Fort Berens Estate Winery: Perseverance Pays Off

Posted on Jun 8, 2022


Our first visit to Fort Beren’s Winery in Lillooet, British Columbia in 2021 was nothing short of a revelation.

Lillooet BC wine

A most unique terroir.

Not only was it surprising that this remote location was capable of growing grapes, but in the right hands, those grapes could be turned into high quality wine. When owners Rolf de Bruin and his wife Heleen Pannekoek needed a new winemaker, their search lead them halfway around the world to an even more remote place in South Africa.

Alex Nel is soft spoken and, as we quickly learn, extremely knowledgeable. From the moment we meet Fort Berens’ new winemaker, we discover he not only loves what he’s doing, he clearly knows what he’s doing.

Lillooet BC winery

Winemaker Alex Nel.

Before moving to Lillooet, Alex spent the last 15 years honing his skills earning multiple awards for both his whites and reds as the winemaker for Cederberg Wines. At just over 1000m above sea level, Cederberg is one of the highest altitude wineries in the country. And it’s even more isolated than Lillooet. A 2.5-3-hour drive north of Cape Town, the community consists of only 120 people with the nearest town an hour’s drive away.

While comfortable with the isolation, that’s pretty much where the similarities end between his previous home on the Western Cape and Lillooet: “Nothing is similar!” he says with a laugh. “We had problems in South Africa, but ours were Baboons and frost. The Baboons coming to steal your grapes and early spring frost killing your vines. We’ve been lucky here [Fort Berens]…spring frost really hasn’t been a problem, but we have frost fans just in case so in that way it’s slightly similar to South Africa. But climate-wise and everything else, the challenges here are very different. There are things here I’ve never heard of before, that I’ve never even thought would be an issue.”

Alex evidently thrives on unique challenges which is a theme that started early on his path towards winemaking.

Lillooet BC winery

Alex explaining his practices in the vineyard.

He studied at Elsenburg College (part of the University of Stellenbosch), where he graduated with a B.Sc in Agriculture in Cellar Technology. The exclusive program selects only 10 students a year to commit to the 3rd year cellar technology program and then puts them through an unusual initiation. Their first 4 months involve no classes, just making wine.

“You get a block of white and a block of red and it’s just you and your classmates and they don’t tell you a thing. You have to go research yourself, approach winemakers ask them questions depending on the cultivar you got—I got chardonnay and Pinotage—and then you make wine. So it’s a bunch of students who have no clue what they’re doing. And then when everyone goes on their first vacation, you have to catch up on all your classes and you discuss the whole vintage…it was a great time.”

Despite extensive experience with baboons, spring frost, and high altitude, no one could have been prepared for a global pandemic.

Lillooet BC wine

Fort Berens Estate Winery.

Alex was hired in March of 2020, but it wasn’t until December of that same year when he was able to finally navigate visa requirements and travel restrictions to get himself, his wife, and 2 young children to Canada.

The 4 of them arrived on Boxing Day 2020 and promptly began their required 14-day quarantine. Having never set foot in the country before, one can only imagine how they must have felt suddenly being plunged into the middle of a Canadian winter!

From the moment he arrived, his initial primary focus is the vineyards, specifically what’s going on underground.

Lillooet BC winemaker

Happy in Lillooet.

“We want to develop good root structure, big root structures, good buffering. When we had the heat dome last year, the older vines with the big root zone handled it perfectly. The younger vines struggled a little bit. We’re just farming the soil, getting carbon levels up and then we can focus on what’s above the ground.”

The property sits on a riverbed comprised of stratified alluvial soils, clay and sand which is ideal for drainage. Farming at Fort Berens is organic, though not certified. It benefits from a constant wind that has a drying effect leading to very little disease and virus pressure. As with all vineyards we’ve visited, water is key. He minimizes water quite a lot, particularly with the reds to stress the vines, “You have to show the vines a good time and then take it [water] away so they go into a sort of survival mode and put all of their energy into their fruit resulting in very concentrated flavours.”

In the winery, Alex removes all oxygen contact for the whites from the moment the berry is crushed right through to the wine in bottle, a method he used in South Africa for his award-winning Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

Lillooet BC winery

Barrel tasting with Alex.

During crush he cools down the grapes before they’re processed in the winery then uses dry ice in rice grain form that he adds the minute the berries are crushed. Heavier than oxygen, the dry ice forms a protective layer ensuring that in the open pump and in the press, the juice never sees oxygen.

“The aromatic compounds in the grape are damaged by oxidization, with that comes the heat so if you can remove the heat and oxygen and sunlight, you will have a more aromatic, clean cut, and intense white wine at the end of the day that will age fantastically.”

For Alex, choosing the right oak is one of the most important aspects of winemaking, particularly for the Bordeaux varieties.

Lillooet BC wine

The special edition Lytton Strong Pinot Gris supporting Lytton.

He’s moving Fort Berens from using predominantly American oak to French oak and working with coopers that he came to know from working harvests in France as an intern. The winery purchased an additional 60 barrels so that all the reds will be aged in barrel for at least 15 months before bottling. “I’m using coopers that aren’t even in Canada, small Burgundy coopers for my Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and small Bordeaux coopers for my Bordeaux varieties.”

Tasting through his first vintage, the initial results of his influence on the winery are already obvious (see tasting notes below).

Lillooet BC wine

Tasting through the wines.

It’s particularly impressive when you consider the unprecedented hurdles 2021 presented him—a global pandemic, the coldest day on record, the hottest day on record, heat domes, and nearby devastating fires and smoke. “It’s quite a challenge to grow grapes in British Columbia. I think if I survived last year then we’re doing alright. If you can make wine here, I think you can make wine anywhere in the world.”

Alex’s ‘survival’ of such a demanding first vintage leaves us with zero doubt that he is going to thrive at Fort Berens. His perseverance is already paying off and we’re definitely declaring this a winemaker and winery to watch.

 

Tasting Notes

2021 Fort Berens Pinot Gris

Flavours of green apple and pear sit on a light body with good texture and mouthfeel. The overall sensation is very refreshing as the acidity is well-judged. A Pinot Gris that stands out from the crowd and has something to say. Reminiscent of some of the better Alsatian Pinot Gris, but at a fraction of the price.

Excellent (CAD $22 at the winery)

Lillooet BC wine

2021 Grüner Veltliner

2021 Fort Berens Grüner Veltliner

Grapefruit and wet stone flavours come through with intensity. The body is medium– and there is good acidity which provides for a freshness that Grüner fans will love. The finish is long and citrusy.

Very Good+ (CAD $22 at the winery)

2021 Fort Berens Riesling

Tropical fruits and hints of apple are delivered on a medium– body. There is plenty of acidity on this wine but it is nicely counter-balanced by the hint of residual sugar.

Lillooet BC wine

2021 Riesling

The overall sensation is one of balance showing the wisdom in fermenting to just off-dry. The citrus finish is juicy and precise.

Very Good/Excellent (CAD $22 at the winery)

2021 Riesling Small Lot Series

This is offered to club members only and is a pretty good reason to join! Here the accent is more on the apple flavours which pick up additional complexity from the floral notes. The finish is long and shows mineral and citrus notes.

Excellent

2021 Fort Berens Rosé             

Made from a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Merlot using the maceration method, this is the kind of rose we like.

Lillooet BC wine

2021 Rosé

Sure, a simple and refreshing porch pounder can be something we occasionally enjoy, but this is a more serious style of Rosé, more vinous showing more detail than most Rosés on the market today. Notes of strawberry and apple skins are presented on a medium body that has a lovely, mineral-infused finish. Refreshing and complex.

Excellent (CAD $22 at the winery)

2019 Meritage Red

A blend of 88% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc, this wine offers flavours of cherry and plum and gets complexity from the hints of baking spice earthy notes.

Lillooet BC winery

Award-winning wines.

The palate is round and smooth and delivers lots of immediate pleasure.

Very Good+ (CAD$30 at the winery)

2019 Fort Berens Cabernet Franc

This wine spent 15 months in new French oak. Dark fruit notes of black cherry and raspberry gain added complexity from the subtle notes of dried herbs and bitter chocolate.  The smooth palate offers immediate pleasure but the ingredients are all there for at least intermediate term aging.

Very Good+

 

Fort Berens Estate Winery

Lillooet BC winery

Definitely stay for a bite at The Kitchen…

1881 Highway 99 North

Lillooet, BC

Canada

Phone: 250-256-7788

Email: info@fortberens.ca

Tasting Room & Patio Hours: 10am-6pm Daily (May to October) / Thursday to Monday 10am-4pm (November to April)

The Kitchen: Lunch Thursday to Monday 12pm-4pm/ Dinner service Friday, Saturday & Sunday 5:30pm-8:30pm

2 Comments

  1. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    I had to look on a map to identify Lillooet. That certainly is out there! Yet what a gorgeous area to be outside, concentrating on what’s underground. Seems Alex is off to a great start in his new home!

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    • Two hours north of Whistler but seems so much further (in a wonderful way) given it’s much less touristy than Whistler. A truly beautiful spot and worth the trek. As for Alex, he’s such a great addition and we’re excited to see how his journey develops.

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