BC’s wine scene has grown exponentially in recent decades with more than 300 producers now spread across the province. But you don’t have to travel too far if you fancy a delicious glass of wine: the largest winery in the Metro Vancouver area is right here in Richmond.

Lulu Island Winery opened in the city’s fertile farmlands not too long before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Serving as the official China House during the big event, it’s since grown into a destination for in-the-know wine lovers—complete with tours, tasting rooms, and even a grape tunnel.

Lulu Island Winery
The entrance to Lulu Island Winery. | Photo: ​John Lee

PLANNING A VISIT

With time to spare on a recent weekday afternoon, we headed over take one of the popular tasting tours. But when we arrived at the large, modern winery building, we were swiftly distracted by what’s become a favourite feature of the grounds: a lush, walk-through grape tunnel speckled with ripening fruit. It’s perfect for a leafy, sun-dappled stroll, and we had the chance to visit it again during the tour.

Inside the building, we perused rows of racked bottles in one of the huge tasting rooms—there were several visitors enjoying samples at the long counter—while we waited for our guide. There are two main ways to visit the winery: you can enjoy a few tastings at the counter for free or you can purchase a 90-minute guided tour and tasting experience.

These tours, offered via Groupon, are great value. The $39 package covers two people on an in-depth guided walk that concludes with samples and a generous snack platter. The four-person deal is even better, at just $49. Keep in mind that once you’ve purchased your Groupon, you still have to call the winery to book your tour slot—early afternoon weekday visits are recommended.

Lulu Island Winery
The grape tunnel is a popular feature at Lulu Island Winery. | Photo: Crystal Solberg

THE TOUR

Our tour guide, Allen, soon arrived to greet us. A friendly young man who clearly loves his job and enjoys meeting new people, he was the perfect host. As well as being highly knowledgeable about wine, he talked us through all the specific production processes during the behind-the-scenes portion of the tour.

First up, though, we headed outside. Telling us a little more about the ‘grape tunnel’—its fruit includes Merlot, Riesling, and Chardonnay, and visitors often picnic under its cooling arches—we learned that most of the winery’s production grapes come from the Okanagan. But not all of them: Lulu Island Winery visitors can also stroll among seven acres of Orange Muscat vines here, which were dripping with abundant grapes on our visit.

Lulu Island Winery
Orange Muscat grapes in the vineyard. | Photo: Crystal Solberg

INSIDE THE FACILITY

It was a hot day when we visited, so it was a welcome relief to duck back inside to the winery’s much cooler production area. Lulu Island Winery produces two million bottles a year, so it was a surprise to find that such a busy operation is sparkling clean. Polished concrete floors are topped by two-dozen or so towering steel tanks, each a vital part of the winery’s ever-evolving output.

Lulu Island Winery
Allen's behind-the-scenes tour was very informative. | Photo: ​John Lee

But it’s not all steel and concrete. While explaining the basics of how wine is made, our chatty guide pointed out a state-of-the-art Italian bottling machine and a heavy-duty press that processes up to 4.3 tonnes of grapes per hour.

Two other features also caught our eye. Arranged on their sides, were three hulking (i.e. big enough to stand up in) French-made barrels used to age Merlot. We learned that each one cost $175,000—and holds 5,000 litres of wine. There was also some copper-coloured distilling equipment: Lulu Island is currently pioneering the production of “ice brandy.” It’s not ready yet, we heard, but there’s a great deal of anticipation for this intriguing new product. Don’t forget, you heard it here first!

Lulu Island Winery
These custom-made barrels hold 5,000 litres of wine. | Photo: Crystal Solberg

TASTING TIME

After learning about the process of wine making, we were thirsty for the tour’s tasting portion. The Groupon package includes eight samples, poured and introduced by your guide at one of the counters inside the winery. It also comes with a generous platter of cheese, charcuterie, crackers, olives, hummus, and more.

One of the most enjoyable and relaxed wine tasting sessions I’ve ever encountered, we started with two white wines. The Chardonnay Muscat (which includes Richmond-grown grapes) had a sweet citrus-fruit undertone coupled with a tart lemony kick. In contrast, the Pinot Gris was smooth, subtle, and a perfect summer patio sipper.

I’m usually more of a red wine fan, and I fully enjoyed the next two: a fruity but slightly bitter Pinot Noir, and a Bordeaux-style Meritage that was a beautifully balanced, oak-aged blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more.

Lulu Island Winery also makes some lovely fruit wines: we sampled a summer-ready Raspberry as well as what may be a signature Richmond drink: the top-selling Blueberry wine. Made from locally grown berries (20 pounds for each bottle, we learned), it’s the kind of wine you take to parties and everyone loves.

Lulu Island Winery
The tasting includes samples of berry wine and icewine. | Photo: ​John Lee

But Lulu Island is perhaps best known for its icewines, the finale of our afternoon tasting session. This sweet, elixir-like libation has evolved into a much more subtle and enjoyable beverage in recent years—­­inviting those who’ve previously dismissed it to give it another try. During the tour, we learned all about what goes into making a bottle of icewine, and why few countries are able to produce it.

Our Lulu Island icewine samples were a revelation: the velvety, honey-flavoured Riesling Chardonnay would be an ideal after-dinner treat, while the Viognier was a heady, aromatic delight suffused with rich tropical flavours. It was my favourite wine of the day. And on the way home, I was already thinking about returning to buy a bottle or two for friends.

IF YOU GO:

Open every day from 10:00am to 6:30pm, Lulu Island Winery is at 16880 Westminster Hwy in east Richmond. The company’s wines are not sold at BC government liquor stores, but the winery’s large onsite retail areas display the full range for shoppers.

Tastings are free, but if you want the full tour and tasting experience, head over to Groupon to purchase a tour for 2 or 4 people (and be sure to call the winery to book a tour time).

Learn more about wineries and breweries in Richmond here.