By John Schreiner
reprinted with permission
Chateau Wolff Estate Winery
Nanaimo’s Chateau Wolff Estate Winery, which has been dormant since founder Harry von Wolff died in 2005, has been revived brilliantly by Ontarians Matt and Natalie Riga.
They opened their renovated tasting room last summer. Their debut vintage of 2014 was about 300 cases and most of those wines are entirely or almost sold out. In 2015, they have raised production to about 550 cases, thanks to their Herculean work to restore a vineyard that had fallen into neglect.
They have chosen to revive the memory of the founder both by keeping his original name for the winery and by retaining some of his artefacts. Harry also operated a store specializing in western-style garments and he was often garbed in those styles. One of Harry’s Stetsons now hangs on the tasting room wall.
“It was pretty personal, taking over the property [in 2014],” Natalie says. “At the time, his house was still there and not everything had been taken out of the house. There were all of his wine books that he had used. We have them in our office now. We go through them and read things … you can never read too much about wine … and he has his own notes in some of them. We have never met this man but we know quite a bit about him.”
It is one of those strange coincidences that Harry was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, while the surname of the current owners is Riga.
Matt was born in Trenton, Ontario, in 1981 while Natalie is from London, Ontario. Both set out on career paths quite unrelated to wine. Matt, with a degree in sociology and a minor in criminology, spent several years as a youth counsellor in Victoria. Natalie has a sociology degree from the University of Victoria.
They first came to Victoria in 2007 to visit friends and fell in love with Vancouver Island. “We decided we were going to stay there fulltime,” Natalie says. That plan was upset in 2009 by a health crisis in Matt’s family, causing the couple to return to Trenton. “That took us on a whole other journey,” Natalie.
Matt had grown up working in a popular Italian restaurant owned by an uncle and aunt. So in 2010 Matt and Natalie opened their own restaurant, The Port Bistro.
“We had been talking about a small restaurant in Victoria,” Matt says. “We both love cooking and everything that goes along with that.” Their bistro, which served what they called gourmet comfort food, also put them in touch with the wineries in nearby Prince Edward County.
That fired their interest in a winemaking career. Soon they were exploring the wineries and volunteering to help at crush. After running the bistro for two and a half years, they decided against careers as restaurateurs. They began searching for winery opportunities, first in Prince Edward County, then Niagara and finally on Vancouver Island.
“We both wanted to move back to Vancouver Island,” Natalie says. “We had a hard time leaving Victoria originally. Moving back to the island was something we had in our hearts.”
An internet search led them to Chateau Wolff which Sotheby’s International Realty had listed for $859,000. Located on the western outskirts of Nanaimo, the property included five acres of vines, most planted in 1990. The mature vineyard appealed to Matt and Natalie. “Old vines produce less wine but they produce better wine,” he says.
The property also came with the larger than life stories of Harry von Wolff, (right) who had purchased the property in 1987 to develop Nanaimo’s first winery
He had been a member of a prosperous family of landowners until World War 11 and the Soviet occupation of Latvia left his father in a Siberian prison camp and the rest of the family as postwar refugees. Harry, with his mother and grandmother, immigrated to Canada in 1953. He worked on an uncle's ranch in British Columbia's Peace River country for a year and then began a peripatetic career through fifty-eight different jobs over eleven years. A hotel management course in Switzerland led to a career in the hotel business that fostered his interest in wines.
With his wife, Helga, Harry settled in Nanaimo in 1977 and prospered in retailing western clothing and footwear. Harry now became a competent amateur winemaker and, after planting a few vines at his home, established this vineyard. An admirer of the wines of Burgundy, he planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the best site, a southwest-facing slope against a sunbathed cliff. His first commercial vintage was 1996 and he opened the winey in 1998.
After his death at age 71 in 2005 (Helga died shortly thereafter), his survivors struggled with the vineyard, leasing it to another Nanaimo winery, then selling the grapes and then finally letting it grow wild until Matt and Natalie came along late in 2013. Matt estimates that he pruned “about five years of wood” prior to the 2014 and 2015 vintages.
The couple recognized that they “could not wing it” and recruited Mackenzie Brisbois, a graduate both of Niagara College and the University of Guelph, with experience both in vineyards and in wineries. She had been an assistant winemaker at Norman Hardy Winery, Matt and Natalie’s favourite Prince Edward County winery. Ready to take on the challenge of helping the new owners turn around Chateau Wolff, she arrived in April 2014, staying through the season and the crush before returning to Prince Edward County in 2015.
“She showed us the ropes in both the vineyard and the winery,” Matt says. “It worked out really well. We couldn’t believe it was happening. I had underestimated what goes into winemaking and tending to a vineyard. We have learned that the vineyard is the most important place because that is where it starts. We were lucky to find someone like Mackenzie.”
Matt and Natalie (and their 18 month old daughter, Siena) handled the vineyard and the winemaking themselves in 2015. When they needed help picking the grapes, they invited about 25 volunteers. Matt dipped into his experience as a chef, roasting a pig over a spit to feed the volunteers. Some already have their names on the list for picking in 2016.
The hand of an experienced winemaker shows in the quality of the wines that launched the Chateau Wolff revival. These excellent wines, because production is limited, are available at the tasting room (open now on weekends and by appointment) and in a handful of Nanaimo and Victoria liquor stores and restaurants. They are well worth seeking out.
Chateau Wolff Syrah 2014
($25). Syrah grapes were purchased from Naramata Bench vineyards (and were purchased again in 2015) so that the winery could make a big red from a variety not grown on the island. This wine begins with an appealing aroma of red fruit and white pepper. It has classic gamy flavours of meaty red fruit and pepper. There is a hint of spice and raspberry on the long finish. 90.
Chateau Wolff White Blend 2014
($15). This is about 85% Viognier with Bacchus and Siegerrebe completing the blend. The wine begins with fragrant floral aromas, leading to flavours of apples and pears and a crisp finish. 88.
Chateau Wolff Pinot Noir 2014
($25). Aged in French oak for nine months, this wine has spicy aromas and flavours of cherry. It has good intensity on the palate and the fine tannins give it a good texture. 88-90.
Chateau Wolff Rouge 2014 ($18 for 375 ml). This fortified wine from the estate’s Dornfelder grapes is a tribute to the port-style wine that Harry called Grand Rouge. This wine begins with appealing sweet fruit aromas leading to flavours of black cherry, fig and liquorice. 88.
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