NEXT time you're rushing from Swartz Bay to downtown Victoria, consider taking your time in the interests of a tasteful detour.
The Saanich Peninsula has long been known for its leafy lanes, tucked-away farms - and a wicked local weekly market in existence long before farmers' markets attained their current vogue. But this little corner of the island is now truly blossoming with worthy destinations such as Saanich's Sea Cider House (2487 St. Michael Rd, Mount Saanichton, 250-544-4824), which we visited during Taste Victoria.
A true labour of love, established in 2005 by Bruce and Kristen Jordan, Sea Cider's certified organic orchards grow some 60 varieties of apples, which allows for an impressive variety of different styles.
The best way to experience them? Drop by for lunch one day and treat yourself to a few paired with an artisan Ploughman's lunch plate, with tastes ranging from Oyama Castellano sausage to Natural Pastures Comox Camembert, served with fruit preserves, rye and sourdough breads and a shortbread cookie "treat."
Surrounded by natural gardens, orchards and grazing sheep, against a stunning backdrop of pastoral island and ocean views, the cidery provides a relaxing atmosphere that's truly conducive to enjoying a few sips of one of our oldest fermented drinks.
What strikes us about Sea Cider's drier styles in particular is their suitability for food pairing. Track down some crisp and clean Pippins (9.5 per cent ABV, $17, 750 ml.) as a refreshing sipper or good match with smoked salmon.
On the dessert side, the tawny port-like Pommeau (18 per cent, $25, 375 ml.) had us dreaming of Stilton cheese, although it also went well with our platter's shortbread, while both the apricot-and orangetoned Pomona (made with crab-apples, and named for the Roman goddess of apples) successfully emulated an ice wine style at half the price (16 per cent, $25 375 ml.).
Next, check in at Victoria Spirits (6170 Old West Saanich Rd; 250 544 8217) whose compact tasting room offers tastes of not only their hallmark, complex 10botanical gin, but also offers oak-aged Oaken Gin and "Left Coast" Hemp Vodka. Be sure not to leave without at least trying some Merlot Eau de Vie, and at least one bottle of Twisted and Bitter bitters for perking up your summer cocktails.
The peninsula already has its fair share of excellent small wineries, (case in point: Starling Lane) but notable new arrival, De Vine Vineyards (6181B Old West Saanich Rd., Saanichton; 250-665-6983), also worth a call, is right across the road from Victoria Spirits.
Aside from sporting some of the region's most breathtaking vistas from its hilltop perch, De Vine is showing the potential to make some serious wines. For now, most of the production comes from Okanagan grapes (clearly stated on the label), although estate-grown 2011 Pinot Gris (sage, mineral and citrus notes, good length and firm acidity, 89 pts) is a hint of what's to come. Also planted are Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer - while in our mind, Ortega would be a natural addition.
Top of our picks is the Okanagan, mainly Black Sage-grown, 2010 VRM, as in Viognier Roussanne Marsanne, which is layered and luxe with orange, honey and spice notes, with a core of balanced acidity. 91 pts.
The local connection here is that Ken Winchester (ex Winchester Cellars, Victoria Spirits), who made the wines initially now consults to winemaker Natalie Windsor. She says she still can't believe how thrilled (and nervous) she was to make her very first wine in 2009, and whose quick study and vibrant enthusiasm will no doubt continue to help drive the winery's early success.