A guide to locally produced wine, beer and spirits on Vancouver Island
Photo by Deddeda Stemler
When you think of hopping on a plane for an island getaway, chances are you’re thinking of palm trees and Mai Tais, endless sand and crashing waves. Well, swap the palms for old growth Douglas fir and the Mai Tais for craft beer, and you can keep the sand and surf. If you insist, Vancouver Island actually has palm trees growing here and award winning bartenders who could shake up a wicked Mai Tai for you.
One quick hour from Calgary and you’ll find yourself on British Columbia’s far west coast and on a island like no other. Vancouver Island has a unique geography, climate and terroir not seen elsewhere. The island spans all terrains – from sandy beaches to rugged coastlines, marshy lowlands to rolling farmland, and lush, old-growth rainforests to snow-capped mountains. Tucked against the mainland coast of BC, Vancouver Island stretches 500 km southeast to northwest and is a quick hop (via ferry or floatplane) to Vancouver and the lower mainland of BC. Vancouver Island is bisected by a mountain range, crossed by undulating rivers and rimmed with countless bays of sheltered waters, strong tides, and dramatic coastlines – an adventurer’s dream.
But man cannot live by rock and river alone. Fortunately, Vancouver Island has also emerged as a mecca for the locavore – a fertile haven for growers, producers, vintners, distillers, brewers, foragers, roasters, cheesemakers, chocolatiers, bakers and food artisans. The best way to experience the abundance is through engaging all of the senses, so book a weekend hop over the Rockies, save room in your suitcase and arrive hungry.
Day 1 – Calgary to Victoria
Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse.
Landing at Victoria International Airport is a breeze – the moderate scale and recent renovations mean you can be from tarmac to rental car in less than 20 minutes. The airport also is in the middle of the Saanich Peninsula, home to the south island’s farmlands, and also our wineries. A few kilometres away from the airport you’ll gain an appreciation for the tradition of heritage cider at Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, one of the cornerstone producers responsible for rekindling the artisan cider renaissance. Don’t miss pairing local Island cheeses with Sea Cider’s organic Rumrunner, a crisp, off-dry beauty aged in old rum barrels. From there it’s a short hop up to DeVine Vineyards, and the site of the first commercially produced Grüner Veltliner in Canada. I mention hop up, because this sustainably farmed, family owned winery is situated hilltop, with a spectacular view of the Pacific and Mt. Baker beyond. Just across the street you’ll stumble upon (and stumble out, if you’re not careful) Victoria Spirits, site of Canada’s most famous premium gin, the regal and memorable Victoria Gin. Distillery tours and tastings run often throughout the summer months.
You’ll be getting hungry by now, so steer your rental car south 30 minutes to downtown Victoria, and the microbrewery trail. Within a short 5 km radius you can visit 8 breweries, all working together in camaraderie to strengthen Victoria’s craft beer scene. Moon Under Water, Hoyne Brewing, Lighthouse Brewing and Canoe Brewpub are all remarkably close and overwhelmingly welcoming. Don’t miss sampling Fat Tug IPA at Driftwood Brewery (repeatedly awarded BC’s Best Beer), and a sampling of the seasonals in the tasting room/art gallery at Phillips Brewing.
Day 2 – Heading North
After a quiet sleep in the art-filled Swans Hotel, you’ll hop back in your car and head north up over the Malahat. The ‘hat, as locals call it, is a spectacular mountain drive that separates Greater Victoria from Cowichan Valley, just one hour’s drive north along Highway #1. Cowichan is the name given to this area by the First Nations peoples living here hundreds of years ago, and translates to The Warm Land. It’s a fitting title; the Cowichan Valley has the highest average temperature in all of Canada, creating an ideal growing climate.
These rolling, fertile valleys are where the majority of the Wine Islands members call home, evidenced by the numerous roadside grape markers directing you to the wineries. The 2nd largest wine region in BC after the Okanagan Valley, it would take you more than 48 hours to visit the dozens of tasting rooms in the area. Make sure you stop at Averill Creek, a striking, gravity fed winery specializing in premium pinot noir, Unsworth Vineyards for their serious, traditional-method sparkling cuvee, and Venturi-Schulze Vineyards for their uncompromising, idiosyncratic wines, many from obscure and characterful grapes. Venturi-Schulze also crafts beautiful ancient method balsamic vineyards.
Merridale Estate Cidery is a culinary tourism powerhouse, home to a progressive distillery and bistro, as well as the bustling cider bar and store. A mid-afternoon wood-fired pizza on their patio overlooking the orchard will fuel you for more touring.
Less than one hour further north from Cowichan and you’ll find yourself in the central island zone and the town of Nanaimo. Wolf Brewing Company has been crafting solid brews since 1996, and you should refresh with their Golden Honey Ale, brewed with local raw honey. MooBerry Winery has a humorous name, but there is nothing comical with pairing their pure, fresh fruit wines with a tasty lineup of handmade artisan cheeses from neighbouring Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, all part of the family businesses situated on Parksville’s picturesque Morningstar Farm.
Heading north on the fast (110km/hr) and new Island highway it won’t take long until you reach Comox Valley, less than one hour north. The fertile Comox Valley is home to 450 farms, numerous specialty food producers, wineries and Vancouver Island’s most serious distillery to date. The architecturally stunning Shelter Point Distillery has been almost a decade in the planning and building, and has now released BC’s first single malt vodka, made entirely from local barley. Their single malt whisky, made in part from grain grown on the property’s own farm, is due to be released in 2014, “sown, grown and distilled on site”.
Comox’s Beaufort Winery is remarkable not only for its wines (pick up the estate-grown traditional-method Red Sparkling from hybrid leon millot, marechal foch & cabernet foch grapes) but also for the massive 14 foot solid Easter Island-esque statue, The Nose. Also of note – Beaufort was recently sold to Hollywood director James Cameron.
You’ll doubtlessly be tired from a full day of tasting and touring, so check into the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa in nearby Courtenay. Their sea-inspired, self-guided hydropath spa treatment is worth the drive from Victoria alone, but the beachfront luxury suites and Breakwater seafood restaurant will ensure total serenity and lull into a deep sleep.
After a sleep in (ok–and perhaps one more walk through the hydropath) it’s an easy drive to the quiet Comox Valley Airport to return your rental car and hop a quick flight home. Your suitcase might be heavier, but your mood will certainly be lightened. That’s exactly how it should be for your island getaway – palm trees or not.
Helpful links for your Island getaway:
Tourism Vancouver Island: tourismvi.ca
Tourism Victoria: tourismvictoria.com
The Wine Islands: wineislands.ca