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Festival showcases island wineries

LAUNCHING a new food and wine festival is no easy feat at the best of times.

LAUNCHING a new food and wine festival is no easy feat at the best of times.

But Taste: Victoria's Festival of Food and Wine (the third annual wraps today), has emerged as the definitive celebration of everything flavourful Vancouver Island (and beyond) has to offer.

The four-day program - the brainchild of Travels with Taste culinary tour organizer Kathy McAree - is, to put it mildly, an artful balancing act.

Much of the festival's appeal is its broad spectrum of artisan producers, from fishers to farmers, specialty food producers, restaurants of every style and size, breweries, cideries, grape and fruit wineries - and the list goes on. Taste's program roams across the capital, offering patrons visits to sustainable seafood producers, such as Finest at Sea, an introduction to tea tasting at Silk Road Teas, Swine on the Vine, a pig roast at Hotel Grand Pacific, a bountiful waterside seafood buffet at the Inn at Laurel Point, and more.

The centrepiece kick-off, the aptly named Main Event, takes place below the soaring glass atrium of Victoria's Crystal Garden - the city's original, Francis Rattenbury-designed convention centre.

Bathed in mid-summer natural light, this dramatic, two-tier space is the perfect place to sample a diversity of tastes, from Sea Cider's crisp and refreshingly fruity Pippins to Victoria Spirits' intriguing barrel-aged Left Coast Hemp Vodka. (Then again, we're still hooked on Vic Spirits' Twisted & Bitter...)

Taste also includes a number of Okanagan and Lower Mainland wineries - something which was initially a tough sell to some of the island's more politically "insular" players. However, it's becoming increasingly important for the more established island producers to be able to showcase alongside their mainland peers. Slowly but surely, the region's cool climate message, that very much marks its point of difference, is starting to take hold, especially as people discover some of its more esoteric tastes - and the microclimates that nurture them.

Our lineup of "musttaste" island (and Gulf Island) wineries just keeps on growing. Some you may find surprising. Averill Creek's Andy Johnston believes the Cowichan is perfect for Pinot: it's pretty hard to argue with his smoky, gently mineral 2008 Pinot Noir ($26), while his citrus-and appletoned Pinot Grigio 2010 would be perfect beside fresh caught halibut ($18).

Long-suffering Marechal Foch, held in disdain by so many Okanagan winemakers, is a worthy specialty of Saanich's Starling Lane, whose supple, soft tannin, plummy toned 2009 rates as one of the island's most polished reds ($24).

From Salt Spring comes Garry Oaks' pear-and citrustoned 2010 Pinot Gris, while well balanced cherry-and spice-primed Zeta shows how Zweigelt can shine in the right hands ($24.90).

There's not room here to do justice to the likes of Venturi-Schulze (Millefiori), Rocky Creek (Robin's Pinot Noir Rosé), Mistaken Identity (Abondante Bianco) and others ... but we will, in time.

For specialty tastes, the island's answer to icewine is an array of blackberry wines, whose fruit and wildberry flavours play out in any number of ways. One of the more truly wild tasting is Rocky Creek's highly awarded chocolate-toned Cowichan Wild Blackberry, which starts with a burst of fruit before a keen, dry end.

All make for worthy sippers or delicious dessert partners - and again underscore the region's growing panache and diversity, the keystone of Taste Victoria.