Southern Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, dubbed the “Napa of the North,” is increasingly renowned for its wineries. The region’s warm, dry summers and mild, moist winters provide the ideal conditions for producing full-bodied varietals. The valley is currently home to 14 wineries, and visitors can arrange for tastings at most of them. We had a wonderful time dining at restaurants in the wineries as well as at waterfront cafés overlooking Cowichan Bay. And because of the temperate maritime Mediterranean climate, people flock to the region year-round to kayak, hike, mountain bike and fish. We visited several wineries there, and these were our three favorites.
Recommended to us by the sommelier at the Villa Eyrie Resort hotel, Vigneti Zanatta is located in the small community of Glenora. Owner Dennis Zanatta moved to the Cowichan Valley from Italy with his family in the 1950s, purchased a working dairy farm and, inspired by the similarities in climate between his native Treviso and Glenora, decided to start planting vines. Later, Zanatta volunteered 1 acre of his land to British Columbia’s provincial government for a project intended to test the growth potential of a wide array of varietals. In the end, lesser-known Cayuga, Auxerrois and Ortega grapes were the ones that thrived.
The property’s robust wines solely employ grapes from the estate’s vineyard. We preferred the whites to the reds, especially the finely balanced Ortega, which started dry on the palate but finished with subtle, sweet hints of Muscat. This winery is also well-known for being the first on the island to make sparkling wines using the traditional méthode champenoise. The medium-bodied Glenora Fantasia Brut, with its tart green apple flavor and stone fruit aromas, is an ideal sparkling wine to enjoy on a warm summer’s day. In 1996, the Zanattas decided to convert the property’s farmhouse into a tasting room, flanked by a casual café. Our meal there was delightful, and if we’d had more time, we would have returned the next day for one of the hands-on cooking classes.
5039 Marshall Road, Duncan. Tel. (250) 748-2338
This family-owned winery, set on a 65-acre estate, specializes in growing cool-climate German varietals, including Siegerrebe and Ortega. Blue Grouse is notable for being one of the only wineries in Canada to grow black Muscat grapes. Black currant and stewed plums are the predominant flavors of the Port-style NV Reserve Black Muscat, along with aromas of lavender and hazelnuts. The winery was purchased from its founder in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Paul and Cristina Brunner. As the Brunners were inexperienced, they hired winemaker Bailey Williamson. He introduced the Quill label in 2014, which allowed him to create richer, more-balanced wines by mixing fruity grapes from the warmer Okanagan Valley with Cowichan Valley varietals, which are higher in acidity. The refreshing 2014 Quill Pinot Gris tasted slightly tropical yet was counterbalanced with creamy notes of ripe pear.
Blue Grouse Estate Winery
2182 Lakeside Road, Duncan. Tel. (250) 743-3834
In 2009, Tim and Colleen Turyk purchased a 32-acre farm located off a picturesque country road in order to create Unsworth Vineyards. Of the property’s 12 planted acres, the oldest block is Marechal Foch, which is the grape varietal behind the winery’s award-winning dessert wine, Ovation. The winery, named after Tim’s mother, also produces excellent sparkling wines. Our favorite was the Cuvée De L’ile, a Prosecco-style offering that blends Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Auxerrois. The 2015 had a fresh nose of tart Granny Smith apple, creamy pear on the palate and lemon zest on the finish.
After our tasting, we were pleasantly surprised to find an attractive restaurant tucked within a restored 1900s farmhouse overlooking acres of vineyards and apple and walnut orchards. The shareable small plates were seasonally inspired; larger plates serving bistro classics are also available. In its own words, Unsworth was built “one vine, one bottle, one blend at a time.” The sense of collaboration, passion and dedication is reflected in every wine poured and every dish served.
2915 Cameron Taggart Road #1, Mill Bay. Tel. (250) 929-2292