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.
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