage and in the right place … and hands) for this variety in the region.

More to come on Taste shortly …

(—and yes, we do need to spend some time fixing that pesky image / cutline thing.)