A visit to Alderlea Vineyards with @Sam_WineTeacher

If I had to choose one word to describe winemaker Zac Brown it would have to be passionate.  And as soon as you chat with him you can’t help but be affected by his zeal.  Make that two words, passionate and intelligent.

Zac first learned winemaking at a 200-year-old Czech family-run winery which was only 80 km from Vienna, Austria.  His training was equal measures of tradition and science as the winemaker there held a PhD in chemistry.  Following this stint, he continued to hone his skills working at wineries in Australia and BC.

And then there is Zac’s wife Julie, one of the most charming people I have ever met and that carries over into the tasting room.  Julie’s background in HR serves her well when working with the general public.  For some strange reason, people always seem to leave with more wine than they had intended to buy (but they are glad they did).  Also, a natural in working with suppliers and their seasonal workers, Julie always makes sure health and safety practices are consistently followed.

I chatted with Zac recently and learned a lot more about Alderlea and the back story as to how they came to buy it.

Zac had a long career in Health and Safety and Julie’s background was in Human Resources both nationally and abroad.  During this time, they got involved with home winemaking making it in their East Vancouver garage.  The couple had long dreamt of leaving the corporate world to make wine professionally.  They looked for a suitable property in France, Italy, New Zealand, South America, and the US; as well as in the Okanagan and on Vancouver Island (having grown up in Port Hardy, Zac has deep island roots).

In 2017, after a comprehensive search, Zac and Julie decided to purchase Alderlea Vineyards.  They were impressed with what Roger and Nancy Dosman had achieved with their south-facing Duncan vineyard and winery, which they opened in 1998. The Browns wanted to carry on the tradition of quality Cowichan Valley winemaking.  Zac has gone from about 85 cases of wine per year (2009) in his garage to 3500 cases at Alderlea (2023).

As evidence of their passion and stewardship:

  • The wines are all vegan
  • They practice sustainable farming without the use of pesticides or herbicides
  • The winery is passively cooled, well insulated, and has low energy demands
  • Low-impact spray programs are used only when necessary
  • Use of beneficial insects to control pests
  • Vineyard tractor utilizes biodiesel made from recycled restaurant cooking oils
  • They compost with natural farm products
  • Grass and clover ground cover are used to encourage soil diversity
  • Wastewater is recycled and filtered in the vineyard
  • Water probes are used to monitor and regulate water usage to where and when it is needed

Julie and Zac are well suited, both as husband and wife and as business partners.  With ten years as a Garagiste assistant winemaker, Julie has branched out from the vineyard and tasting room, making three vintages of her own wine ‘Valerie’, a white blend of Ortega and Viognier named after her mother.  Right out of the gate, her wine won many top awards at the All-Canadian Wine Awards.

Alderlea makes an average of 2000 cases per year though in good years such as 2022, they can reach 3500 cases.  Recently, they began a small test plot of Gamay.  I for one, am looking forward to tasting the wines that come from this experiment.

Zac mentioned that he and other Vancouver Island winemakers are very grateful to have escaped the devastating conditions that have hit the interior regions.  When they began, “No one thought we’d make it on the island, but year after year things get better and better for us.”

Finding time here and there, Zac posts on social media and joins in chats with other winemakers – sometimes even while waiting for the pump to transport the wine from tank to tank.  He is always eager to share his extensive knowledge with others.

And if all this wasn’t enough, the “Eveready Energizer Bunny” has become the most recent president of the Wine Islands Grower’s Association where he helps provide enology and viticulture education to its members.

Alderlea’s current portfolio includes:

2022 Sauvignon Blanc
Alderlea is one of only two island producers of sauvignon blanc and Zac Brown believes there is a big future for this grape on Vancouver Island.  In warm years he finds it reminiscent of Sancerre and in cooler years it leans to a New Zealand style.  This vintage has 4 hours of skin contact which helped to boost the aromatic varietal character.  Sitting on the gross lees for 4 months without stirring helped enhance the body of the wine.  This is a popular wine with restaurants especially those that feature fish and shellfish.

Pale straw with medium-light intensity.  The nose shows aromas of grass, melon, tropical fruit, lime, gooseberry, green apple, and nectarine.  Good balance with a creamy texture.  Bright fruit on the palate followed by a medium-plus finish.  This is an elegant wine that straddles the best of New Zealand and Sancerre.  I recommend it served with deep-fried cod or prawn linguini.
92 Points

2022 Pinot Gris
This copper-hued wine is made in a Romato style which involves 24 hours of skin contact, a style often used in the Friuli region of northeastern Italy.  The wine spent 4 months on lees with frequent stirring (battonage).

Its copper-orange colour (medium-light intensity) tells you this wine has definitely had some skin contact.  The nose is perfumed.  Good balance and good mouthfeel.  Mouth-watering bright fruit on the palate.  A medium-plus finish with bright fruit flavours lingering.
90 Points

2021 Pinot Noir
Six Pinot Noir clones – Dijon clones 113, 115, 667, and 777, plus Alsace clones 538, Colmar, and 93 from 30-year-old vines go into this wine.  Zac made four batches of this wine, each with a different yeast before blending to achieve some complexity.  15 months in new French oak.

Ruby red colour with medium intensity.  A pleasing nose of earth, red and black berries, meat, dark cherry, and hints of vanilla and a touch of cocoa.  Good balance.  Pleasing red fruit on the palate followed by a medium-plus finish.  Serve with BBQ ribs, grilled chicken or turkey with cranberry sauce.  I’d hang on to this one for another 3-5 plus years.
90 Points

2020 Merlot
This estate-grown grape from 30 years old vines, is the last picked.  They get about 3 tons per acre (low) yields.  Half of the wine was fermented in concrete egg containers (80% of the cap – grape skins – remain submerged) and the other half in open-top fermenters.  After blending, the wine spent 18 months in neutral French oak.  Only 150 cases were produced.

Garnet red with deep intensity.  Red and black fruit, bramble, earth, black currant, meat and cocoa on the nose.  Good balance with medium body.  The flavours echo the nose following with a slightly warm medium finish.  This wine will age well.  Pair with venison steak.
90 Points

2021 Clarinet
This is a 100% Marechal Foch wine that was named by the previous owner who likened it to the big band days when the clarinet was king and known for its silky-smooth sounds.  Marechal Foch, often shortened to simply Foch, is often described as the red wine for ‘no-red wine’ drinkers due to its low level of tannins.  Zac adds a bit of oak to stabilize the deep colour.

Deep garnet/purple/black colour with deep intensity.  Lots of berries on the nose.  Good balance with soft tannins.  Pleasing fruit on the palate followed by a medium-finish.  Very approachable and one for people who normally don’t like most red wines.  Serve with goat cheese stuffed chicken breast, or veal.  Very nice now and age-worthy for another 3-5 years.
91 Points

2020 Matrix
Initially, Zac found this blend had lots of fruit up front, no middle, and a long finish.  The addition of Merlot helped fill in the missing middle.  His intention for this wine was to appeal to those who enjoy Bordeaux-styled red wines.  This wine is a blend of 70% Cabernet Foch (a Blattner Cabernet Sauvignon/Marechal Foch cross), 20% Merlot, and 10% Cab Libre.  Cabernet Libre is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Pinot Noir cross developed by German Valentin Blattner. His hybrid grapes were developed to be disease-resistant for cool climate wine regions.  Zac finds that this 10% addition adds a little herbal character similar to what Cabernet Franc often does.

Garnet black with deep intensity.  Red and black fruit, bramble, earth, black currant, prune, meat, and cocoa on the nose.  Good balance.  The flavours mirror the nose followed by a medium finish.  I enjoyed this with a hearty Scotch broth soup.  Lovely now or hold thru 2029.
91 Points

Look for these wines at better Vancouver Island wine shops, and restaurants in the Lower Mainland and on the island.


(All photos – Sam Hauck)

Feature image: Alderlea co-owner and winemaker, Zac Brown at a Vancouver tasting.

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