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B.C.’s Newest Wine Scene is Just One Hour from Vancouver

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The Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery tasting room is in a beautiful chapel-style building that features patio seating and elegant decor. It is among the handful of wineries open to visitors in Abbotsford, a small city in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

As Debbie Etsell pours wine after exceptional wine, I take a peek over her shoulder to the picture window of the converted barn we’re standing in and see Mt. Baker looming over everything: the grape vines, thick acreage of deciduous foliage, and the settlements of humanity built around like pews. The majestic monolith of Washington state is only an hour’s drive away and for years has been a star attraction to the Fraser Valley, the British Columbia farm country that serves much of the Greater Vancouver Area.

As I sample the sips from Singletree Winery, I realize Mt. Baker isn’t the only beacon to the area. The wines are very good — and four hours by car closer to Vancouver than a trip to the province’s leading viticulture region, the Okanagan Valley.

Singletree is among Abbotsford’s six wineries, three of which make wine from grapes while the others favour berry fruits and apples. About 30 years after pioneering Mt. Lehman Winery opened, the area is poised for a boom in interest. An evolving microclimate in the shadow of the Monashee mountains is benefitting winemakers. Located on Mt. Lehman Road, Singletree has caught a wave of warming temperatures that are improving its ability to cultivate wine grapes.

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A harvester takes a break while working the vines at Singletree, among the wineries that has put Abbotsford on the province’s viticulture map. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“One of the reasons we planted here is because of climate change. We had been tracking the heat changes for 20 years and when we first planted in 2010 we knew this terroir would be ideal for cold weather whites as the climate changed,” Etsell says.

The only red wine grape grown on the property is pinot noir, although Singletree owns vineyards in the Naramata Bench area of the South Okanagan and creates a series of wines with vinifera from them, including a full-bodied syrah and malbec. All of the vintages can be sampled in the winery’s rustic tasting room, or enjoyed in one of its plastic-covered domes — a choice so popular during the pandemic that Etsell reports there were 500 reservations booked in the first 24 hours of availability.

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Singletree Vineyards features dome dining experiences where meals can be paired with the property’s sensational wines. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The winemaker is Etsell’s son, Andrew, who studied at the University of California-Davis and was offered jobs in the Golden State but, according to his mother, said, “I could go to where I have my own farm and work in a new terroir people don’t know about.” That was incentive enough to bring his new training to the business his parents started more than a decade ago after studying temperature rise and its effects on soil. The farm is on the property where a 19th-century English gold prospector, James Merryfield, planted a fruit orchard. That history may be one reason why several of Singletree’s wines feature clean, crips fruit notes, with hints of minerality but not as much earthiness as many Okanagan wines. The gruner-veltliner, siegerrebe, and sauvignon blanc are indicative of Singletree’s characteristics, which, as Etsell points out, can surprise even knowledgeable oenophiles.

“People can’t believe what we get here and the quality of the grapes we can produce. We hear it all the time: ‘Who would have thought there would be wineries in Abbotsford?’ But it sure is emerging and more wineries are coming in,” Etsell says, noting that three more wineries are expected to debut in the next year.

Those additions will join Singletree, Mt. Lehman Winery, and Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery as the leading grape growers in the city. Like Singletree, Seaside Pearl, just three kilometres south, is an outstanding family venture. Owned by Alison and David Zimmerman, a husband-and-wife team, Seaside Pearl has built an excellent line of French-style wines whose labels are inspired by the local area.

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Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery owner Alison Zimmerman welcomes guests year-round. The winery in Abbotsford focuses on wines emblematic of Burgundy, Alsace, and other famous regions of France. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The Burgundy-inspired pinot noir, Florence, is named after the first beekeeper in Mt. Lehman, a community that since 1995 has been incorporated into Abbotsford, while the pinot gris shares the identity of the area’s namesake cousins, Sam and Isaac Lehman. The gewürztraminer is called Matsaqui Prairie, which means “elevated piece of land” in the language of the Indigenous Stó:lō people.

A deep connection to the region is everywhere a visitor looks and touches at Seaside Pearl. The experience begins from the moment you enter.

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Washington state’s Mt. Baker dominates the scene as you roll up to Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery’s tasting room. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Guests drive through ornate gates and slowly amble down a straight, unpaved roadway that offers a magnificent view of Mt. Baker as they approach the property’s stately tasting room designed in the shape of a chapel. It’s an exquisite scene, one fitting for film. Tastings take place inside the beautiful main hall or on the elegant, flower-lined patios at the building’s front and rear. Unlike most of the wineries in the Okanagan, Seaside Pearl stays open during the winter, which should certainly tempt wine lovers to visit, particularly those from Vancouver who may be wary of the winter road conditions that are notoriously treacherous on the eastbound highways leading to Kelowna and Penticton.

The vinifera grapes come from the expansive on-site acreage as well as farms in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. The wines have soul, an indication of the care put into the small-batch production of the bottles and the devotion of the Zimmermans, who make clear their desire to present a high-quality product that expresses themselves and their tastes.

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At Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery, tastings can include several of the wineries lineup of vintages, including Daffodils, a canned sparkling wine with 13.5% alcohol content. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Wine is a way of life for us,” Alison Zimmerman tells me as she cuts flowers on the bar, removing thorns and unwieldy stems before placing them in a vase destined for one of the tasting-room tables. “Wine is about beauty and elegance. We decided to do something we love and something we want to share with people from near and far. Our preference is for French-style wines and we’ve really focused on staying true to those traditional methods from that area. But at the same time we are celebrating B.C. and the quality of the fruit and land we’re so lucky to have here.”

MORE ABBOTSFORD: Farm Fun and Fruit Wines

When visiting Seaside Pearl and Singletree, you may need a place to stay if you fully indulge in the winery touring. Turns out, Abbotsford is home to a charming boutique property popular with wine-focused travellers.

Located on Chardonnay Lane, the Brookside Inn is a six-room bed-and-breakfast-style accommodation owned by a husband-and-wife team. The rooms are themed on classic films; the dining room is called — of course — Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a big beautiful house with gorgeous views of Mt. Baker and easy access to the wineries and farms. The inn even has a two-acre vineyard next to it (the vineyard was part of the development of the subdivision that was supposed to include a winery, but that operation has yet to come to fruition).

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At Brookside Inn, the breakfasts can include avocado toast topped with a poached egg and served with toast, bacon, and fresh fruit. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“We get a lot of people coming here and going to the vineyards,” says co-owner Chris Buis. “We wanted to make it feel like it’s all a seamless experience and going to wineries is a bit of a European activity.”

His wife, Sandy, is the chef and makes delicious breakfasts with culinary flair, making the Brookside a pleasant choice for rounding out your connoisseur’s visit to farm country.

MORE ABOUT VISITING ABBOTSFORD

Singletree Winery 
Location: 5782 Mt. Lehman Road, Abbotsford, B.C. (see map below)
Tasting Room Hours: Noon-5:30 p.m. (Wednesday to Sunday)
Di Vine Dome Dining Experience: Three packages are available, ranging from $20 tastings (with store credit) to $75 per person for three-course dinner (Friday and Saturday nights only). Book online at the Singletree website.
Notable Wines: The Sauvignon Blanc ($17.30) is wonderfully balanced with flavours of stone fruit and passionfruit. The Siegerrebe ($16.10), or Siggy, as the winery calls it, is unusual in Canada, which makes it worth a sample. It’s an off-dry white with the characteristics of gewürztraminer.

Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery
Location: 5290 Olund Road, Abbotsford, B.C. (see map below)
Tasting Room Hours: Noon-5:30 p.m. (Tuesday to Monday); $15 tasting fee per person (waived with the purchase of two or more bottles of wine). Patio Service: Patio tables are coveted at Seaside Pearl. The minimum spend for a group of patio visitors is $150 (includes your group’s take-away wine purchases). Reserve your indoor or outdoor tasting online at Seaside Pearl’s website.
Notable Wines: Lovers Lane Cabernet Franc ($31) is superb with a rounded finish and spicy notes. Sam & Isaac Pinot Gris ($22) is a pleasant expression of one of British Columbia’s most beloved grapes.

Brookside Inn
Location: 2379 Chardonnay Lane, Abbotsford, B.C. (see map below)
Room Rates: Based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine, nightly rates begin at $144 for a weekend stay this winter. Telephone: 604-856-3300.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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