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British Columbia Wines
May 02, 2012
Fort Berens - Lillooet's First Winery

Fort Berens Estate Winery is the best winery in Lillooet.

Which is a truth that needs to be qualified, because right now, Fort Berens happens to be the only winery in Lillooet.

Perhaps it is more accuarate to say, “it’s the first”. Whether Fort Berens will remain a solo act for long is something that other hopeful new winery owners will determine. There’s no doubt that most have them have been priced out of established wine regions such as the Okanagan.  So you can’t blame them if they are watching this new operation with interest. They want to know – does Lillooet have the right stuff?

Winery proprietors Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, a married couple from the Netherlands, are betting that it does.  Along with local wine savvy business partners (Harry McWatters is one), they’ve invested in 20 acres of vineyards in the Fraser Canyon. Land that once supported a ginseng farm is now planted with Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  

No worries. Pannekoek says the area’s climate and soil conditions may even be better for growing grapes than the Okanagan. In fact, it could even be ideal. Located on the northern tip of BC’s interior desert, the summer days are hotter, the nights cooler. The growing season is longer, and because it is extremely arid (less than 10 inches of rainfall a year), the vines get a beneficial stress-out, being forced to reach deep down through the quick draining, loamy, sandy, gravelly soil to seek moisture.

So does Lillooet then exhibit its own distinct terroir? Going by Fort Berens first release alone, that’s still difficult to determine. Other than the Riesling (which is made from 100% estate grown-grapes), most of the winery’s first vintage contains about 30-40% local juice -- the rest being from the Okanagan.  However, this is a situation that will change over the next 2 to 3 years as the winery proceeds with its plan to bottle only 100% estate-grown grapes. Considering the youth of the vines, the wines are showing promise.

At a debut tasting this week at Cork & Fin restaurant, Vancouver wine writers sampled the:

Pinot Gris $17.99 (275 cases)
Pinot Noir Rose $17.99 (90 cases)
White Gold Chardonnay $24.99 (98 cases)
Riesling $17.99 (175 cases)
Meritage (Merlot/Cab Sauvigon/Cab Franc) $26.99

Although the Riesling recently received a gold medal and a “Best of Class” nod at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition, it was a sixth wine, the “23 Camels”, a white blend of Pinot Gris/Chardonnay/Riesling selling for $14.99 that stood out most.  The blend retained the nicely rounded apple acidity and spice of the Riesling (without the slight oxidative note that had found its way into the 100% varietal we sampled), and that base was elegantly balanced by the buttery texture of Chardonnay and the fresh tropical fruit of Pinot Gris.  

As well, unlike other bottles in the series where labels honour Lillooet’s gold-rush history with images of burros, railroads, canoes and other modes of  19th century transportation, this one with its engraving of a camel train, also came with the best story. The image is a reference to entrepreneur John Callbreath, who in 1862, imported 23 camels (from San Francisco of all places) to work the gold fields as pack animals.

Unfortunately it is a story without a happy ending. Callbreath lost his shirt to the camels -- the bad-tempered beasts probably ate it – as the animals proved to be too temperamental to be reliable, and their feet too soft to handle the area’s rocky minerality.

So perhaps camels are not the best icon for a fledgling winery, but de Bruin and Pannekoek see it differently. In their eyes Callbreath’s “folly” represents the best of the pioneering spirit – the courage to try new ideas and to travel the unmarked path. That being said, there is a reason it was the pioneers who took most of the arrows in their pants. There are no previous models for them to follow here, and that could turn out to be either a disadvantage, or an extremely good thing – for all of us.

Added Notes: Wine mentioned above are available at VQA liquor stores, with the exception of the 23 Camels, which can be found in select private liquor stores, restaurants and by order through the winery.

Fort Berens was the name of a fort that the Hudsons Bay Company planned to build over 150 years ago to serve as a trading post for the gold miners. The fort was never completed, and today the Fort Berens winery is located on the site. 

Fort Beren’s Winemaker is Bill Pierson, formerly the assistant winemaker for Tom DiBello at CedarCreek.

Photo Gallery
Fort Berens Wine Tasting


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