|Averill Creek Vineyard - Cowichan Valley|
It takes more than just warmth to foster productive vineyards—good light, clean air, judicious amounts of water, the right soil, a favorable exposure. Vancouver Island has those attributes in ample measure, and as a result we can claim some of the best vineyards and estate wineries in Canada. They decorate the landscape on our southeastern shore like quilts, green and lush in early summer, ripe with fruit in late summer, sporting bright earthy colours in autumn as the harvest caps the long time of warmth our climate is so justly famed for.
Our latitude, roughly 49 degrees north at mid-Island, near Nanaimo, is the same as some of the most famous, longstanding and productive wine regions in Europe, such as Champagne in France and the Rhine River regions of Germany. This offers grape plants more than 16 hours of daylight during the midsummer vine-growth season; yet that same latitude, combined with proximity to saltwater, brings cool nights that are perfect for ripening the grapes and boosting the sugars that foster deep flavors and fruitful fermentation.
Among the world's major wine climate categories, ours is a hybrid of maritime (as in Brittany) and continental (as in the Rhine valley). Our long, reasonably warm summers closely resemble the continental climates of France and Germany, though we have less summer rain—fewer than four days a month bring precipitation, on average, in June, July, August and September. Those four months also average less than 2 inches (about 5 centimeters) of rain each month. That means few problems with the fungal diseases that afflict vineyards in more true maritime regions; but Island vineyards must also provide irrigation, especially during the key growing and fruit-set times in early summer.
Our topography takes care of that. The steep line of mountains that divides our Island into west and east sides is both barrier and gatherer: In warm months it largely blocks incoming weather and rain from the Pacific. But while the storm fronts do not reach the valleys and oceanside benches of our eastern shore, it does fall as snow (or rain) on those very same mountains, sending ample supplies of water eastward in the form of rivers and streams and underground aquifers that provide summer irrigation to the farms and vineyards that dot the landscape from Campbell River south to the Saanich Peninsula.
Across the sparkling waters of the Strait of Georgia to the east another range of mountains, even bigger, broader and longer than our own Island range, shields us from the Arctic winter fronts that sweep down from the north into the Canadian interior. And the occasional cold outbursts that sweep down the Fraser Valley toward Vancouver are moderated slightly by the time they cross the Strait of Georgia's 50 kilometers of saltwater. So while we have winter indeed, low temperatures almost never plunge below the -10C or so that can damage dormant grape vines. But we do have moderate cold (snow piles high in the mountains just above, and freezing weather is common), and the six-month period of deep dormancy our climate brings is also highly beneficial to the vinifera grape plants that populate our vineyards.
In other words, it's a perfect recipe for a seaside viticultural region.
And the sensory experience could not be better--poised on hillsides facing the sun, Island vineyards gather mellow, soothing warmth beneath aquamarine Pacific skies. The scent of Douglas-fir and Western red-cedar drifts through the air; in late summer and autumn the dusky reds of the grapes and the changing leaves mirror the earthy colours of the ruby-bark arbutus trees that favor the same landscape as grapes. During harvest season—now—migrating geese and ducks wing overhead, and morning mist whisks low places in the land.
We have three main wine-growing areas in our region--Saanich Peninsula, north of Victoria; the Gulf Islands, just offshore in the Strait of Georgia; and Cowichan Valley, the pastoral paradise that First Nations people called "warm land" (Quw'utsun').
The Gulf Island vineyards are on Salt Spring, Pender and Saturna. Not only do they make great cool-climate wines--including sparkling vintages--they enjoy spectacular settings with water views, braced by the islands' rugged cliffs and mountains behind. The ferry or floatplane journeys that bring visitors to the three smaller islands add to the experience; but each is close to Victoria, with travel times of a couple hours or less.
The Saanich Peninsula, north of Victoria, is a lovely and unique landscape that harbours one of Canada's rarest ecosystems, Garry oak prairie. With craggy, thick-barked trees dotting peaceful grasslands, and small farmstands along the quiet back roads, this breeze-washed countryside reminds visitors of similar areas in southern England and Western France. The half-dozen estate wineries here focus on varietals that benefit from the chill, slightly humid nights and mornings of fall followed by warm, dry afternoons--perfect conditions for ripening grapes. Best-known wineries are Muse, Symphony, Dragonfly Hill (the name honoring a colourful local denizen), Church and State. Travelers seeking other activities to leaven a day tour here can stop in to Butchart Gardens, the most famous such attraction in North America; and visit Sidney-by-the-Sea, a charming coastal hamlet with bookstores, galleries, great dining and lodging.
The best-known and most productive wine district on the Island is the Cowichan Valley, an hour north of Victoria, some of whose vineyards date back generations. Like the Gulf Islands and Saanich, cool-climate varietals dominate here, including some rarely found elsewhere—Ortega, Bacchus, Siegerrebe, even Muscat; plus the more usual Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Gewurztraminer. A few wineries bottle sparkling wines, a specialty of cool-climate regions; several have onsite restaurants; and the valley's back roads are so peaceful that bike-tour tasting journeys are possible. Best-known estate wineries here include Blue Grouse, Vignetti Zanatta, Venturi-Schulze, Godfrey-Brownell and Cherry Point, which is also known for its blackberry dessert wine.
Other vineyards dot the Island north and west of Cowichan, in locales where a warming climate is expanding the vineyard possibilities, such as Nanaimo, Parksville, the Comox Valley, the Alberni Valley and Quadra Island.
Whatever the location, our Island vineyards all offer visitors scenic settings—with little traffic—peaceful grounds, friendly hosts and unique wines not found in bigger wine travel regions. For more information visit www.wineislands.ca.
|Goats at Coombs Old Country Market - Coombs|
What was initially an idle whim lies behind the iconic status of Coombs, the modest community that lies astride Highway 4 west of Parksville, at the feet of the mid-Island mountains on the way to Port Alberni. Local residents of Norwegian extraction had turned a small fruit stand into a European-style market--an unorthodox idea back then, in the 1970s--and the founder was inspired to include a sod roof on the building in 1975.
These are common in Scandinavia, where earthen roofs and buildings set into hillsides help protect against winter's deep cold. They are highly unusual in North America, though many pioneers on the prairies, U.S. and Canadian, used them for homesteads.
One day in late summer, the story goes, the proprietors of Coombs' Old Country Market noticed the grass was growing rather long on their roof, and... Well, something else common in Norway is goats, which are periodically set atop sod roofs to perform graze-mowing. Why not here, in Canada, then? And so was born the tradition of goats on the roof in Coombs, B.C., a unique attraction that has brought thousands of visitors here, and spawned many thousands of pictures. Aside from keeping the grass short, the goats (very intelligent animals) are rather well aware that they are stars of the show.
The market is still here, of course, as are the goats. Once done admiring the rooftop "wildlife," visitors may buy everything from local carrots to ice cream to smoked salmon and European cheeses.
Coombs is also home to two attractions devoted to colorful wild creatures. Butterfly World is a lovely enclosed tropical garden that features thousands of its namesake insects, often called nature's flying flowers; as well as hummingbirds, frogs and toads, turtles, orchids and other vivid creatures of the world far and wide.
Just down the road a bit, World Parrot Refuge is home to hundreds of these colorful, lively and intelligent birds. Most of the parrots, parakeets, macaws and such here have been abandoned by their human owners, and the refuge provides not only a home for them, but the social interaction they need--with both birds and humans. It's marvelous to stop in for an hour, meet the birds, and appreciate the humane purpose of the refuge.
All this in Coombs... Which has just over 1,300 residents--and a small herd of very famous goats.
|Wind Surfing - Nimpkish Lake|
Water, weather and wind are the keys to board sports--summer and winter. We have more than enough of all those to thrill any fan of any board sport you can name, and it's the variety of our boarding venues that makes Vancouver Island such a mecca for these sports.
Consider stand-up paddleboarding (SUP): This new sport requires a particular wind-water-weather recipe offering basically calm waters (no wind) with easy access, and a scenic setting (good weather) in which to enjoy your surroundings. Not many people own these boards, and even fewer want to travel with them, so adventure rental shops are needed.
All that is available in Brentwood Bay, a sparkling saltwater inlet north of Victoria in the lee of Malahat Mountain; in Victoria itself, where you can paddle the Inner Harbour past the city's historic section and into the Gorge, a fjord-like extension of the harbour; and out on the West Coast, at Tofino, where novices can enjoy the placid backwaters of Clayoquot Sound, and more experienced SUP-ers can ride the swells on the outer shores along the area's famous sandy beaches, whose vast flat expanses are perfect for riding a wave into shore. Whether "inside" or out on the coast, the clean, tangy salt-spruce air and snowcapped mountain backdrop provide extra delight for this meditative sport.
Devotees of another summer board sport, kiteboarding, prefer virtually opposite conditions to paddleboarding--strong, steady wind, and a bit of wave action to lend excitement. One of the best locations in North America for this sport is Nitinat Lake, on the West Coast, where the topography brings steady wind almost every day around noon, and the conditions are mellow enough in spots for beginners, yet challenging enough for experts as well. Again, adventure outfitters in Victoria and Tofino offer rentals, lessons and guidance--even transportation--to kiteboarding venues nearby. Nitinat is especially noted for its lovely setting, but there are locations nearer Victoria and Tofino that offer dandy boarding as well.
Nitinat's strong, steady winds make it a world-famous destination for an older board sport, windsurfing--and the size of the lake enables long, long runs up and back. But as an island at the edge of the world's largest ocean, we have numerous other locales where steady winds mean good sailboarding--Port Renfrew, west of Victoria; Campbell Lake, in Strathcona Provincial Park; Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni, and Kennedy Lake on the approaches to Tofino. And as with paddleboarding, advanced riders can enjoy the Pacific surf on the outside coast at Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park.
Speaking of water, the boarding universe has a whole other spectrum on offer when temperatures drop and snow blankets our mountains. Skiing and snowboarding are just more ways to enjoy the water and weather on our Island. It's such a simple thing, a board--yet it brings to life so many adventures.
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