Last weekend, I had a chance to visit a BC Wine Region I’ve had on my list for a few years now, Vancouver Island (North Cowichan). It’s the third largest wine region in the province, with tons of fantastic wineries. The regions terroir makes this place special to grow wine, including its high mountain ranges, volcanic soils, ocean breeze, low rainfall and its Mediterranean-like microclimate. A wide range of grapes are grown across the island- including staples like Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but also lots of exciting and unique grapes you’ve probably never heard of- like Ortega, Muller Thurgau, Siegerrebe and Marechal Foch.
We focused our tour in the Cowichan Valley, which is located close to the small, charming town of Duncan. We wanted to optimize our time on the island so we took an early ferry (9am) from Tsawassen (Vancouver) to Swartz Bay (Victoria). On our way, we stopped at the cutest italian bakery, Mosi Bakery, for coffee and croissants- a MUST stop to fuel your hour long drive over the Malahat to Cowichan. And before we knew it, we were driving through the gates of our first winery- before noon!!
Our first stop was a tasting and tour at Unsworth Vineyards. This family owned and operated winery honestly has it all! A perfect little picnic area next to a pond right outside the tasting room, an outdoor patio serving up the finest wood-fired pizza and an on-site farm to table restaurant. We met Proprietor Tim Turyk who kindly took us on a tour of the property that ended with a tasting in the tasting room. He talked about the 12 acre estate vineyard, which grows Marechal Foch, Labelle, Cabernet Libre, Ariel, Pinot Gris, Epicure, Pinot Gris and of course, Pinot Noir. The oldest vineyard block is Marechal Foch, which was planted in 2007. This is the grape behind their award-winning port style wine, Ovation.
We walked into the bright tasting room that was very welcoming, serving up its award-winning wines. We started the tasting with a refreshing sparkling wine, the Charme De L’ile, a blend of Pinot Gris and Sauvignette- all from the island. Then, we tasted 2018 Pinot Gris, 2018 Allegro (made with coastal varietals including Sauvignette and Petit Milo), 2018 Sauvignette, 2018 Rose (provence style made from estate Pinot Noir), 2017 Symphony and ended with some port- the Ovation made with old vine Marechal Foch.
Then, we stopped at Venturi-Schulze Vineyard which is located right off the highway. This is one of the “original 3” wineries on the island, establishing their vineyard in 1988. They focus their efforts on sustainability in the vineyard and do not use any irrigation, herbicides, pestidcies or chemicals in their wines. A total of 8 varietals (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Auxerrois, Madeleine Sylvaner, Siegerrebe, Schönburger, Ortega and Kerner) are grown on this property and only 500 cases (that’s right, only 500!) are produced, making it one of the smallest wineries in BC. Venturi-Schulze takes extreme pride in making pure and natural wines. We kicked off our tasting with some bubbles, a traditional method 2013 Brut Natural made from Pinot Auxerrious. Then, we tasted 2016 Harper’s Row, 2015 Pinot Noir, and ended with a stunning wine (only wine of its kind)- the Brandenburg No.3 made from Pinot Auxerrois and it was TO DIE FOR. Different from anything else I’ve ever tasted… an amber coloured white wine that tasted like a creme brûlée caramel coffee. I definitely picked up a bottle of this for the cellar.
Finally, we checked into our accommodations for the weekend- at the gorgeous property at Blue Grouse Winery. We were lucky enough to stay at the Grouse House, which offers a spectacular “Bed and Bottle” retreat in the middle of wine country. We were travelling with our 7 month year old girl, Chloe, and felt so fortunate to stay at such a relaxing spot. Right when we walked through the doors of our suite, we felt like we were on a vacation because we were at ease and felt so comfortable in such a beautiful spot. The layout was perfect for our little family- a large, open concept living space equipped with a fireplace, chefs kitchen and large dining space. Our master suite was very spacious with a comfortable King Bed and doors that opened onto a patio right next to the vineyard. The ensuite bathroom had heated floors (such a treat!) and a large walk-in rain shower. A bottle of the 2017 Quill Q Red (a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Marechal Foch) was left for us to enjoy during our stay.
To be honest, we really wanted to spend the night in, curled up with a glass of the Quill Q Red next to the fireplace with takeout pizza, BUT we already made dinner reservations at a local spot, The Ainslie, in the heart of downtown Duncan that was highly recommended to us by many. At the end of the day, we were happy we ventured off to Duncan (it was less than 10 minutes away from the Guest House!) because the town is so charming- straight out of a small town movie. And lucky for us, there was a fun Winter festival happening that evening and the entire town was lite up for Christmas, with horse drawn carriages and carollers that lined the streets. We even ended our lovely evening with a firework show to kickoff the holiday season. It was perfect.
The next day, we woke up to a cool morning with frost lining the vineyards right outside our room. Lucky for me, my husband went and got us hot coffee and pastries from Drumroaster Coffee and I had a few extra minutes to relax in bed and soak up the beautiful vineyard view.
After finishing our coffees in bed (it really was the best!) we walked up to Blue Grouse Estate Winery for an early morning tasting- at 10am! We were greeted by Proprietor Paul Brunner who took us on a tour of the winery before escaping for a few hours (yes, hours!) into the cellar to enjoy tank and barrel tastings. We learned that Blue Grouse Estate Winery is one of the island’s oldest estate vineyards with its first plantings in 1986. The winery itself is still growing- currently 8.5 acre vineyard expanding to 15 acres. The tasting room at the winery was carefully designed, using British Columbia and Vancouver Island products, including the beams and locally quarried stone, bamboo stairs, a closed loop water system and geothermal energy. The owners are also committed to going organic and are currently in the process with hopes to be certified at the end of next year.
Paul then escorted us down to the cellar where we were treated to tank and barrel samples. You could tell Blue Grouse is passionate about the high quality wines they produce and the efforts that go into their winemaking process. From what we tasted, I can tell you to look out for the 2019 Pinot Noir Rose. Its going to be killer! We didn’t taste the exact wine as the blend has yet to be determined, but we did taste three varietals that will end up going into the Rose: the 2019 Gamay Noir (estate), the 2019 Pinot Noir (Saison Vineyard, Cowichan) and 2019 Pinot Noir (Covert Farms, Okanagan) and they were fantastic already! Blue Grouse also makes a lovely champagne-style sparking wine, Paula (named after Paul and Cristina’s daughter), made from Ortega and Pinot Gris from their estate vineyard that sells out extremely quickly each year.
We then drove about 20 minutes north to visit a winery recommended to use by Kurtis Kolt: Emandare Vineyard. This winery focuses on showcasing terroir from their estate vineyard in every single bottle. They don’t use any commercial yeasts or additives and low intervention in the winemaking process. We kicked off the tasting with traditional method bubbles, the 2018 Traditional Method Rose made with 100% estate Pinot Noir. Then, we tasted the 2017 Pinot Noir and ended with the 2019 Marchel-Cabernet Foch. Unfortunately because we visited late in the year, most of their wines were already sold out- like their Sauvignon Blanc and Rose. This is definitely a winery I am going to watch out for and would highly recommend it for anyone visiting this area!
The last winery we visited on our trip was Averill Creek Vineyard, the largest estate winery on the Island producing world-class wines. This winery actually helped put Canada on the map at the 2017 Global Pinot Noir Masters in London for its 2014 Someons Series Pinot Noir- the only Canadian Winery to win a medal. The tasting room had stunning views overlooking Cowichan Valley into the Bay. It had a large picnic area that offers cheese and charcuterie in the summer months. We kicked off our tasting just like the others- with bubbles of course. We tasted the Charme de L’ile. Then, we tasted the Someons Series (higher tier wines) 2017 Pinot Gris and 2016 Pinot Noir. We ended with the 2013 Foch Cab.
Since it was our last evening on the island, we knew we wanted to celebrate with a special dinner and made reservations at Unsworth Vineyard Restaurant. The winery restaurant was charming, located inside a restored early 1900s farmhouse. The restaurant focuses on using local, fresh ingredients offering a seasonally inspired menu and nightly feature items. They even have their own herb garden right outside the restaurant. Because I was at Unsworth, I just HAD to taste their 2017 Pinot Noir again and ordered a glass. Glancing at the menu,I honestly could have ordered every.single.dish!
We started with melt-in-your-mouth Polenta Fries with smoked cheddar and garlic aioli. Then, we shared the Wicklow Farm Greens with Riesling & Vanilla Poached Pear (serious YUM!), Honey Roasted Cashews, Blue Cheese, Balsamic Dressing. It was perfection. Then, we went with the house-made fresh pasta of the day: fettuccine in tomato sauce with crispy pancetta and red/green onions. Sadly, we didn’t have any room left for dessert but I probably would have went with the fresh apple cake. I would highly recommend the Unsworth Restaurant as a must-stop for lunch, dinner or brunch on Sundays!
We weren’t able to taste at every winery in the region (we only had 2 days of tasting!) but we will definitely be back to visit- hopefully next spring. Other wineries in Cowichan include Deol Estate Winery, Cherry Point Estate Winery, Alderlea Vineyards, Damali Lavender & Winery, Divino Estate Winery, Glenterra Vineyards, Enrico Winery, Rocky Creek Winery and Vigneti Zanatta Winery & Vineyards.
Planning a trip to Cowichan? Be sure to follow our 2 day itinerary below. For more information on the area, visit Tourism Cowichan.
Cowichan Valley (Duncan, BC) | uncorkBC 2 day itinerary
9am: Take a Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria
11am: Arrive in Victoria and drive to the Duncan area
12:30pm: tasting at Unsworth*bring a picnic or opt for pizza on the patio overlooking the vineyard