Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wine Islands

It seems like almost anywhere you go nowadays has a wine region. Some are better than others, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines being produced many places.

On Vancouver Island, the "warm land" of the Cowichan Valley provides a great climate for growing grapes and the small estate vineyards are producing several interesting wines. It's also an area renowned for all types of farming, so there are wonderful local treats at the farmer's markets--ciders, berries, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, meats, wild mushrooms, jams and more.

Some of the primary grapes that flourish in this region are Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Ortega. A number of producers also make a blackberry dessert wine from the abundance of local blackberries.

Visiting estate wineries, especially in more remotes areas, is worlds apart from the likes of a Napa Valley wine tour. The wineries are often situated within a family's private home and most often the owner will be pouring the wine. It may not be as fancy as some larger tasting rooms and tours, but it has a charm and fun all its own. The owners exude passion for their work and often provide a great education.

For this trip, we took a van tour from Parksville to the Cowichan Valley, with Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours, Inc.. Our guide, Gary, does a number of nature hikes and tours and pointed out different sites and facts along the way. The biggest negative was that, being the off season, several wineries were not open. Unfortunately, our guide didn't check ahead, so our first two potential stops were closed. It didn't end up being a problem because we had plenty of places to visit that were open, but it was not an auspicious start. Taking a tour has some advantages, including not worrying about driving if you have a few too many tastes, but also not having to worry about where you are going. Although the wine trail is well marked on Vancouver Island, many of the wineries are fairly removed and down long windy driveways--having someone who has been there before and can navigate those spots is handy, and allows you to enjoy the scenery.

Here were a few spots I would recommend and some notes on the wines:

1. Blue Grouse Estate Winery had a nice tasting room and enthusiastic wine steward (not the owner, but she was very passionate). The Ortega was tasty, but the Pinot Gris really stood out among the whites. It was more creamy and full bodied than a lot of Pinot Gris--very smooth with a lingering finish. A pleasant surprise! The other wine that was new to us was the Dunkelfelder, a red made from a rare grape. Dry and unique, it would stand up well with red meat and heavy foods--well worth tasting (and buying).

2. Rocky Creek Winery exemplifies the small, family run estate winery. The owner provided our tasting. He started running his winery out of his basement before he was able to move to the current property. A man who loved making wine, and found a way to transition from hobby to business--he makes you want to cheer for him. He gave some history of the wines, the seasons and how they came to make some unique wines during one particularly tough season. He has received accolades from his early days of winemaking and obviously takes great pride in his passion. His is a family business and two of the wines are named for his daughters, who have apparently put in a lot of work in the business. The blackberry dessert wine was quite tasty, and he pairs it with a salt and pepper chocolate that they make. They also make a sparkling wine, which was not quite out when we visited--another result of that one bad season that forced innovation.

3. Cherry Point Vineyards was a bit larger and had a nice tasting room, as well as a bistro (not open when we visited). The winery has apparently changed ownership a few times, and the current owners have that passion and knowledge that makes the visit an educational experience. They also make a delicious blackberry dessert wine (named after the area, probably one of the most signature of the area) as well as an aged version with more depth called Solera, after the style of processing. Their Rose won me over to Roses--made from Pinot Noir, in the "proper style" as we were informed. It was dry and smooth, none of the cloying sweetness or bite that some Roses have. Their red Pinot Noir was very distinctive, with a strong peppery flavor. Apparently, the vineyard's soil brings out that flavor in the reds and it made for a very interesting and bold Pinot Noir.

Most of the vineyards and farms in the area follow organic practices. Doing so is labor intensive and even with helpers (most farms and vineyards get young people who work in exchange for room, board and experience) you have to be passionate to be doing this.

Beyond the wineries, there is much to see and do in the Cowichan Valley. Visit Cowichan Bay, a quaint fishing village with unbelievable views, cute shops, and plenty of good eats. Don't miss the cheese shop and the bakery. The town of Chemainus offers a nice downtown, with its famous murals depicting the history of the area and its peoples. You have to appreciate a town's ingenuity in creating a tourism draw after their mill closed down and the economy suffered. They also have a great live theatre. Take a stroll through nearby Duncan to check out the numerous totems. There are many artisans in the area to check out as well, and of course the farmer's markets and restaurants to enjoy all the bounties of the farms and sea.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Away from it all on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island may be a little out of the way, but it's well worth the trip. There is something about islands that makes them special...that slight inaccessibility lending something that is hard to find in a world where things are mostly convenient and homogeneous. The ferry ride over from Vancouver was a great part of the trip in itself. We took the car ferry--a modern, well equipped, "mini cruise" with plenty of comforts, though the views are the best amenity.

British Columbia is perhaps the most diverse Canadian Province in terms of ecosystems. BC has desert areas, mountains, old growth forests, calm beaches and rain forests and more. Apparently, BC has the world's strongest ocean currents, yet in the Parksville and Nanoose Bay area they have some of the mildest, along with mild ocean temperatures (I would never have guessed the water could get up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit here!).

Some other interesting facts I learned:

The west coast of Vancouver Island contains the rain forest area and very wet weather--almost 100 times that of the east coast, which actually sees mild rainfall (20-30 inches/year).

The west coast is prone to Tsunamis, though they have been mild and the country has an extensive warning system that works very well.

The world's greatest population of cougars lives on Vancouver Island.

There are many things to do to enjoy the natural beauty of the island:

  • Watch bears chasing the running salmon.

  • Visit old growth forests and walk amongst the 800 year old trees.

  • Hike the rainforest.

  • Tour the caves.

  • Visit fish hatcheries.

  • Go skiing.

  • Walk some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

  • Take in the views from the many golf courses.

  • Go whale watching, bird watching, or shell collecting.

  • Visit the waterfalls or take in the wide variety of beautiful scenery in the many parks.

In addition to the great outdoors, there are interesting shops, museums, places to explore the history of the island's native people, crafts and artisans, tours of the wineries, meaderies, and farmer's markets, and several quaint towns to enjoy. Then, there's the capital city of Victoria...but more on that later...

For more photos of Vancouver Island click here and for more detailed information on visiting, stop by the Vancouver Island website.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

City Trips: Vancouver, BC

To me, the key for a great city trip is a convenient hotel/place to stay. Of course, most cities enjoy great public transportation, which opens up location options and enables you to avail yourself of a variety of neighborhoods.

Vancouver is no exception, with a wonderful train system and electric buses running throughout the city. It is also very walkable, even in cold weather (milder than many other northern cities and there are coffee shops on every corner to take off the chill). Bike lanes are taking priority as the city redesigns the roads. Vancouver's unique seawall path runs around the waterside of most of the city and is the perfect spot to take in the scenery and get some exercise.

As on my visits to most large cities, one of the best parts of the visit is walking around exploring the city's neighborhoods, people watching, window shopping and enjoying the convenience of "city living". Vancouver has many fun and diverse neighborhoods, from Yaletown to Granville Island to Chinatown (the 2nd largest in North America). Yaletown was our home base and had a number of shops, restaurants and bars and was central to many areas. Granville Street runs nearby and is home to a lot of the chain shops, cheap eats and the nightclub scene. Gastown, several blocks away, is an old area with new life. Check out Chill Winston for great food and creative cocktails, or head below to Guilt & Co. for a good beer selection in a cellar atmosphere. There are a number of restaurants and pubs to check out in the area, and most have great settings in the old buildings. I'd recommend Six Acres for the shoestring fries and a Belgian beer.

Granville Island has a wonderful array of shops and markets. The public market has every type of take away food you could want, plus all of the food groups and more in the food stalls. In the damp weather, the homemade hot chocolate hit the spot--I chose the Mayan with a bit of chili spice and vanilla-yum!

Another must-visit is Stanley Park. Like most great urban areas, the green spaces are vital to the city. Stanley Park is unique in all there is to do there and the views of the water, Vancouver Island/mountains. Visit the aquarium to take in the whale show and many native species. Check out the great restaurants, especially The Tea House for a traditional tea service or classic meal. Stop by the Totem pole area and native peoples center/gift shop to learn more about the first inhabitants of this area. And, of course, enjoy the nature of the park and all of the different beaches and garden areas.

There is plenty to see and do in Vancouver, without even venturing in to the rest of British Columbia, which has much more to offer. On my next visit, I hope to check out the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and explore more of the neighborhoods, as well as venture out to the Capilano Suspension bridge and Grouse Mountain.

View more photos here.