Highway travel subverts the charm of southern Vancouver Island in a blur of heavy traffic and high-speed glimpses of mountain, forest and ocean. Wine aficionados, however, can escape such freeway madness by traipsing along scenic back roads from one charming vineyard to the next on the Saanich Peninsula and in the Cowichan Valley. Two options: either wing it by following the plentiful burgundy “Wine Tour” road signs, or plot your course according to this slow-paced, two-day sojourn. Note: each winery cited has its own tasting room and retail outlet, open from spring to fall, with “open by chance” the relaxed rule at boutique operations in the off-season (appointments can generally be made by phoning ahead).
Jaunt: North Saanich to Cowichan Valley, B.C.
Distance: Approx. 200 km
Fuel: 1/2 tank Duration: 2 days
Prime Time: Spring, summer and fall
Tunes: Mixed CD featuring versions of “Red, Red Wine,” recorded by Neil Diamond, UB40, Gregory Isaac, Tony Tribe and Jimmy James and the Vagabonds
Leg One: Saanich Peninsula (approx. 100 km)
Whether arriving from Vancouver via BC Ferries or driving from Victoria, begin this tour on Lands End Road near the Swartz Bay terminal at the Peninsula’s northern tip. The -coastline-hugging road ambles past million-dollar waterfront homes with full-frontal views of Salt Spring Island and onward to the residential village of Deep Cove. Stop for a leg stretch on the rocky foreshore or make your first stop at the Chalet Estate Vineyard (open Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m; 250-656-2552). This delightful farmgate is located directly across the road from the Deep Cove Chalet – every gourmand’s first choice for local dining. Organic wines are a specialty here, which means pesticide-free grapes and no added sulfites. Pick to sip: The award-winning Orange Muscat.
Bottles tucked in the trunk, head south on West Saanich Road past Victoria International Airport and Patricia Bay, where sun-baked harbour seals bask on the pier jutting westward from the Institute of Oceanic Sciences. Hang a left on Mount Newton Cross Road, then be prepared to dawdle: with its dazzling views of the Saanich Inlet, the narrow road is routinely championed as one of the most scenic in Canada. Fine valley prospects can be enjoyed from the parking lot at Marley Farm Winery,where the unearthly quiet is disturbed only by the bleating of sheep wandering amid the vines (open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., May through -September, with shortened hours in winter; 250-652-8667). Owned by a second cousin of the reggae legend, Marley Farm is known for its fruit wines: blackberry, rhubarb, quince and kiwi included. Pick to sip: An “irie blend” dubbed Rastaberry.
With lunch beckoning, continue on to nearby Saanichton, where decent pub grub is available at the circa-1859 Prairie Inn. Or keep driving east on Mount Newton toward the Pat Bay Highway to the area’s newest draw, Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse (open Wednesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; 250-544-4824). Offering a panorama that sweeps over the orchard to the Haro Strait beyond, the tasting room pairs a half-dozen diverse ciders with cheese, preserves and dark chocolate. Pick to sip: Kings & Spies, a sparkling cider made with local heritage apples.
Track back to the West Saanich Road, then south through Brentwood Bay. At the turnoff for Butchart Gardens sits Vancouver Island’s largest winery, Church & State Wines (open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 250-652-2671). Behind its imposing gates is an Okanagan-style big-league enterprise that produces 14,000 cases annually. Pick to sip: The Church Mouse lines of Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Detouring even farther south onto the shaded and serpentine Old West Saanich Road (yes, the nomenclature in these parts can be tricky) introduces two more farmgate gems. Winchester Cellars produces organic wine from its Barking Dog vineyard. The barn-style tasting room is guarded by a fierce stone image of Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape, and is set amid a cultivated garden -dotted with amusing wrought-iron sculptures. (Open weekends 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 250-544-8217.) Pick to sip: The Ortega/Bacchus, Van Isle’s only certified organic wine.
Five minutes of hairpin twists and turns brings the Starling Lane Winery into view (open weekends noon to 5 p.m., May through September; 250-881-7422). The vineyard is worth a visit even when closed; park roadside and stroll down Starling Lane to visit with the farmyard turkeys, sheep and chickens. Pick to sip: The Wild Blackberry Dessert Wine. Good sleeps: Only a few hundred metres back down the road from Starling Lane is the five-star Tudor-style Gazebo B&B (1-877-211-2288). Or get a jump on day two of this circuit by nesting spa-style at the Brentwood Bay Lodge and Spa, voted the province’s leading boutique hotel at 2007’s World Travel Awards (1-888-544-2079). Good eats: The Blue’s Bayou Café’s Cajun-style seafood and jambalaya, served dockside (250-544-1194).
Leg Two: Brentwood Bay to Duncan (approx. 100 km)
Billed as “British Columbia’s most beautiful shortcut,” the Mill Bay ferry zips travellers across the Saanich Inlet and eliminates the Malahat from a jaunt up-Island. (Travel is first-come, first-served, and the crew accepts only cash or traveller’s cheques.) Back on terra firma, take Shawnigan-Mill Bay Road up the hill to Hwy. 1; after a brief taste of the six-lane tarmac, swing left at the stoplight and follow the signs to Merridale Estate Cidery (open daily 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 1-800-998-9908). Here, wander the rolling hillside property, take a self-guided tour, lunch in the restaurant and sample the scrumpy at the elegant tasting bar. Pick to sip: A traditional cider good enough to win medals in Somerset, England. Next, detour for a dip in nearby Shawnigan Lake or travel onward past green swathes of field and forest to the village of Cobble Hill, just beyond which – on Cobble Hill Road – are a pair of boutique wineries. Glenterra Vineyards draws kudos for its Thistles Café lunches, mere metres from the tangled vines. (Open daily, except Tuesdays, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; 250-743-2330.) Pick to sip: The best-selling Vivace blend. Silverside Farm & Winery boasts an art gallery, gift shop and tasty selection of berry-based wines. (Phone ahead in shoulder season. Open Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 250-743-9149.) Pick to sip: The raspberry port-style wine.
Ramping it up to 80 klicks per hour on Hwy. 1 brings the Venturi-Schulze Vineyards within sipping distance (by appointment only; 250-743-5630). This pioneering winery began capitalizing on the region’s mild climate back in 1987 and is today known as much for its balsamic vinegar as its Pinot Noir. Pick to sip: Limited edition vintages are the norm here, so sip whatever’s available.
Back on the highway, descend into Duncan past the shopaholic allure of Whippletree Junction (home to handcrafted furniture, decadent fudge and top local hangout Black Coffee and Other Delights, then turn left at Miller Road (adjacent to the Old Farm Market and its trademark covered wagon). Jog right on Koksilah Road, then immediately back onto Miller as the pocket wine-growing region of Glenora unfolds. Zanatta Winery, near the village of Glenora’s central junction, has a solid reputation for sparkling wines that add a festive zing to rustic lunches at the in-house Vinoteca wine bar. (Open Wednesdays to Sundays, noon to 4:30 p.m.; 250-748-2338.) Pick to sip: Glenora Fantasia Brut, an apple-scented sparkling wine. Farther down Marshall Road at the end of a long, bumpy driveway is Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards (open daily noon to 5 p.m.; 250-715-0504). Tastings are beside the fireplace in proprietor Dave Godfrey’s home or on a patio where jazz trios entertain on summer weekends. Pick to sip: The 2002 Scarlatti Sisters blended red, with its delightful label designed by Victoria artist Isa Sevrain. The neighbouring Echo Valley Vineyards sells vino by the glass; travellers are invited to bring their own picnic spreads (Tastings by appointment; 250-748-1470.) Pick to sip: The 2005 Sylvaner.
Next up: An hour or two exploring Duncan’s revitalized downtown core. Must-see: the Duncan Garage, a heritage warehouse near the old train station with a fine bookstore and the organically inclined Community Farm Store. Then, head north on the Trans-Canada to the Cowichan’s northernmost winery, Averill Creek Vineyard, high on the face of Mount Prevost where paragliders take flight (open Thursdays to Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.; 250-709-9986). Pick to sip: A Pinot Gris that won the gold medal in 2006’s All Canadian Wine Tasting championship. From here, follow Hwy. 18 (a.k.a. Herd Road) eastbound, then south on Maple Bay and Tzouhalem Roads to reach the lovely village of Cowichan Bay. Stock up on edibles at Hilary’s Cheese Co. and True Grain Bread before hitting the Udder Guy’s Ice Cream Parlour for its intoxicating Red Wine Grape confection.
Circling back toward Cobble Hill delivers two more first-rate wineries. Founded in 1990 by Wayne and Helen Ulrich, Cherry Point Vineyards has the feel of a Napa winery with its manicured grounds, restaurant and tasting room. (Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 250-743-1272.) Regularly scheduled tours take visitors backstage in the winemaking process. Pick to sip: The rich, sweet Cowichan Blackberry fruit wine. After crossing over the Trans-Canada one last time, the trail ends at Blue Grouse Vineyards, a one-time hobby start-up in a peaceful green valley. (Open Wednesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 250-743-3834.) Pick to sip: A series of German-style white wines led by the 2006 Müller-Thurgau. Good sleeps: Near the Arbutus Ridge golf course in Cobble Hill, Damali Lavender Farm offers a trio of sweetly scented rooms overlooking purple fields (250-743-4100). Good eats: Foodies rave about Amusé Bistro (250-743-3667) in the town of Shawnigan Lake; local delights are also a specialty at Duncan’s Bistro 161 (250-746-6466) and Cowichan Bay’s Masthead (250-748-3714).