A Winery on Vancouver Island
My husband Michael and I spent last week at a family reunion on Vancouver Island. Along with the beautiful scenery, the island has a burgeoning wine industry, and I wanted to take a half-day to visit at least one producer and taste his range of wines. We were staying in the island’s capital, Victoria, and we chose one of the few of which I had heard, Unsworth Vineyards. The story behind this vineyard, and others on the island, is an interesting one.
Winemaking on Vancouver Island is a relatively recent phenomenon. Winemaking on the mainland has a longer pedigree, but because of the ferocious nature of Canadian winters, it was believed that only the most robust varieties, primarily hybrids, could grow, which were used primarily for sweeter and less quality-conscious wines, or for sparkling wines, one of which boasted the brand name of Fuddle Duck. Furthermore, the industry was protected by a high wall of preferential tariffs, which did not encourage improvement.
Things began to change when Canada joined the North American Free Trade Association in 1988 and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1989. The tariff walls had to come down. The immediate result was a scream of outrage from wine-producing areas, which would now be threatened by imports of lower-cost, and probably higher-quality, wines. It was decided that if the wine industry was to have any chance of competing, existing vineyards had to be grubbed up and replanted with varieties of vitis vinifera which could both produce quality wine and survive the Canadian winters. Much of this was carried out, but farmers and wine makers on the Island are still on something of a learning curve as they decide what to plant and where.
Southern Vancouver Island, where most of the wineries are located, has the warmest median temperature in Canada. Nevertheless, its latitude is just south of the 49th parallel, which is at the northern extreme of the area suitable for grape production. The growing season, therefore, is very short, but enjoys long warm days and short cool nights. The beginning of the industry on the island is usually dated to the autumn of 1992, and it was rapidly discovered that, whilst the basic rule of thumb is that it takes 100 days after flowering for grapes to ripen, on the Island it takes 120-150 days. Only cooler-climate varieties thrive, and thus little or no Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah or Merlot are grown there. The warmest, and best, wine-producing area is the Cowichan Valley, and it is here that Unsworth Vineyards is found.
Cowichan means ‘warm land’, and the Valley has a Mediterranean-like microclimate with a mild year-round average temperature. Unsworth use disease-tolerant, early-ripening varieties suitable for a coastal region.; no systemic sprays have been used for the past three years. 40% of the grapes are hybrids designed for the area. Their Allegro 2016 is made up of two of the white hybrids, Petit Milo and Sauvignette, and the wine is dry, with a lowish acid and good length, whilst their varietal Sauvignette 2016 shows semi-prominent sweet fruit, with a roundness arising from its barrel fermentation. The wines are Canadian $22 and $24 respectively. Their Petit Milo produces quite a fruity wine. My preferred white was the Pinot Gris 2016. It had a touch of beeswax on the nose along with the fruit, nice crisp acid, and a true Pinot Gris flavor.
Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir do best on the land around the winery, and their Pinot Noir 2015 was much liked by members of my family. It tended to take a while to open up, but it then had a nice acid-tannins balance, and distinct notes of cherry on both the nose and the palate. They also do a Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon combination; Cabernet Sauvignon will not grow properly on the Island, and they buy in the grapes from the mainland, from a farm near to the border with Washington; the resulting wine is dry with good balance whilst having quite a lot of sweet fruit on both the nose and the palate; it retails at the winery for $24. Finally, their non-vintage wine Ovation, their ‘port-type wine’, should be mentioned. Made from the hybrid Marechal Foch grape, some of which are dried for concentration, the wine is dark, with high acid and sweet dark fruit. It cannot truly be compared with port, except as filling a marketing slot, but on its own terms it’s a nice wine. My sister really liked it.
The owners Colleen and Tim Turyk only began their winery in 2009, when they found for sale a winery with thirty-two acres, two acres of which were already planted with Marechal Foch grapes. In short, the project is hardly in its adolescence, but it shows distinct promise, particularly their Pinor Noir and Pinot Gris wines. For those who find themselves on Vancouver Island, it is worth a visit.