Drinking wine is certainly not new to me.
It’s one of my favourite things to do on lazy, sunny afternoons in my backyard while reading books.
But it is a real treat to taste fabulous wines from grapes that are grown right in the same area where you live, and have knowledgeable people tell you all about them.
Local wine lovers are fortunate to live in or near the agricultural wonderland that is the Cowichan Valley, where up to 20 wineries of various sizes have successfully taken root over the last four decades to take advantage of its Mediterranean-like climate and rich soil.
There are several opportunities for people to visit the area’s many wineries and have a taste of their vino during the year, including the annual Savour Cowichan Festival which saw a number of food and wine-related events around the Valley this fall.
I recently took a wine tour of a number of the Valley’s wineries (with a designated driver of course) and was delighted and surprised by the knowledge that I gained and the people that I met.
One of the first stops on the tour was at the award-winning Averill Creek, a family-run 40-acre estate winery located just north of Duncan.
As well as growing grapes for approximately 15 different types of mostly red and white wines, the winery’s tasting room offers magnificent views down the slopes of Mt. Prevost to Cowichan Bay.
It was there that I met Stephanie Neary, a self-professed wine connoisseur who left her career as a paralegal in Vancouver to work at Averill Creek.
She said the winery has had people come from all over Canada and beyond to its tasting room this year to try Averill Creek’s award-winning Pinot noir wines, among others.
Neary said Pinot noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in cooler regions, and the lightly coloured, medium-bodied wines they produce are widely considered to be some of the best in the world.
“The Valley provides a perfect microclimate for the growth of Pinot noir grapes,” she said while pouring wine samples for the seemingly endless groups of people coming into the tasting room.
“The ability to grow Pinot noir grapes was one the main reasons why the owners [Andy and Wendy Johnston] bought the winery in the first place in 2001.”
I tried a sample of Averill Creek’s 2014 Pinot noir and, as Neary instructed, savoured the fruity favour in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
It was very good, and I understood why the winery has markets for its products all over Canada and as far away as China.
One of the next stops on the tour was at the Emendare Winery, a small mom and pop operation on eight and a half acres located on Norcross Road in Duncan.
Mike Nierychlo, who bought the winery along with his wife Robin just three years ago, met us at the door of the tasting room, which is surrounded by wooden barrels used to store wine.
Nierychlo said he had been working in the wine industry for 10 years in the Lower Mainland and had always wanted to buy and operate his own winery.
Like the Johnstons at Averill Creek, Nierychlo said it was the ideal growing conditions for Pinot noir grapes in the Cowichan Valley that drew him to the area.
“It’s a stunning area for growing those grapes, with its cool climate and long growing seasons,” he said as an elderly couple came in through the door for a taste as well.
“We farm as organically as possible and produce five different wine varieties. It’s just me and Robin working here most of the time, but wine is our passion and we just love it.”
I joined the elderly couple in tasting a number of the wines produced at Emendare Winery, and my favourite was the Sauvignon Blanc, a fantastic and tasty white wine that I felt go right down to my toes.
One of the busiest wineries of the day was the Blue Grouse Estate Winery, located on Lakeside Road just south of downtown Duncan.
Two stretch limousines that brought groups of people from Victoria to the Valley for wine tastings were parked around dozens of other vehicles in the parking lot.
I jostled my way through the crowds gathered at the bar and was fortunate to meet owner Paul Brunner who was helping his staff get through the busy day.
He told me his 65-acre winery grows grapes for a wide variety of mainly red and white wines, including Ortega, Bacchus, Pinot gris and, of course, Pinot noir.
“It’s certainly a wonderful life; quiet and beautiful,” Brunner said as I sampled his Pinot noir.
It was, once again, great but I wished that I had the experience and knowledge to be able to pick out the subtleties and nuances of the various wines I sampled that day, as I’ve seen wine connoisseurs do.
“There are lots of people on the Island and on the mainland that have never heard of Blue Grouse or the fact that we have a great wine industry here in the Cowichan Valley,” Brunner said.
“We’ve been making great headway in marketing our wines on the Island and now we’re targeting Vancouver, where more than one million people live.”
It was a great day of wine tasting and getting to see some beautiful areas of the Valley that I haven’t encountered before.
A list of many of the wineries in the Valley can be found at www.wineislands.ca.