The word ‘pioneer’ gets bandied about a lot, but it truly takes vision to open the first commercial winery nowadays in a region with barely any viticultural history. It certainly wasn’t the first place Rolf de Bruin and his wife Heleen Pannekoek had considered for a winery when they emigrated from Holland, but heading into their 11th harvest, they’re already making their mark on BC’s rapidly developing wine scene at Fort Berens.
British Columbia’s Sea-to-Sky country gained worldwide acclaim when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The region mainly covers Horseshoe Bay through Whistler and the Pemberton Valley. Most people typically don’t travel beyond Whistler, but two hours north of one of the largest ski resorts in North America is the town of Lillooet, a small community borne out of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. It is an unassuming place surrounded by the steep, towering coastal mountains and feels a world away from the bustling and tourist-trodden Whistler just 2 hours down the road.
We had never been to Lillooet ourselves and were surprised to learn that not only did a winery exist in this part of the Province, but that they were also producing award-winning wines. As we drove up the Sea-to-Sky highway, the traffic noticeably dropped as soon as we left Whistler town limits. For two hours we saw more deer than cars and marveled at the numerous waterfalls and the emerald green Duffey Lake. Arriving at Fort Berens, the property is both central and sprawling. Its state-of-the-art winery facility is a striking contrast to this historical town, yet somehow still fits right in.
Founding Partner Rolf de Bruin greets us warmly, and immediately he takes us out to the vineyard to show us what makes this terroir so special, “It is very unique to BC and anywhere in the world. In some ways the scenery here is reminiscent to Austria with the tall valleys and snowcapped mountains, but this place was created by glaciers. It’s been really interesting trying to figure out this terroir, what does well, and what we need to do in the vineyard and in the winery to grow premium grapes and make quality wine.”
He goes on to explain that because of the fluvial glacial deposits left by the lakes 15,000 years ago, the 38-acres under vine is largely made up of 3 types of soil: the first part has a lot more clay and loamy soil, then 16 inches of sand, river rock, gravel, and then beach sand. Lots of poor soil resulting in great drainage that is ideal for grape-growing. They initially planted 20 acres under vine in 2009 made up of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. In 2018 they planted two more blocks of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and in 2019 planted more Riesling and Merlot along with Gruner Veltliner and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their first crop of Cabernet Sauvignon will be harvested this year.
Lillooet is also known as BC’s ‘hot spot’, regularly recording the highest temperatures in the Province through the summer months.
It sees less than 13 inches of average annual rainfall and is similar to Osoyoos in BC’s Okanagan Valley in terms of growing degree days. But that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Although Lillooet sees shorter sunlight days than the Okanagan, the solar radiation is higher in Lillooet because the mountains push the moisture to higher elevations resulting in less cloud cover. In September, Lillooet typically sees 30+ degree Celsius temperatures during the day, that drop down to almost zero at night providing a massive diurnal temperature swing. The daytime heat ripens the fruit, but the cool overnight temperatures help to preserve the acidity.
And, as Rolf quickly points out, not everything that works in the Okanagan works in Lillooet, “the Okanagan has been doing things for the last 25 years so they have a little bit of history. Europe has a thousand years of history and have things figured out, but we’re just starting to figure it out here. We have 10 harvests under our belt so we’ve only tried things 10 times, but we improve every time.” Rolf adds with a laugh, “it’s a typical trial and tribulation process!”.
At 38 acres planted, almost everything is done by hand as it’s not of a scale where mechanization makes sense given costs, but still a larger operation than they had first envisioned. The original plan was to start a family winery with about 14-15 acres. They’re currently producing 10,000 cases and are actually on the hunt for more property in the area to see whether or not they can expand production.
Everything they do in the vineyard is essentially managing crop load. According to Rolf, it is the single most important variable in managing fruit quality. “The lower the crop the better the quality up to a certain extent. We’ve done experiments in our Pinot Noir block where we cropped at 4 and 1/2, 3 and 1/2, 2 and 1/2 and 1 and 1/2 tonnes per acre. The difference between 4 and 1/2 and 3 and 1/2 is remarkable in terms of flavours and concentration, the difference between 3 and 1/2 and 2 and 1/2 is a lot less noticeable, and then the difference between 2 and 1/2 and 1 and 1/2, we didn’t think the plants benefitted at all. So while we try to bring it down to a certain level, we don’t necessarily go rock bottom, at some point it doesn’t improve the wine anymore.”
But still the question remains as to how they ended up in Lillooet to launch a winery. As many would do when looking to get into BC’s wine industry, they started their hunt in Kelowna, the gateway city to the Okanagan Valley. Being new to the industry, they looked for experts who had the knowledge they lacked and connected with viticulturalist Richard Cleave, late wine entrepreneur Harry McWatters, and retired scientist John Vielvoye, all very well respected trailblazers in their own right. With a grower, entrepreneur and scientist advising them, all three independently pointed Rolf and Heleen to Lillooet.
The three were familiar with an experimental vineyard in the early 2000s initiated by Christ’l Roshard, the Lillooet Mayor at the time, that also had the support of the Minister of Agriculture. The objective was to see if Lillooet could grow grapes and the ‘Lillooet Grape Project’ was born. They planted 4 test vineyards with 19 different white varieties and 19 different red varieties. They also placed 85 temperature sensors from about 25km north of Lillooet to approximately 10km south of Lytton to track weather patterns, degree days and the growing season.
Rolf and Heleen visited the Project in 2008 and were impressed with how well the grapes did despite not being tended with much technical knowledge. But what cemented their decision to stay in Lillooet was the stunning location. Rolf tells us when they first set eyes on the steep, jagged coastal mountains, they turned to each other and said, “this is the Canada we came for.”
The tasting room sits perched overlooking the vineyard and Fraser River Valley, surrounded by the majestic coastal mountains. The design is modern and striking with raised ceilings and large windows taking full advantage of the stunning views. We’d be hard-pressed to imagine a better spot on a summer’s day than their patio!
The multi-level winery was built with sustainability in mind both with its design aimed at reducing energy consumption, and its construction using locally sourced materials. They dug deep into the sand to allow for gravity flow and the large steel fermentation tanks.
Next to the winery and on the edge of their vineyard is their outdoor restaurant, The Kitchen at Fort Berens. We had a delightful lunch there following our tasting. The Kitchen provides a casual setting under tent structures and offers bistro fare based on seasonal, local ingredients. There is plenty to like about dining there: innovative dishes without getting too fancy, a great view of the vineyard, and bottles of Fort Berens wine served at your table are the same price as sold off of the shelf inside the tasting room.
Having made this drive for the first time ourselves and being awestruck by the sheer beauty of the region, we can only imagine how Rolf and Heleen might have felt as they embarked on this exciting but risky venture. Lucky for all of us their gamble paid off and a stop at Fort Berens rewards any visitor with both a stunning view and a lovely glass of wine that pairs perfectly.
2020 Fort Berens Grüner Veltliner
Fruit for this wine comes from Osoyoos vineyards they contract from. Wonderfully refreshing melon flavours come across with juicy acidity, citrus and hints of Graham crackers. Great balance with precision, this wine is lovely as an aperitif but certainly could hold its own well at the dinner table.
Very Good/Excellent – $22 at the winery
2020 Fort Berens Pinot Gris
Medium body showing notes of apple skin with slight hints of nectarine. More Alsace than Alto Adige. There is good back end acidity that provides some nice punctuation.
Very Good – $20 at the winery
2017 Fort Berens Reserve Riesling
Fort Berens does 3 Rieslings: a dry, an off-dry and this Reserve, which is also off-dry with 25 grams/litre of residual sugar. The Reserve is a stunner! A lot of people can be put off by the off-dry moniker, but don’t be. Off-dry does not mean sickly or syrupy or even sweet, necessarily. This wine proves the case as the residual sugar adds texture and body without much detectable sweetness. We get hints of petrol layered on top of the ripe apple and pear fruit. The body is medium + and there is just enough acidity to provide definition while maintaining the off-dry style. Delicious!
Excellent – $29 at the winery
2020 Fort Berens Rosé
Fort Berens entrée into the hot Rosé category is a winner. A blend of 90% Pinot Noir with the balance Merlot and Cabernet Franc, this wine will bring a lot of pleasure to Rosé wine drinkers. We got plenty of earth and minerality in this wine which takes us to Provence in terms of style. Wonderfully dry with good body and acidity to match. This is serious Rosé, not the overtly strawberry porch pounder that many roses have slipped into becoming, but a refreshing drink that would be a great complement to a plate of appetizers. The finish is long and spice-infused.
Very good/Excellent – $20 at the winery (particularly good value for this quality)
2018 Fort Berens White Gold
This is their reserve level 100% Chardonnay made all from estate fruit which show cases the potential for this variety in the Lillooet area. Flavours of apricot, apple and pear come across with both power and elegance, a sign of the precise balance in this wine. There is a good mineral line in this wine which serves as an effective counterpoint to medium+ body. Definite signs of quality here; we are eager to see what develops as the vineyard enters its second decade.
Very Good/Excellent – $30 at the winery
2018 Fort Berens Pinot Noir
The pale red/pink colour provides a preview of the tastes to come. Cranberry, cherry and strawberry flavours marry with mineral and earth notes on this elegant wine with light body. Reminds us of a Spatburgunder with its feminine charm.
Very Good+ – $30 at the winery
2018 Fort Berens Cabernet Franc
Primary notes of raspberry and cherry gain complexity from the leafy/herbal notes that so often are present in good interpretations of this grape. Medium body and good flavour intensity give this wine both depth and charm. The finish is long and spicy.
Very Good/Excellent – $29 at the winery
2018 Fort Berens Red Gold
This is their showcase wine and it really delivers the goods. Grapes for this wine come from the best blocks at their estate and from contracted vineyards in the Okanagan. Estate Cabernet Franc takes the leading role in the blend. Interestingly, Rolf has decided to dry out the Cabernet Franc appessimento style, the process used to make Amarone and other wines from Valpolicella. Drying the grapes increases the flavour concentration. Further power comes from the year and a half in oak barrels. This is a powerful, textured and complex wine that is approachable now but has ability to develop further, probably another decade. Black cherry drive the profile and tobacco leaf and hints of leather join the chorus to give tasters plenty to think about and enjoy.
Excellent – $50 at the winery
1881 Highway 99 North
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 and Sunday 5:30pm-8:30pm