Vancouver Island is home to British Columbia’s newest sub-GI (Geographical Indication), the Cowichan Valley. Consisting of Canada’s only cool Mediterranean Maritime climate, mild and damp winters and distinct soils, this unique growing area is arguably one of the most challenging in the world pushing the boundaries of where grape growing is still possible.
The wine world has always made a point to differentiate its various different terroirs, as the differing conditions of site, soil, temperature, aspect, sunshine, rainfall and a myriad of other factors that influence the wines that different terroirs produce.
Across the world it is well known that different sub-regions produce different styles of wine, and, perhaps even more importantly, different quality levels of wine. These sub-regions are generically referred to as Geographical Indications or GIs. Across the world, these GIs have more local names. In France they have the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system, Italy has Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) and two others, and the US has the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation.
British Columbia also has its own Geographical Indication (GI) system.
In BC, there are total of 9 GIs that include: the Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Thompson Valley, Kootenays, Shuswap, Lillooet, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and Gulf Islands. These current authorized geographical indications covering provincial VQA wine have fairly broad parameters that cover a lot of territory and consequently there can be an awful lot of diversification within those GIs, which detracts from any consistent regional signature.
For example, the Fraser Valley is described as the land within the watershed of the Fraser River basin, south and west of the town of Hope and north of the 49th parallel; the Okanagan Valley covers the land within the watershed of the Okanagan water basin; the Similkameen Valley: the land within the watershed of the Similkameen River; Vancouver Island: the land within the geographical limits of Vancouver Island; and the Gulf Islands: the neighbouring islands of Vancouver Island in the area bounded by the waters of the Pacific Ocean west of British Columbia’s mainland.
As a result, groups of wineries based within regions that feel their particular area fits the criteria to have its own designation based on the rules set out by the BC Wine Authority (BCWA), can apply for a sub-GI designation. The BCWA oversees the BC Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) which manages the system of wine standards to ensure quality control and truth in labeling with respect to using GIs and the source of grape varieties.
With the addition of the Cowichan Valley earlier this year, there are now 5 sub-GIs in British Columbia that also includes: Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench, Okanagan Falls, and the Golden Mile Bench. Other than the Cowichan Valley, the balance are all located within the Okanagan Valley.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Cowichan Valley sub-GI is generally defined as the area between the Cowichan watershed, the eastern coastline from Mill Bay to Maple Bay, and the western area of Cowichan Lake. Approximately 30 wineries call Vancouver Island home with about half of them in the Cowichan Valley, sprinkled between Cobble Hill, Cowichan Bay, Duncan, Glenora, Mill Bay, and North Cowichan.
The growing season is short, even by cool climate standards, but is counterbalanced with long sunny days throughout the summer and into the early Fall. The winters are cool and damp with precipitation averaging 2000mm of rainfall per year.
Blue Grouse Estate winemaker Bailey Williamson, who led the initiative to get the Cowichan Valley recognized as its own sub-GI, told us that the high precipitation in particular brings its own set of challenges, “In this environment, plants really don’t have a long life like they do in a dry climate so after about 25-30 years, we start to see some things…there’s trunk disease and different stuff like that, that really impacts the plants. So, we have to try and mitigate that as much as we can.”
Growers also have to be exceptionally deliberate with the grape varieties they plant. The cool damp climate bodes well for cooler climate grapes and the most favoured on Vancouver Island are Bacchus, Ortega, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Marechel Foch and Pinot Noir. Our recent trip to the region demonstrated that sparkling wines have a particularly bright future given the early ripening and higher acidity levels of the grapes grown here.
The sparkling wines were a standout at several wineries we visited and Unsworth Vineyards is so bullish about this style, they’ve trademarked the name Charme de L’île (meaning ‘charm of the island’) to identify those produced on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands using the Charmat method.
This method uses stainless steel vats for the carbonation process as opposed to the traditional method where it’s done in the bottle.
Averill Creek Winery Proprietor Andy Johnston has built his winery’s reputation largely on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris:
“For me, this Valley is Pinot Noir. The heat unit profile for this area is 900-1400 which is the Pinot family…the Okanagan is within the same profile…but it’s not just how many heat units you get, it’s when you get them and what else happens to the weather when you haven’t got heat units. Here it’s cool and raining which is fine; the average winter temperature is 6 degrees. In Kamloops, it’s minus 25 so you’re going to get winterkill so how do you winterize your vitis vinifera. if you go to Prince Edward County, they bury the vines every year, they have to.”
Michelle Schulze, Assistant Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Venturi-Schulze, the 3rd winery on Vancouver Island, tells us that climate change is also starting to become a considerable factor in the growing process, “What we did notice at the beginning, in like 1988/1989, there were very definite delineation markers from the seasons. You had Fall, you had Winter, you had Spring and Summer and you could pretty much count on that and you knew when the rains were going to come and when the last frost was. Then in the mid-90’s, it kind of got blurred. We started getting spring frosts that we never had before…But these days, global warming here is more like winter warming and summer cooling. You’re still getting these interesting spikes, but winter and spring are almost one season.”
The new sub-GI designation is great news for the Cowichan Valley in many respects. Most importantly, the official recognition of this unique terroir brings with it the credibility to come out from the shadow of its more renowned neighbour, the Okanagan Valley. That credibility brings with it greater awareness for local consumers, and a lot more worldwide interest in this lesser known BC region. As you start to see wineries from the region begin to put “Cowichan Valley” on their labels, we strongly suggest you give them a try.