Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley is the next big wine region

Take that, Napa

January 22, 2016

By Neal McLennan / Photo: Joerg Rosenthal (head)

The grape harvest in the Okanagan this year was a full three weeks earlier than normal. While some oohed and aahed about “the vintage of the century,” others had serious concerns about the effects of climate change and the long-term viability of the region (and much of Washington and California, to boot). Enter Vancouver Island, a wine region whose main fault—the occasional inability to fully ripen its grapes—suddenly seems like a smart bet for the 2025 vintage. And just as its cool climate is suddenly in vogue, its wineries are doubling down—some with sleek new spaces, some with deep-pocketed new owners, and all with a serious dedication to winemaking.

WINERIES
Young Langley native Mike Nierychlo and wife Robin—the M and R pronunciation behind their Emandare winery—have bought a beautiful vineyard overlooking Somenos Lake. Mike, who ran a successful wine-tasting YouTube channel in Vancouver, is building the winery by himself (its tasting room is set to open this summer) and, if that weren’t enough, they’re also pioneers on the all-natural front—no irrigation, no commercial yeasts, organic farming techniques, and the bare minimum of sulfur. So far the results are stunning—the future of Island wine rests here.

Retired physician Andy Johnston founded Averill Creek in 2001, which makes him the de facto grandfather of Island wine and the voice of experience in these parts. His early pinots helped put this wine region on the map and his still-modern winery with its million-dollar view of Cowichan Bay showed everyone that the region’s wine didn’t have to be made in a converted garage.

“The Island’s version of Mission Hill” is how more than one resident described the pricey regeneration of Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard by its owner, Paul Brunner. The ultra-modern, two-storey winery/tasting room is the nicest in the region, as is the winemaking equipment. The slate of wines from winemaker Bailey Williamson channel aromatics and freshness above all else.

Kerrisdale resident Tim Turyk bought property in 2009, promptly opened Unsworth, and so far has made owning a winery look downright easy. The on-site restaurant is hopping and each year’s production gets a little larger—but still not enough to satisfy the drinking public’s demand as they routinely sell out.

unsworth

Unsworth Vineyard is one of two B.C. wineries making Prosecco-style sparkling wine (Oliver’s Stoneboat Vineyards is the other), and one sip of their Charme de L’Ile shows the potential of bubbles to be a pillar of the area’s growth. 

STAY
The area does B&Bs well; not so much resorts—so until one of the wineries (we’re looking at you, Blue Grouse) builds some nice vineyard accommodation, you’re bunking in at the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay. The facade screams family road trip, but the rooms—each overlooking the Cowichan Bay Marina—are all suites and stocked with a full complement of wine glasses.

EAT
Daniel Hudson of Hudson’s on First is that rare breed of chef who has both a wonderfully experimental palate and a customer-first approach to cooking, so you never leave more impressed than happy. His restaurant, set in a 106-year-old heritage building in downtown Duncan, has been at the top since it opened in late 2012 and his mix of attentive service (the valley’s Achilles heel) and innovative cuisine has not wavered since. Dishes like roast cauliflower risotto with truffles—for $17—set the standard in the region.

Frederic Desbiens and wife Ingrid Lehwald arrived in the valley in 2006, planted their first grapes in 2008, and opened the adjacent rural Saison Market Vineyard—where Lehwald serves as in-house baker—in 2009. Today, Desbiens is the region’s most sought-after grape grower (his grapes go quietly into many top local wines), but that demand is nothing compared to the crush of people clamouring for Lehwald’s pastries and bread. Grab a seat on a Saturday morning and you’ll see every winemaker in town make time for a coffee and a scone.

Chef, cookbook author (this year’s Deerholme Vegetable Cookbook being the most recent of his 12 titles), and longtime Vancouver magazine Restaurant Awards judge Bill Jones was a pioneer when he opened the agrarian mecca that is Deerholme Farm over a decade ago. Now, he’s a local legend. If one of his famous themed farm-to-table dinners is on, drop everything and go—it’s likely to be the best meal in the province that night. Local food with foraged wild fare and global technique make for revelatory plates like Chanterelle and prawn toast with hazelnut sate sauce.

deerholme

Deerholme Farm’s morel lamb shank and chef Bill Jones with his trusty sidekick Oliver.

 

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