Originally published February 8, 2017 | Updated January 26, 2018

Icicle-laden trees glide by in a glistening evergreen and white-tinged blur. I admire Jack Frost’s handiwork from last night’s snowstorm as my girlfriends and I ascend into the thickly forested mountain range. It’s a stunningly beautiful morning as we travel along a 26-mile stretch of Vancouver Island’s Highway 1 to explore one of the island’s best-kept secrets – its burgeoning wine scene.

Discover Victoria Getaways

Having spent the previous day checking out downtown Victoria and doing some serious, guilt-free shopping (with the great exchange rate, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to say yes to a little retail therapy), I am more than ready to let someone else take the wheel. We meet up downtown with our guide and Island Time Tour’s local wine expert, Colleen Barrow, and head out for a day of relaxation and sensational sips on the Cowichan Valley Wine Country Tour.

Craving an escape to fend off the winter doldrums, a journey to this seemingly untouched region to indulge in some much-needed girl time, fits the bill.  We are quickly whisked away from the bustling streets of downtown Victoria. Urban storefronts give way to old-growth rainforests, snow-capped mountains and views so incredible words don’t do them justice.

As we climb up the craggy Malahat Drive, Barrow pulls into Goldstream Provincial Park, a natural wonderland right outside of Victoria.  A short jaunt down the trail lands us at the park’s visitor center, where we get up close and personal with the massive, aromatic 500-year-old cedars (First Nation peoples believe if you put your hand on these ancient trees you soak in some of their energy). With perfect timing, a pair of bald eagles soar overhead, zeroing in on salmon in the babbling creek below. We hop back in the van, stopping once more to take in the jaw-dropping views of the sparkling Saanich Inlet. A bit of PNW nature giddiness fills my soul as I gaze down at the glittering waters carving their way through the rugged terrain.

Malahat Drive offers some of the most breathtaking views on Vancouver Island. Photo: Nick Bentley
Malahat Drive offers some of the most breathtaking views on Vancouver Island. Photo: Nick Bentley

Traveling along the quiet back roads, Cowichan’s riches begin to fully reveal themselves in rolling hills and lush fields. Barrow fills us in on the key local players and history of the region’s growing wine scene. The climate is surprisingly maritime Mediterranean, with warm and mild winters, making this a prime spot for producing fantastic Pinot Gris, Ortega, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. To the surprise of many, the valley is a haven for the more than 15 tasting rooms scattered around town (Second only to Okanagan as British Columbia’s highest wine producing region!).

First Stop: Venturi-Schulze Vineyard

One of the founding boutique wineries on the island, the intimate Venturi-Schulze Vineyard is the perfect place to kick off our day among the grapes. We settle into the sunlit tasting room and commence our sipping with a tall flute of dry Brut Naturel sparkling wine. My taste buds rejoice as soon as the bubbles hit my tongue, yielding absolute perfection. After this first sampling, I am eager to taste the rest of the lineup, Marilyn Venturi, one of the vineyard’s owners, has in store for us. We continue the tasting with unique, small production wines such as the tropical flavored Siegerrebe and the peach and herbal note-filled Terracotta.

Traditional balsamic and fine wines fill Venturi-Schulze's cozy tasting room. Photo: Nick Bentley
Traditional balsamic and fine wines fill Venturi-Schulze’s cozy tasting room. Photo: Nick Bentley

As a rare treat, Venturi surprises us with a chance to sample the other magical concoction Venturi-Schulze is famous for – organic, ancient method balsamic (they also happen to be the only ones in all of North America to produce such a brew). FYI, these are not the typical balsamic vinegars found in your grocery store. Venturi-Schulze uses only one ingredient in this luscious brew, hand-picked white grapes straight from their own backyard. The secret to making this one-of-a-kind elixir? Letting it age in a series of five barrels (cherry, chestnut, acacia, ash and oak).

Delicious balsamic matures in a series of cherry, chestnut, acacia, ash and oak barrels. Photo: Nick Bentley
Delicious balsamic matures in a series of cherry, chestnut, acacia, ash and oak barrels. Photo: Nick Bentley

We happily slurp up spoonfuls of the thick, syrupy potions and I fall hard for the maple balsamic. East meets west in this deliciousness, by combining the Venturi-Schulze’s balsamic with the rich, organic maple syrup of Quebec. Venturi, notes “it pairs fabulously with salmon or cheesecake.” Equally hard to resist and dubbed the crème de la crème of balsamics by Venturi, is the 1990 Legacy Balsamic. Just thinking of adding a single drop of this dark, syrupy-sweet vinegar on top of a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or chocolate as Venturi suggests causes my mouth to water. ”

Hand-painted apple blossoms, blue camas, buttercups, dogwood and more adorn bottles of Classic balsamic. Photo: Nick Bentley
Hand-painted apple blossoms, blue camas, buttercups, dogwood and more adorn bottles of Classic balsamic. Photo: Nick Bentley

Second Stop: Blue Grouse Estate Winery & Vineyard

The large, open Blue Grouse tasting room is the perfect locale to indulge in sensations sips. Photo: Colleen Barrow
The large, open Blue Grouse tasting room is the perfect locale to indulge in sensations sips. Photo: Colleen Barrow

A five-minute ride up the road brings us to the next stop on our tour, the ultra-modern, two-story winery and tasting room at Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard. The epitome of luxury at its finest, no expense was spared when the original winery was bought and revamped. Our host Jenny Garlini leads us up to the large, open second-floor landing to relax on the cozy leather couches with a glass of Ortega wine. Excited to get my hands on the region’s famous vintage, I readily take a sip and find the crystal-clear wine, sweet, full-bodied and incredibly refreshing. Garlini explains:

“The most important process of making a good wine is all about the grapes. The vines are old, so the terrior of the vineyard is set, meaning the wines will taste similar year after year.”

Despite the chill outdoors, I’m immediately drawn out on to the balcony and blown away by the impressive panoramic vista. The entire 45-acre vineyard stretches down the sunny slope before us, rows upon rows of vines dusted with frost and snow glisten in the afternoon light. With the winery’s laidback vibe, it is no stretch of the imagination to picture how easy it would be to while away a summer afternoon basking in the warm sun, cool wine in hand. I quickly begin calculating just how soon I can return.

Blue Grouse's oldest oldest vines are found closest to the tasting room while the newer vines lie to the west of the property. Photo: Nick Bentley
Blue Grouse’s oldest vines are found closest to the tasting room while the newer vines lie to the west of the property. Photo: Nick Bentley

Third Stop: Enrico Winery

Our final stop of the day takes us to the 50-acre Enrico Winery. Once inside this rustic tasting room, we’re met with a gigantic island and tables formed from round slabs of tree trunks stacked atop oak barrels. With the open space and homey vibe, it feels as though we just settled in at a dinner party in our friend’s kitchen.

Enrico's renowned vintages span from Pinot Noirs to Ortegas. Photo: Nick Bentley
Enrico’s renowned vintages span from Pinot Noirs to Ortegas. Photo: Nick Bentley

As if reading our minds and desire for a bite, Barrow breaks out an artisanal charcuterie lunch she prepared for the occasion. With an amazing spread of locally-produced spiced pickles, Parmesan-crusted pepperoni, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), smoked salmon, apples, cheese and a slew of other delicious offerings before us, it’s tough to choose what tasty treat to gobble down first.

Enrico Winery is also home to a gorgeous pond that is well-stocked with trout. Photo: Brenna Ciummo
Enrico Winery is also home to a gorgeous pond that is well-stocked with trout. Photo: Brenna Ciummo

Our host Lorin Inglis, pairs our eats with a generous and carefully curated selection of seven wines for us to sample. We start with the Tempest Ortega, which influenced by the terrior of the vineyard, tastes completely different from the Orgeta we sampled at Blue Grouse. Light and crisp, it has all the ingredients of the perfect patio sipper and immediately becomes my favorite wine of the bunch.

Talking to Inglis reveals two things: his deep appreciation for the art of wine tasting (he expertly decants each bottle and pours each wine into a new glass for us to taste ensuring we discover all its nuances) and his dedication to making wine understandable for everyone. “Our goal is to take the snobbery out of drinking wine,” Inglis says simply.

As we taste our way through the delicious vintages, the flavors of each surface as Inglis describes the notes. The hints of green apple in the Shining Armour Pinot Gris marry perfectly with our cheese while the peppery Cabernet Libre is an excellent match for our dolmas. As the first vineyard on Vancouver Island to plant this special hybrid grape, this rare and elegant wine is what sets Enrico Vineyards apart from all others.

Stuffed on lunch, we pack ourselves back in the van and travel down the Malahat Drive to the Clipper terminal. As the vessel cruises smoothly across the Salish Sea, my girlfriends and I are lulled into a trance as Mother Nature puts on one last show for our return trip home. With the last rays of sunlight illuminating the Cascades and neighboring coastline in a golden blaze, the views are pretty hard to beat.

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Feature Photo: Nick Bentley

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