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Garry Oaks Winerys Marcel Mercier at the pinnacle of Salt Spring Island terroir.

Garry Oaks Winery’s Marcel Mercier at the pinnacle
of Salt Spring Island terroir.

British Columbia (Provincial Appellation)

Tackling Island Terroir: An Interview with Garry Oaks Winery’s Marcel Mercier and Elaine Kozak

“We’re not trying to grow wine that tastes like Okanagan wine. We’re making wine that will express the coastal climate and our own site.”
~ Marcel Mercier, winegrower

by John Schreiner
December 14, 2006

Since opening in 2003, Garry Oaks Winery on Salt Spring Island has established itself as one of coastal British Columbia’s leading producers. Owners Marcel Mercier and Elaine Kozak have brought focused analytical skills, developed in earlier careers, to the challenge of growing commendable wines in the island’s terroir.

Mercier, who manages the vineyard, has a postgraduate science degree. In his previous career, he led projects in land and environmental management in Canada and internationally. Kozak, who makes the wines, is an economist who formerly was an executive in a public sector trade development organization in Vancouver.

In a dramatic career switch, the couple bought a derelict orchard on Salt Spring Island in 1999, turning it into a successful vineyard and winery. Theirs is one of only two wineries on the island: Salt Spring Vineyards, which is based on a smaller vineyard, is their immediate neighbour.

Salt Spring Island (population 10,000) is the largest of the Gulf Islands chain in the Strait of Georgia, located between Vancouver Island on the west and the British Columbia mainland to the east. Besides several vineyards, the island’s other agriculture includes tree fruits, herbs, sheep and other livestock farms. However, Salt Spring is best known for the many artists, musicians, writers and social activists living here. Thanks to Garry Oaks and Salt Spring Vineyards, the island now has attracted notice for its wines.

Mercier and Kozak discuss how they have tackled their terroir in this interview that took place in their vineyard just before harvest.

John Schreiner (JS): Did you canvass the island extensively before choosing this site?

Marcel Mercier (MM): I put together basically an ecological model for the island. I brought together data from many different sources – climate, topography, soils, site aspect – and from there, identified the areas that had the best potential for growing grapes. I overlaid that with a map, showing access to market in terms of roads. This area here came up best.

The soil here is good sandy, gravely loam. Some parts of the vineyard have soil that is a little bit heavier. I have divided the Pinot Noir into two blocks – one part in heavier soil, one part in sandy soil.

In terms of the aspect, it faces due south. The slope here is about 55%. When you have a really good slope, you get extra heat. Then at the back of the site, there are the terraces. It was too steep to drive the tractor up and too soft because of the sandy loam. That’s why we built the terraces.

I’m a little prejudiced but I think we have one of the best sites on the coast here. I think it has demonstrated itself in the fruit that we get.

JS: Salt Spring Island is notoriously dry. Do you have a reservoir or a well?

MM: Both. We built a pond and we also have a well. I keep the pond topped up as much as I can from the well. Where we put the pond, there was also a natural spring.

In the first few years here, we kept the watering low, trying to make the vines get their roots really deep. The soil is really sandy there, in the area close to the trees. And up at the top, near the terraces, the soil is sand and cobbles and does not retain a lot of water either. The plants there do not carry as much fruit; we maintain the balance that way. The fruit that we get is really good, but we don’t get as much. Garry Oaks Winery’s Marcel Mercier

JS: What is the range of crop load here?

MM: On average, two and half to three tons an acre.

JS: How much of that is your cultural preference and how much is water related?

MM: It’s viticultural practice.

JS: You could produce four or five tons, if you wanted to?

MM: Yes, but the Pinot Noir we keep to a ton and a half, maybe two tons, depending on the year.

JS: How many acres of Pinot Noir do you have in the two parcels?

MM: Almost two acres.

JS: How many clones?

MM: We have 115 and 375. Also, most of the rootstock is Couderc 3309. Where it is a little drier on the slopes, we also have SO4. We chose those because of the soil here. They work well. The 3309 rootstock stresses the plant a little bit and helps ripen the plant a little bit earlier.

The 3309 is a North American rootstock from vines that grew along the bends of rivers, where they were subject to flooding in the spring. Here on the coast, we tend to get a fair amount of rain in the winter – although, on Salt Spring, it is pretty dry. But there is more rain in the winter and that rootstock can really tolerate wet feet in the spring.

JS: Did you have a lot of clones available?

MM: Yes. The clones we selected, and the rootstock as well -- we selected them for the climate that we have. The 115 and 375 clones are known to ripen earlier but also are very flavourful.

The earlier growers on Vancouver Island got most of their vines from the Okanagan, and didn’t even know what clones they had. When we started, we had the advantage of more choice. The 115 and 375 are Burgundian clones. Our Pinot Gris is a clone that hadn’t been grown in this region before. The Pinot Gris and our Gewürztraminer were budded from the Alsace. And our Zweigelt was brought in from Austria. (see John’s recommendation)

We were among the first to grow Zweigelt, so we stuck our necks out. Also with the Pinot Gris, we were the first to graft that particular clone to the 3309 rootstock.

JS: How many acres of other varieties do you have?

MM: Just under two acres of Zweigelt; just over two acres of Pinot Gris and one acre of Gewürztraminer. Then we planted Léon Millot in the cooler parts of the vineyard, in the shade of the trees. We don’t have much of that, maybe half an acre. Every place that we can have a vine, we’ve got it planted. It is just under seven acres in total.

JS: What is the density of vines here?

MM: We are planted at about 1,500 vines per acre. It is a lot denser than most other places on the coast. If you look at Paul’s planting [Paul Troop, owner of a nearby vineyard], that may be closer to 450 plants an acre. Salt Spring Vineyards is planted about 900 vines per acre. We wanted to go a little more dense, a little more Burgundian, although I know in Burgundy, they are even more dense.

JS: Is your density working?

MM: The Pinot Gris is perfect for that plot. Some of the other plantings, though, we will probably have to make less dense, but that is an issue of soil and water.

JS: Why did you chose that density?

MM: It resulted from the research which I had done in terms of recommended crop load for the varieties to produce a quality wine. I am planted at 1.3 meters, basically four feet by seven and a half feet. That’s about 30 square feet a plant. I thought that would be the most optimal growing conditions in terms of figuring out the number of shoots I could get there and the number of clusters.

The French have been doing it for centuries and we have been doing it for seven years. It’s like peeling an onion. The more you know, the more you realize you want to know.

JS: Do you buy Okanagan fruit?

MM: We buy Okanagan fruit for the blend which we call Fetish (see John’s recommendation) The agreements we have with the grower basically control how the grapes are grown, when they are picked, and so on. We go to the Okanagan several times a year to check on the fruit.


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