The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is probably best know for its prized, all-weather, Cowichan sweaters. The iconic images of whales, eagles, bear and snowflakes woven into a First Nation’s cultural motif make these wooly sweaters recognizable around the world.
These days, the Cowichan Valley is building a reputation beyond its island knitters and sweaters. At last count, 19 wineries have set up tasting rooms on rich Cowichan agricultural land, making this young, little known wine region one of the best kept secrets on Canada’s wine map*.
But forget the wine for just a second (heresy, I know). The stunning beauty and breathtaking scenery of Vancouver Island and the drive north to Cowichan Valley is reason enough to visit! Located a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver and an hour north of the decidedly genteel island capital, Victoria, the route to the Valley climbs along Trans-Canada Highway #1 through the sacred Cowichan First Nation lands called “The Malahat”. To the east, lovely Saanich Penninsula juts into the Strait of Georgia winding around the San Juan and Gulf Islands. In the distance, the Cascade Mountains and magnificent Mt. Baker frame the panorama adding an important element to the wine tourism and tasting experience that’s clearly – to borrow a well-turned advertising phrase – priceless.
Ripe for Exploring
Experience junkie that I am, I had an opportunity this summer to visit three wineries in the gloriously tranquil Cowichan Valley and another across the bay at neighbouring Saltspring Island. Averill Hill, Unsworth, Enrico and Saltspring Island wineries all offer picture-perfect vineyard vistas and wonderful wine portfolios that are winning their share of awards. There’s a low-key vibe going on at these wineries and a palpable “we try harder” attitude. The huge tourist boom and counter traffic that you’ll experience in BC’s largest wine region, the Okanagan Valley (163 wineries and 750 vineyards), is not happenin’ here….at least not yet.
What you will find, however, is genuine island hospitality, beautifully sculpted gardens, undulating vineyards gently rolling over distant hills, ponds and welcoming outdoor patios that encourage picnicking and furry friends.
Not a whit of pretention in these parts; just glorious views and a wine experience that’s decidedly chill.
Speaking of Chill….
To understand wine you need to care about climate. We use the term terroir to capture the concept of climate, soil and topography and I have to admit, I have totally nerded out on these subjects since I started to study wine. When you “understand” climate – temperatures, sun exposure, elevation, wind, aspect or slope influence, even climate change – you can better understand varietal selection criteria – early vs. late ripening, soil type, root stock – and the possibilities for greatness.
The Cowichan Valley is a fascinating study in microclimates and cool climate grape growing. The wine region largely consists of clay and alluvial soils covering vast limestone and granite deposits. For geology junkies looking for a more definitive mapping, this study gives you all the information you could ever want – or need – on the soil and geological underpinnings of the Valley!
While the Cowichan Valley’s growing season is slow to warm up, and shorter than most regions, they have little frost risk and lots of sunny, dry, reliable summer weather. (Although there are instruments and umpteen processes to determine grape ripeness and harvest schedule, conventional wisdom suggests bud blossom to harvest in most regions requires ~100 days. The Island growing season is slightly abbreviated at about 85 days.)
Mountainous protection plays a critical role in the region’s idyllic growing conditions. Snowcapped peaks of the central range fend off cooler winds from the north. To the west, wineries are shielded from wild Pacific Ocean storms by the Insular Mountains (good name), which provides a rain shadow in the Valley. From the east, the calm protected water of Georgia Strait helps moderate temperatures. Although there is lots of rain between November and April, the summers are dry enough that wineries often require irrigation in the vineyards.
“The Ultimate Secret of the World’s Greatest Vineyards is that they are on the Climatic Margin” – Hugh Johnson
Cowichan Valley growers and winemakers are busy converting cow pastures and family farms into vineyards, testing the parameters of cool climate viticulture. Shrewd vintners know that climate change will be a game changer giving extreme northerly, extreme southerly and elevated vineyards the inside track. The climatic boundaries for Vinifera grape growing around the world take place between 30 and 50 degrees latitude in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The Cowichan Valley sits on the cusp of extreme cool climate viticulture, at 49° latitude.
But a fascinating mix of environmental influences results in the Valley having a cool Mediterranean, or temperate climate. In fact, according to the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Valley has the warmest average year round temperature anywhere in Canada at 11°C/52°F. Of course Cowichan, in the First Nation Hul’q’umi’num language, means ‘land warmed by the sun’, which for vintners, translates into exceptional vine growing conditions.
With climatic metrics that guarantee crisp, fresh wines, the Valley’s average “growing degree days” (GDD) – a universal measure of heat/temperature – is 1025, among the lowest of the world’s wine growing regions. This puts the Cowichan Valley on par with other cool climate heavy weights like Champagne (1050) and Mosel Valley, Germany (1020).
The agricultural bonus of being so far north, is the longer daylight hours and intensity of sunlight . Ultimately, grape-growing is a fine balance of heat and sun exposure. Without enough heat, grapes will be too acidic and won’t have enough sugar, resulting in a thinner taste profile, astringent wines, and lower alcohol. Without enough sun exposure, grapes experience reduced photosynthesis, which means the full spectrum of varietal phenolic flavour development and ripeness isn’t realized.
To wit – more sunlight hours and UV solar radiation equals more photosynthesis, and results in an optimum fruit microclimate for ripening and potentially, richer, more complex grape flavour impact (see the UC Davis heat summation table to better understand the role of temperature and sun exposure in grape growing). Certainly, the long hours of intense light play a key role in producing ripe fruit in the Valley’s shorter growing season while the cool climate ensures essential natural acidity for freshness and balance. In other words, in the Cowichan Valley what grape growers lack in heat they make up for in sunlight.
The Cowichan Valley may test the extremes of viticulture but the region is well versed in what varietals will succeed in their terroir. From 1983 to 1990, the BC government-funded specific viticultural tests through an initiative called “The Duncan Project”. These trials investigated the potential suitability of 100 varietals in the Cowichan Valley. Three vineyard sites were established to test European and hybrid varieties. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewurtaminer, Auxerrois, Ortega, Bacchus and a series of German aromatic varietals were identified as the most promising grapes for the Vancouver Island terroir. Two years after the trial was complete, Vigneti Zanatta became the first commercial winery to open and their success led to the establishment of many of today’s Cowichan Valley wineries.
Of course all bets are off as climate change impacts the grape growing industry. Tim Turyk, CEO of shining star Unsworth Vineyards, who established his family’s vineyard in 2009, says they’ve had no rainfall for 70 days in the 2017 growing season and the last two harvests have come off the field well ahead of schedule. Wildfire smoke in central British Columbia blocked the sun for 10 days this summer, he says, but unlike some vintners in the Okanagan and Kamloops region – smoke taint will not be an issue.
For vineyards on the climactic margins like Tim’s and others in the Valley, the complex effects of climate change present both challenges and opportunities. More heat units will influence a range of factors including the choice of wine grapes, varietal yields and quality, and ultimately, the length and schedule of the growing season. In regions like northern Tasmania, another cool climate island pushing climatic boundaries in the southern hemisphere, climate modeling indicates earlier bud bursts bringing with it risk of frost and an increase in rainfall in the spring and fall. Rainfall can promote fungal disease and is every viticulturist’s worst nightmare during harvest.
Interestingly, Cowichan Valley is one of the few North American regions to commission a formal climate change impact and adaptation plan detailing the region’s climate projections, vulnerabilities and strengths. The phase one focus of their report is on the human and social impacts of a changing Island climate with phases 2-4 assessing mitigation and adaptation strategies. Tasmania has gone one step further, looking specifically at the climate change impact on wine. The island has experienced some of the warmest years on record and they’ve projected annual changes in growing degree days from 1961 – 2100, providing growers and investors with management options for the short, medium and long term.
According to Tim Turyk of Unsworth, living and producing wine on the cool climate margins and at a higher elevation, has served Cowichan Wineries well. Their decision to go with cool climate performers like Pinot Noir, Pinto Gris and Sparkling – as well as a number of hybrids – was the right decision. But Tim says his winemaking team and the Islands’ growers’ association are keeping their eye on the thermometer and climate metrics to make sure they’re adapting and turning a potential liability into an advantage.
*The Vancouver Island DVA (designated viticultural area) incorporates 389 acres of vineyards. There are 36 grape wineries in operation on Vancouver Island, sourcing grapes from approximately 50 vineyards.
https://pacificclimate.org/analysis-tools/plan2adapt – The Plan2Adapt tool generates maps, plots, and data describing projected future climate conditions for regions throughout British Columbia