A row of apple trees at Merridale Farms in Cobble Hill looks about ready to harvest. Tess van Straaten/Monday Magazine

Tess van Straaten: Falling in Love with Cowichan

Monday columnist gets wined and dined in the Valley

By Tess van Straaten

Monday Magazine columnist

A layer of fog hangs in the air as we drive through the rolling green hills and farmland of the Cowichan Valley. Family farms and vineyards dot our route as we make our way to Merridale Cidery & Distillery in Cobble Hill a few days before Thanksgiving for some fall fun.

“This is when we’re harvesting our apples,” explains Merridale’s Janet Dougherty. “The trees are laden with ripe fruit, and pressing is fully underway. It’s the beginning of our next vintage.”

And what better way to celebrate than to sample not only Merridale’s tart and tasty old and new world varieties, but also some of the best farm-crafted ciders in the province, at Merridale’s second annual cider harvest festival. The outdoor tasting event, which attracts close to 500 people, features 15 of the top craft cideries in British Columbia.

“We wanted to showcase what farm-crafted ciders are – cideries that grow their own apples and make cider from 100 per cent apple juice,” Dougherty says.

There are more than 60 different – and distinct – drinks to sample, from traditional apple and berry ciders to more unique, spicier varieties and scrumpy, which was described as having “barnyard flavours” but was my favourite sample of the day.

Columnist Tess van Straaten stands amid the orchard next to an old farm truck at Merridale in Cobble Hill.

The following weekend, we return to Merridale for one of the most unique experiences the Cowichan Valley has to offer – staying in one of the farm’s two yurts. Extremely popular during wedding season and available April through October, the circular, wooden-framed tents are ‘glamping’ at its best. We’re in the larger, Yarlington Yurt, named after a variety of apples in the nearby orchard. It has hardwood floors, a cozy fireplace and a claw foot tub. But my favourite part is lying on the four-poster bed and looking up at the intricate pinwheel ceiling and the glass-covered sky at the top.

A short walk away down the country road, past some friendly goats, we find ourselves at Unsworth Vineyard to taste a delicious new addition to Vancouver Island’s wine scene. It’s called Charme De L’ile and literally means ‘charm of the Island.’ The new designation is for a sparkling, Prosecco-style wine that uses the Charmat method for a distinctly Island-made bubbly.

“Our coastal climate and grape varieties are ideal for sparkling wine and as with all Island wines, our local grapes produce a clean, crisp, flavourful base while the Charmat method of production preserves the fruit flavours,” explains Unsworth owner Tim Turyk.

“We use Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir for the majority of the Charme De L’ile blend, but add a variety unique to our area (Sauvignette) that sets it apart from other sparkling wines.”

Unsworth’s tasting room and restaurant are open-year round and Turyk says fall is a great time to visit. “Fall is not as busy with tourists as mid-summer so a less crowded tasting experience is more likely, and there is little difficulty securing a table at Unsworth Restaurant on short notice.”

The next morning, after a delicious farm-to-table breakfast at Merridale’s bistro, we wander through the orchard and follow the special faerie trail that borders the property. Covered in a canopy of changing leaves, sunlight bursts through the fall colours and I can see why Cowichan holds a special magic in the fall.

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Unsworth Vineyard’s tasting room in Cobble Hill has smaller crowds at this time of year, which makes for an even more pleasant experience. Courtesy Unsworth Vineyard

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