When you think of warm Mediterranean climates, what international wine regions spring to mind? For me, it is Tuscany—ripe with rolling hills and groves of stunning olive trees. For some Provence would top the list. Have you ever thought that Canada would contain such a compelling spot? I am happy to share with you that it does.
Vancouver Island is home to 35 wineries that stretch the 290 miles (460 KM) from the southern to most northern tip of the island. Many people are familiar with the old English capital city, Victoria, but the epicenter for winemaking on Vancouver Island is located in the Cowichan Valley. From the First Nations Coast Salish people, ‘Cowichan’ means ‘the warm land’ and for good reason. Here, you will find the only maritime Mediterranean climate in all of Canada. It is an agricultural paradise for grapes, lavender, asparagus and kiwi fruit - agritourism is alive and well. The Cowichan Valley receives 1,845 annual sunshine hours, boasts Canada’s warmest mean year-round temperatures and is home to the country’s longest growing season.
Vancouver Island is a booming region for wine touring with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris topping the list. You will find yourself amidst the ‘noble’ grapes such as Merlot and Pinot Noir, but you will also be able to experiment with some very well produced hybrid varieties such as Ortega, Maréchal Foch and Petit Milo.
Three standout wineries in the Cowichan Valley
Averill Creek Vineyard
Averill Creek Vineyard is a family run, 40-acre estate winery located in the northern region of the Cowichan Valley. The vineyard has 32 acres planted to vine and is the biggest estate winery on Vancouver Island. Now in its ninth vintage, vintner Andy Johnston developed his winemaking skills in Tuscany, Australia, France and New Zealand before coming to Vancouver Island. “Western Canada was where we wanted to live,” Andy pointed out. “I saw the potential for premium Pinot Noir in the Cowichan Valley, as Pinot Noir needs cooler weather for balance. I don’t want high alcohol Pinot Noir. I like to keep ours between high 12% and low 13%.”
Averill Creek Vineyard was built on the beautiful slope of Mount Prevost and is designed to be a ‘gravity fed’ winery, which harnesses the power of gravity to mostly eradicate any need for pumping the wine. This groundbreaking technology ensures the grapes and wine are minimally handled, which results in delicious wines full of character and pure expression.
Johnston founded Averill Creek in 2001 and has built a solid reputation for consistently excellent wine. The vineyards are all hand pruned and the grapes are treated gently and with respect. When asked if he had any regrets about his move to the Cowichan Valley and starting a vineyard and winery, Johnston’s answer is simple, “Hell no!”
Averill Creek Vineyard’s warm and welcoming tasting room awaits you. Helpful, informative tasting room staff are true ambassadors of the Cowichan Valley and will guide you professionally through a delicious tasting flight. Be sure to try their Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Merlot and ‘Cowichan Black’ dessert wine. Feeling a bit hungry? The tasting room is nicely stocked with fresh artisanal cheeses for purchase along with baguettes, crackers and some tantalizing treats. Sit down, enjoy delicious wine and take in the incredible views that Averill Creek Vineyard’s elevation provides. In a word—breathtaking.
This is a place where history reveals itself—where memories connect the dots to where you are ‘supposed’ to be. Proprietors, Colleen and Tim Turyk, purchased Unsworth Vineyards in 2009 located close to the lakeside community of Shawnigan Lake. Tim summered here following in the tradition of his mother when she was a girl. When Turyk heard that a small winery and vineyard was for sale close to where his childhood memories were formed, he jumped at the opportunity.
The wine room is bright and inviting. A lineup of well-made wine awaits you and do try the hybrid, single variety wines like Sauvignette and Petit Milo – you will be so glad you did.
Unsworth Vineyard’s Pinot Noir is their standout, which also happens to be the reason General Manager Ron Bogdonov moved to Vancouver Island. “I came here for the Pinot,” he told me. “We do such an excellent job of Pinot Noir in Cowichan Valley. Unsworth is a team. Our success is a Cinderella story and I am so fortunate to be here.”
The Unsworth restaurant is not to be missed, creating beautifully crafted food using only locally sourced, sustainable ingredients. You will find flavor combinations that you have never experienced before such as smoky cheddar polenta fries with a delicate curry ketchup or marinated beet salad topped with orange and tarragon sorbet—stunning and delicious. This is a first class restaurant that treats its guests like family.
Whether striving for sustainability in their farming practices, crafting great wine, creating tantalizing dishes or tending to the very friendly chickens, Unsworth Vineyards is indeed worth a visit.
Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard
Bailey Williamson, the talented and charismatic winemaker at Blue Grouse Estate Winery, has a message, “We are only stewards of this unique Cowichan Valley terroir. We are in Pinot Noir country and it is our job to craft beautiful wines from this beautiful place.”
And, it is beautiful. Surrounded by gentle rolling hills on three sides, Blue Grouse Estate Vineyard is, indeed, a destination. Known for the grape varieties Pinot Noir, Ortega, Pinot Gris, Bacchus, Siegerrebe, and Black Muscat, Blue Grouse Estate Winery will temp and delight your palate, as you taste through an impressive line of approachable and quality wines.
The Brunner family purchased the vineyard and winery, founded by Dr. Hans Kiltz and his family, in 2012. The Kiltz family worked hard and succeeded in raising the quality and standards of wine in a newly developing Vancouver Island wine industry.
Majestic with its circular driveway, geothermal pond (that the local fire station has access too), and architecturally artistic tasting room, Blue Grouse Estate Winery is impressive. Visitors are greeted by a delightful and friendly tasting room staff, great wine, beautiful architecture and (when he is on site) the ever friendly and effusive winemaker, Bailey Williamson.
Bring a picnic lunch for your visit; purchase a bottle of great, food-friendly wine and share time together in this very special place.
BC Ferries – Terminals at Nanaimo and Swartz Bay connect Vancouver Island to the Lower Mainland, B.C.
Black Ball Ferry Line – Washington State Ferries or Clipper from Washington to Victoria, B.C.
Victoria International Airport
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