Wine Culture Magazine

How the island climate created the right conditions for B.C.’s newest sub-GI

The mountains west of Blue Grouse Estate Winery create a micro-climate that is ideal for Pinots Gris and Noir. Derek Ford photo

Tucked in the rain shadow of Malahat Mountain northwest of Victoria sits the newest addition to British Columbia’s sub-Geographical Indication. Anchored to the town of Duncan, this past July the Cowichan Valley became the fifth wine region to earn a sub-GI designation (or if you prefer, sub-appellation), joining the Golden Mile Bench, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls and Skaha Bench, all in the Okanagan Valley.

“This is a very, very special place that needed to be recognized,” says Andy Johnston, proprietor of Averill Creek Vineyard.

Stretching east from Lake Cowichan, the region spreads out past Duncan, its eastern border the coastline from Maple Bay south to Mill Bay.

In the valley are nine small wineries, each with the ability to endorse the sub-GI of Cowichan Valley, as long as the grapes used to makes the wine come from within the demarcated boundaries. Wineries harvesting fruit from elsewhere in the province must label the wines “British Columbia.”

Two years ago, at Johnston’s suggestion, Bailey Williamson, winemaker at Blue Grouse Estate Winery, spearheaded the proposal for the sub-GI designation, which he took to the British Columbia Wine Authority.

“We needed to tell our story about the region and bring a legitimacy to it that wasn’t here before,” Williamson says.

It’s a perfect diurnal rhythm; the acids stay high and phenolic ripeness is achieved, but sugars don’t climb too fast.

Johnston explains what makes this Vancouver Island valley distinctive enough to qualify as a sub-GI. “The definition of the Cowichan is a wonderfully balanced cool climate—a micro-climate. We can have 30-degree days that go to down to 14 degrees at night. It’s a perfect diurnal rhythm; the acids stay high and phenolic ripeness is achieved, but sugars don’t climb too fast.” He continues, “We pick [grapes] on taste. Based on taste, the acids and the phenolics are right.”

Phenolics are compounds that affect colour, texture and taste of a wine. As a grape ripens, its acid drops while its sugars climb. Depending on the winemaker and the style desired, grapes need to be harvested at the perfect time.

The view from Averill Creek Vineyard sweeps across the Cowichan Valley to the cooling waters of the bay beyond. Photo courtesy of Averill Creek Vineyard

Additionally, the mountains protect the valley from prevailing weather, which comes from the southwest. “Many times I’ve been sitting on my porch and see storm clouds over Victoria. When the clouds hit the Malahat, they dump buckets of rain, and we’re sunny and dry here,” Johnston says.

While the patchwork soils and waterways of the sub-GI are less influential overall than its climate, its ancient glacial deposits are extremely well suited to the Pinot family: both Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir have become priority varieties here.

While the region will never be suited to large swaths of vineyards like other parts of B.C., interest in the Cowichan is still propelling growth. Blue Grouse’s estate production was 1,700 cases in 2019; with recent vineyard expansions they are aiming for 5,000 cases by 2023 and more yet by 2027. Likewise, Averill Creek expects to roll out 15,000 cases in 2025 from its current 8,000 cases.

The valley is attracting international attention, too. This summer, California-based Barbara Banke and her daughter Julia Jackson of Jackson Family Wines purchased Cowichan’s decade-old Unsworth Vineyards. While the purchase is a personal one, not part of the JFW portfolio (which, including Kendall-Jackson, comprises more than 30 wineries around the world), it’s still an impressive feather in the valley’s cap.

“Knowing the Banke/Jackson Family has moved in is fantastic and exciting,” says Johnston. “It’s a realization of what’s possible here in the Cowichan.”

A taste of the Cowichan Valley

Blue Grouse Estate Winery Pinot Gris 2019
(Cowichan Valley, $26) Old vine, creamy and complex wine with earth and racy lemon flavours.

Averill Creek Vineyard Charme de L’ile NV
(Cowichan Valley, $26) Dusky pink and frothy with high-toned strawberry and rhubarb flavours.

Averill Creek Vineyard Joue ‘Red Field Blend’ 2019:
(Cowichan Valley, $30) Bouncy and quaffable, with cherries, licorice and spice.

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