1. It’s on Vancouver Island
Even though the setting is beautiful and quite easily reached from Vancouver, I’ll confess: Over the years, I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Vancouver Island’s wine scene. I’ve always had huge admiration for any winery that struggles valiantly in the face of diversity—and the islands have had their challenges over the years. But I’ve also been frustrated that so few of the wines actually made it across the Salish Sea.
That issue of availability flows from the relatively small production (even smaller in less forgiving vintages). However, a core group of wineries has been working to change this. Not only are they focused on varieties that consistently ripen (well almost always) but they’re also considerably upping their hospitality game.
Overall, the island has never been short on personality or determination. Signs of that perseverance beginning to pay off are no more evident than at Unsworth Vineyards, in Mill Bay. A recent visit has me convinced that, along with stalwarts such as newly transformed Blue Grouse (whose reopening I’ll be covering very shortly) and other pioneers Averill Creek, Venturi Schulze, Alderlea, Rocky Creek and others, and it’s easy to see how Vancouver Island is set to truly spread its wings.
2. Unsworth understands (what makes good wine)
At this Unsworth pre-release tasting I was impressed across the board by a cleanness of style. Unsworth also offers a unique interpretation of the acidity that often defines island wines.
The winery is a labour of love, undertaken by Tim and Colleen Turyk, who moved to the valley after a successful forty year career in fishing. Tim had spent summers at nearby Shawnigan Lake and jumped at the a chance to purchase a nearby historic farm and acreage. They named the winery after his mother, Marjorie Unsworth.
Winemaker Daniel Cosman along with assistant vineyard manager Chris Turyk (Tim and Colleen’s accomplished sommelier son) are shaping production with deliberate purpose.
“Mother Nature is a cruel mistress,” says Cosman, “And we are at her mercy significantly, on the island.”
When comparing his corner of the world climatically to others, he points to Tasmania—or perhaps Champagne.
To maximise their chances of success, Unsworth works with Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignette, Petit Milo, Marechal Foch, Cabernet Libre and others, including Riesling from Naramata.
Petit Milo—“It’s astonishingly similar to Riesling,” says Cosman—ripens before the rain comes; and grows very manageably straight. Many of the varieties were trialled even before the Okanagan trials that serve to establish the modern industry, he says. For example Sauvignette was originally planted on Salt Spring Island.
3. Unsworth Vineyards Restaurant
Tim Turyk has a wry smile on his face when he says he never quite realised what would be involved when they decided to renovate the original, early 1900s farmhouse on the property, which now serves as the restaurant. It’s a real top to bottom job, a thorough reno that’s managed to retain the feel of the old home quite beautifully, while adding in the modern necessities. That includes extra seating in the form of an airy extension that looks out onto the vineyard, as well as an outdoor summertime patio.
4. The cuisine
I’d heard rumours about the food here but I still wasn’t prepared for the superb plates that come from Chef Steven Elskens kitchen. Along with manager (and wife) Christle Pope, he’s crafted one of the most locally driven and thoughtful menus on the island—which is not short on strong regional tastes. The two have worked hard to forge relationships with smaller producers around the Cowichan and beyond. No question, it all adds up to a terrific showcase for the wines on hand.
Highlights from my visit included several tastes, which may not now be available, as the menu shifts easily with the seasons. But, rest assured, there’s still plenty that appeals.
Here’s the current menu link.
In short—this is some of the best winery dining I’ve encountered in a very long time.
Look for the wines in private wine stores and at better restaurants. And if you’re even remotely close to Unsworth, don’t miss a chance to visit this very polished operation.
Among my top tastes:
• Unsworth Allegro 2014 is a refreshing blend of Petit Milo and Sauvignette. Orchard fruits on top, followed by pear and apple on the palate, nicely fruity but dry, with a hint of nettle. it reminds me somewhat of Pinot Auxerrois. Straw in colour with an orchid pink hue. Offered on tap at Provence Marinaside and TWB. 90 pts $20
• Unsworth Pinot Gris 2014. Lees aging (“How we deal with island acidity,” says Cosman) brings remarkable texture, orchard fruits, purity of flavours, structure and great fruit acid balance. 91 pts. $22-$24
• Unsworth Pinot Noir 2013. Earthy and mushroom notes with pure, sweet fruit, dark cherry over strawberry with juicy acidity and some oak notes. 90 pts. $22-$24 (We had the 2012 with lunch. It’s also showing very well … if you can find it).
• Unsworth Rosé 2014. Well balanced, delicious expression of Pinot Noir with integrated 10 percent neutral oak: cranberry, cherry with apple and citrus background and lingering acidity. 90 pts. $17-$19. Just awarded Best of Class at All Canadian Wine Championships.
6. The Chickens