Cideries, wineries, Indigenous art, and wild scents: the Cowichan Valley is ripe for exploring

The region's recent BC Craft Cider Festival featured 14 cidermakers and sold out

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      When Merridale Cidery and Distillery first got started in 1990 in the Cowichan Valley’s Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island, it was the first estate cidery in B.C. Now, there are nearly just as many cidermakers in the province as the number of years Merridale has been in business.

      Echoing the explosion of the craft-beer market, craft cider is having a moment—and it’s one that’s certain to last.

      “When we first started and called ourselves a cidery, people would say, ‘is that a word?’” says Janet Docherty, Merridale co-owner along with her husband, Rick Pipes. “The industry is taking off. Demand has been growing, and awareness has been growing. It’s just been this super steady incline.”

      Cider sales have gone up more than 31 percent in the last five years, according to BC Liquor Distribution Branch, much of it due to the rise of local craft cidermakers.

      Back in the ’90s, the English-style cider that Merridale specializes in wasn’t that well-known on this side of the pond. People were accustomed to the cloyingly sweet, commercial varieties that were about equal parts sugar water to juice, the stuff of booze cruises and high-school grad parties.

      The artisanal ciders we’re seeing in B.C. now go back to natural methods and the use of real cider apples (as opposed to eating apples, just as wine is made with specific types of grapes, and not those you’d typically serve as a snack).

      “It’s very crisp, and it really quenches the thirst,” Docherty says.

      Merridale Cidery and Distillery co-owner Janet Docherty says B.C.'s cider industry is on a steady incline.
      Gail Johnson.

      Merridale is preparing to open a second location in Victoria next year—a brewery, grain-based distillery, and eatery. It also recently hosted the second annual BC Craft Cider Festival.

      Featuring 14 cideries from throughout B.C., the event sold out.

      The festival took place on a misty afternoon at Merridale’s 20-acre farm and orchard, home to row upon row of fragrant apple trees. The fruit have European roots and include Tremlett’s Bitter, Michelin, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, Kermerien, Julienne, Judaine, Frequin Rouge and Hauxapfel. 

      Among the makers pouring samples were Vernon’s BX PRess Cidery and Orchard (which makes Lavender Raspberry and Cranberry Cinnamon ciders, among other types); Logan Lake’s Left Field Cider Co. (whose collection ranges from English Dry to Pear Dry to Rhubarb Infused Cider); Victoria’s Tod Creek Craft Cider; and the Osoyoos-based Faustino Estate Cidery, to name a few.

      Merridale stays open throughout the year for cider and spirits tastings, orchard tours, and casual dining at the Eatery (where apples appear in many menu items; the bread is made from yeast from the cidermaking process).

      Even if cider isn’t necessarily your thing, Cobble Hill also makes for a terrific jumping-off point to explore the Cowichan Valley.

      Exploring the Cowichan Valley

      The area takes its name from the term Quw’utsun’, meaning “the warm land” in the language of the Cowichan tribe, the province’s largest single First Nation band.

      Situated north of Victoria and south of Nanaimo, the region is in Canada's only maritime Mediterranean climate zone, meaning that although it doesn’t get as hot as the Okanagan, it has the warmest mean year-round temperature in the country. No wonder it’s so popular among farmers, growers, cidermakers, and winemakers.

      Highlights of a trip to the region include:

      - Blue Grouse Estate Winery: Magnificent in a way that might make you think of Napa Valley rather than an area near Duncan, the gorgeous 65-acre estate has a contemporary tasting room open to the public year-round with views to the gently sloping vineyards. The winery’s namesake inspired the building’s design: the roofline is curved like a grouse’s head and neck; inside, a blue palette evokes a grouse’s tail feathers.

      Under the guidance of affable winemaker and former chef Bailey Williamson, Blue Grouse specializes in varietals that bud late and ripen early: Bacchus, Black Muscat, Gamay Noir, Muller Thurgau, Ortega, and Siegerrebe among them.

      The tasting room at Blue Grouse Estate Winery overlooks its sloping vineyards.
      Gail Johnson.
      The two-bedroom Grouse House is nestled among the vines at Blue Grouse Estate Winery.
      Gail Johnson.

      Though the winery got its start 30 years ago, the revamped premises opened in 2013, in what was a big year for the operation: Blue Grouse planted its first new vineyard in 20 years, focusing on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, doubling the size of the existing vineyard, and launched its “Bed and Bottle” accommodation, which goes by the name Grouse House.

      Situated on the ground level of what was the original tasting room, the expansive, two-bedroom space feels like a luxury urban condo even as it’s nestled just steps away from so many grapevines. It has everything for a blissed-out getaway: heated floors, comfy robes, premium bath products, a gas fireplace, gourmet kitchen with marble countertops and well-stocked cupboards (basics like flour and spices), board games, books, an outdoor grill, patio space with Adirondack chairs, plus peace and quiet.

      - Unsworth Winery and Restaurant  Owned by Tim and Colleen Turyk, Unsworth Winery champions sustainable winemaking practices and new varietals, while its restaurant celebrates the bounty of the Cowichan Valley and Vancouver Island

      The eatery is in a resorted 1900s farmhouse, so you might find yourself at a table in a cozy former living room, complete with fireplace, original wood trim and windows, and an intricately carved wooden buffet/display cabinet built right into the wall. The service is as warm as the home feels.

      Chef Maartyn Hoogeveen grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand’s Waikato region, learning to eat seasonally and locally from a young age. Formerly sous chef at the Michelin-rated 28+ in Gothenburg, Sweden, among other places, he delivers a solid menu with dishes that are complex in execution but simply delicious on the tongue.

      An heirloom tomato tart is an elegant envelope, layered with house-made ricotta, toasted almonds, fresh basil, parmesan cheese, and finished with balsamic Reduction and basil oil. The three cheeses in the fall squash ravioli are Haltwhistle abergavenny (a soft, mild blue cheese), buffalo mozzarella, and Parmesan, the pockets filled with pickled squash, sage, and pumpkin seeds, all in a burnt butter cream sauce.

      Smoky babaganoush, honeyed baby carrots, and toasted buckwheat accompany pan-seared Pacific halibut, finished with a basil emulsion and heirloom tomato vinaigrette. By comparison, the desserts aren’t the strongest; consider the share plates and mains to make it a flawless meal out.

      - Cowichan Bay

      You can’t go to the Cowichan Valley without a stop at Cowichan Bay. The main strip of the postcardlike seaside fishing village is loaded with cool shops and stops.

      One of them is the Arthur Vickers Gallery, an airy 1,100-square-foot space within a historic shipyard building.

      Vickers, who has a background in construction, built the famous longhouse-style art gallery in Tofino that belongs to his brother, celebrated artist Roy Henry Vickers.

      Having been raised in the Tsimshian village of Kitkatla, Arthur, who’s an Order of British Columbia recipient, works in various media, including painting, carving, and printmaking. He also developed a unique method that involves low-relief sculpting with 24-karat gold leaf and builds bentwood boxes of all sizes.

      Arthur Vickers' in-progress Moon Woman is made of alder.
      Gail Johnson.

      Like his sibling, Art loves telling stories; don’t ask him how he made any particular piece but rather why.

      On our visit, one of the pieces he was working on was Moon Woman, a striking, smooth visage made of alder, the tree’s natural lines animating her friendly, warm face.

      Wild Coast Perfumery is another place to make a point of visiting.

      If you can’t wear commercial perfumes because you break out in itchy hives or start sneezing thanks to all the chemicals in them, these natural scents are for you. Developed, blended, and bottled on-site by proprietor Laurie Arbuthnor, they’re devoid of dyes, parabens, synthetics, petrochemicals, and other artificial ickiness.

      Arbuthnor looks to her coastal surroundings for inspiration: Saltspring Eau de Parfum, for instance, contains Island oakmoss and has notes of violet leaf, lavender, rose, vanilla, and other essential oils and resins.

      Cowichan Bay's Wild Coast Perfumery makes all-natural scents.
      Gail Johnson.

      Western red cedar is the wild element in Tofino Eau de Parfum, with hints of neroli, Mandarin, juniper berry, and Australian sandalwood.

      The shop gives $1 for every 50 ml bottle of perfume sold to the Ancient Forest Alliance and adheres to the New Luxury Code of ethics and morals within business. Now that smells good.