Touring Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley wine region

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By most standards the many wineries and single cidery of Vancouver Island’s verdant Cowichan Valley  region would be considered neophytes, with most of them clocking less than 15 years in this most demanding of industries. But what they may lack in experience they more than compensate for in innovation, passion and dedication to their craft. That devotion to one of the most delicate balancing acts in existence – of timing, taste, weather and skill – is paying off, as we discovered during a recent day trip that took us to several award-winning wineries and the equally-successful sole cider producer in the valley. We were deeply impressed by the diversity of the offerings, by the many lovely venues, and by the sheer courage and determination of these gutsy new entrepreneurs, many of whom have deep roots in the Cowichan Valley and have ‘come home’ after successful careers elsewhere.

View from Averill Creek Winery

The spectacular view from Averill Creek Winery is fronted by a thriving crop of grapes

The word Cowichan means ‘land warmed by the sun’ or ‘the warm land’ in the First Nations Coast Salish language.  The region boasts Canada’s only maritime Mediterranean climatic zone, with the warmest mean year-round temperatures and longest growing season in the country – making it a prime Vancouver Island wine region.

Picnic area, Averill Creek Winery

Many of the wineries have pretty licensed picnic areas where visitors can enjoy a bite to eat with a favourite glass of wine.

Our day began at Averill Creek Vineyard,  perched high on a hillside with spectacular views of water and lowlands.  A large ultra-modern tasting room was fronted by a pretty picnic area bordered by beautiful gardens.  We spent quite a bit of time discussing the various features of some of their current offerings and appreciating the input and in-depth knowledge of the young ladies (or wine geeks, as one of them jokingly referred to herself) pouring for us – it was a most enlightening hour spent in a splendid setting.

Cider flight at Merridale Estate Cidery

Award-winning ciders are also available in the Cowichan Valley. We enjoyed this cider flight with our lunch at Merridale Estate Cidery

Onward, to the rustic Merridale Estate Cidery, where we were pleasantly surprised to find not just cider tasting opportunities but a vast range of other activities on offer as well.  We enjoyed a wonderful lunch in the bistro, which focuses on featuring locally-grown products.  A cider flight rounded out the meal, giving us the opportunity to experience a variety of flavours, including a traditional old English-style Scrumpy. A tour of the property and distilling facilities found us marvelling at the thriving cider apple trees, the imported still, which is a true work of art, and the beautiful yurts, which can be rented by those who want to stick around and savour the region and the Merridale ambiance for more than a few hours.

Chicken pot pie at Merridale Cider

Lunch – chicken pot pie made with old-fashioned English Scrumpy cider, served with hand-cut fries and a lemon aioli in the bistro at Merridale

The rest of our afternoon continued much as the day had begun, with trips to several other vintners. We visited the tiny but charming Silverside Farm and Winery, which produces berry-based wines (they converted my husband, who has always had a particular dislike of this genre), then meandered up to Rocky Creek Winery, which had its start in a basement in Ladysmith and now has several acres under cultivation and  a shelf groaning with medal-laden product. One of the great ideas we found at Rocky Creek was the listing on the back of each bottle of wine of which foods would pair well with that particular bottle, making for simpler decisions at home and, I am sure, much happier wine-consuming experiences for many. At Damali Lavender and Winery we enjoyed the unusual combination of lavender and locally-produced fruits that had ended up in wine bottles (my favourite was the rhubarb/lavender combination), then visited the lavender shop and wandered the beautiful property, covered in upwards of 13,000 lavender plants, a picturesque ‘edible’ garden and a peaceful labyrinth. Overlooking the stunning Damali (Arabic for ‘beautiful vision’) property is a French country style bed and breakfast – could this be the Provence of Vancouver Island?

Labyrinth at Damali Lavender

More than a winery, the labyrinth at Damali Lavender Farm offers a relaxing diversion on our tour

Our final winery stop of the day took us to the tasting room at  Unsworth Vineyards, another newer, small family holding and then on to a delightful dinner on the patio at Amuse on the Vineyard,  a haven for locavores that is situated in the original 1895 house built on the Unsworth property. It was the perfect end to a perfect day – great service and food in a lovely setting, enjoying all that late summer has to offer.

Rocky Creek Winery Picnic area

Relaxed picnic venues like this one at Rocky Creek offer pretty views and a comfortable spot for a brief rest before going on our way

Exterior view Amuse on the Vineyard

Our day ends with dinner on the lower patio at Amuse on the Vineyard

Lemon rice pudding at Amuse on the Vineyard

The perfect end to a perfect meal, which was the end to a perfect day.

The only low point of our day was the fact that we couldn’t spend more time exploring and enjoying the unique offerings of more wineries, several of which have excellent restaurants attached. Next time we will book into one of the outstanding bed and breakfasts found in the region and plan to spend several days exploring this bucolic bit of heaven. Anyone contemplating such a trip would probably also enjoy the coming Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival, slated for Sept. 7-15, 2013. The special events include a farm-to-table dinner with five courses created by some of the region’s top chefs, complete with wine pairings, and a host of other tours, picnics and gatherings throughout the nine-day celebration.  What better way to say farewell to summer?

Unsworth sunset

The sun sets behind the beautiful pond that fronts the Unsworth tasting room