In terms of up and coming wine regions to watch, BC’s Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is definitely worthy of consideration. Not only has it been named the Province’s newest sub-GI, it’s also getting the attention of some serious global wine players who didn’t just consider it, they invested in it, purchasing Unsworth Vineyards earlier this year.
The Cowichan Valley is the very essence of ‘local’. Bet any Islander to spot the Mainlander in the group and it’s an easy win for them.
It’s a small area geographically with about a dozen wineries living within its boundaries. Everyone knows everyone else, and news travels fast. It was big news when just over a decade ago, Tim and Colleen Turyk purchased a 32-acre farm complete with a farmhouse built in the early 1900s, that also had a small winery.
Tim had spent childhood summers at nearby Shawnigan Lake and completed his secondary and university education on the island. He and his wife named the winery “Unsworth” (his mother’s maiden name), as an homage to the woman who had introduced him to the area and fueled their affection for it. As his son Chris Turyk tells us, after 40 years in the fishing industry, Tim wasn’t much of a golfer and needed to find a new challenge for his next chapter. He was biking past the property one day, saw it was for sale and envisioned not only a beautiful place to work, but a venture that held enormous potential.
Chris held the same belief as his father, along with his own genuine passion for food and wine.
He initially started down the path of the culinary arts, studying at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the Napa Valley. He then shifted to the wine world most notably working as a sommelier at Hawksworth in Vancouver, arguably the city’s top restaurant. His experience in both worlds was particularly helpful for the renovation of the heritage farmhouse into a restaurant.
We were lucky enough to dine at the restaurant a couple of nights before our interview with Chris at the winery.
The menu is thoughtfully prepared by New Zealand native Maartyn Hoogeveen, a chef with an impressive resume who clearly fits right in with his focus on seasonal, and of course local, fare. We were treated to an excellent meal that included a ridiculously fresh beet salad along with polenta fries to start, their house made pasta and a margarita pizza from their outdoor wood fire oven. We were particularly glad we ordered the latter as it turned out to be the very last pizza they made before closing the oven down for the season!
We paired the entire meal with Unsworth wines to get an idea of the house style.
Our waiter Mark also works in the tasting room, so he provided a thorough background of each wine we ordered along with useful information regarding the farmhouse itself. After we finished, he graciously showed us around the rooms, pointing out the floors and walls that had been re-finished with wood from local fir trees, the addition of the solid marble bar that was sourced from the local quarry, and the original fireplace that is the feature point in the main dining room.
When his father purchased the property in 2009, Chris was hands-on from the beginning literally from the ground up, helping with every aspect of the winery’s transformation from installing vineyards, to pairing the food and wine at the restaurant, to working in the winery itself.
But it was doing the heavy digging and lifting that seemed to have the greatest impact, “It’s the farming aspect that I really fell in love with. Everything starts there.” Chris is particularly enthusiastic about sustainable farming and returned to school a couple of years ago to complete the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture in 2018. And while his official title at the winery today is Marketing Director, he’s actively involved in putting the walk behind the talk of building the winery brand around sustainably managed vineyard practices.
There are currently 12 acres under vine that grow varieties most conducive to the unique cool climate to allow for minimal intervention. Chris explained that the philosophy in the winery is traditional backed by science, where they purposefully produce small lot wines to get the truest expression of the vineyard. They use very little new oak, relying largely on used barrels that are 3-5 years old. They aggressively steam the used barrels, and the few new barrels they purchase are water-bent staves to ensure that the effect of the barrel is leeched out. For some that may seem like sacrilege, but with the cooler climate and high acidic wines being produced in Cowichan Valley, it’s considered necessary by Unsworth.
As Chris toured us through the winery, Harvest was already well underway and winemaker Dan Wright was busy with a multitude of tasks. Dan is about to complete his 5th vintage with Unsworth. We are staggered by the number of different varieties he works with, which at last count by Chris is 18, “We keep playing with things, we come up with something new every couple of years, and then something else will fade away and shift…but the core of our program doesn’t change too much: the Charme de L’ile, the Rosé, Pinot Gris, Allegro and Pinot Noir.”
The Charme de L’île is their sparkling wine and it was the standout of our tasting (and our dinner).
It means “charm of the island” and is made in the Charmot method. This method uses stainless steel vats for the carbonation process as opposed to the traditional method where it’s done in the bottle. Unsworth is so convinced this style is going to be a successful part of the region’s future, they’ve trademarked the name to identify those produced on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands using this method.
Clearly all the hard work that has gone into the winery over the past decade has paid off both literally and figuratively.
Earlier this year, Julia Jackson and Barbara Banke of the renown Jackson Family Wines purchased Unsworth Vineyards for an undisclosed amount. According to Chris, the two women purchased the winery as a personal investment but there’s no ignoring the fact that professionally they are involved with one of world’s largest and most successful wine portfolios.
What does this mean for Unsworth moving forward? For now, it’s business as usual with the Turyk’s and winemaker Dan Wright remaining in their roles for the foreseeable future. A more compelling question is what does this mean for the Cowichan Valley? While the wine history of the region is relatively short, the wine-growing potential is long, and the world is starting to take notice.
NV Unsworth Charme de l’ile
This sparkler is made using the Charmat method, the same method used in Italy to make the sparkling wines of Prosecco. The Charmat method creates the secondary fermentation (which produces the fizz) in closed stainless steel tanks rather than in bottle. This is a dry wine with notes of strawberry and brioche. Made from Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir it has the weight best suited as an aperitif where its crisp acidity will bring lots of freshness.
Very Good ($21.65 at the winery)
2015 Unsworth Cuvée de l’ile
Made using the Charmat method from a blend of Pinot Gris, Auxerois and Pinot Noir with zero dosage (no sugar added). This has a lovely dry minerality to it showing flavours apple, pear and toast. There is a bit more body than with the Charme de L’ile and a bit more presence too.
2019 Unsworth Allegro
Allegro is all about the art of blending. Fruit comes from their estate vineyard plus 4 other local vineyards. It is a blend of 3 cool climate varieties, grapes you do not often hear of: Sauvignette, Petit Milo and Amiel. The result is a very satisfying wine with good balance between its higher acidity and the good texture that it also exhibits. Notes of grapefruit and citrus combine with a certain steeliness that refreshes the palate.
Very Good+ ($19.91 at the winery)
2019 Unsworth Pinot Gris Saison Vineyard
Lean and minerally, this wine shows refreshing notes of apple and pear with lime zest coming through on the finish. The Saison Vineyard is just down the road from Unsworth and it has a good reputation for supplying quality fruit to its neighbouring vineyards.
Good ($22.52 at the winery)
2019 Unsworth Petit Milo
This is the round and fruity one in the Unsworth lineup. Off dry with 9 grams of residual sugar, this gives the wine texture without making it sweet. Petit Milo is unique to the BC Coast and shows nice flavours of peaches and other whites orchard fruits.
Very Good+ ($21.65 at the winery)
2017 Unsworth Symphony
This medium to light bodied red is a field blend of Cabernet Libre, Labelle and other rarities unique to Vancouver Island. We get notes of red cherry with slight herbaceous undertones. The acid is medium+ and the flavour profile is quite straight forward.
Good ($23.39 at the winery)
2915 Cameron Taggart Rd #1
Mill Bay, BC Canada
Mon & Tues: 12pm-4pm
Wed – Sunday: 11am-5pm
Thursday – Sunday 12pm-7:30
*Closed December 21-26