British Columbia's newest wine region is gradually taking shape.
And it's likely not where you expected.
Seven years have passed since immigrants Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek left behind stable careers in finance in the Netherlands to embark on an entirely new chapter of their lives: establishing and running a winery -- not in the booming Okanagan Valley but in the very much uncharted reaches of the Thompson River, on an east bench just beyond the bridge where the road goes on to Lytton.
Some of the decision to locate Fort Berens Estate Winery in unproven Lillooet was driven by pragmatism and a realization that the Okanagan's overheated land prices (more than $100,000 per unplanted acre) were not conducive to a successful business plan.
However, the couple's well-connected partners had put them in touch with a few of the right people -- including vineyard guru Richard Cleave, ex CedarCreek winemaker Tom DiBello, and Sumac Ridge founder, pioneering Harry McWatters, as well as interested parties from government and the agricultural sector.
Trial plantings have taken place on a small scale at Lillooet over decades; and McWatters has always been plugged in to the possibility of establishing vineyard sites beyond the Okanagan, not only at Lillooet but at quite a few other spots (about which he's still coy to reveal too much information). He will remind you, though, that some of B.C.'s first Chardonnay, which went into the earliest Sumac wines, was grown on a bench in the Kamloops area.
Richard Cleave -- the man who nurtures some of the Okanagan's best fruit for wines, such as perennially successful Sandhill Small Lots, plus his own vines -- hadn't been to Lillooet before but found its climate not dissimilar to that of Oliver and Osoyoos.
Rolf de Bruin points out that their site touches the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches south to the Mexican border.
Lillooet, of course, is known as the name that always pops up beside Lytton's as Canada's summer hot spot with daytime highs sometimes pushing 40 C. But de Bruin says cooling breezes off Seton Lake keep the mercury at 35 tops and yields significantly cooler nights to produce good acidity in their 20 acres of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Merlot, planted in 2009. Combine those conditions with a long growing season, low rainfall (little or no precipitation between July and October) and you can see how it's easy to draw comparisons with the Okanagan.
Any new winery owner -- especially once they've talked to their banker -- will tell you of the challenges in finding cash flow while the young vines reach maturity. Fort Berens' team has already shown its ability in producing well-made wines using Okanagan fruit (including a luscious, pineapple and tropical toned Pinot Gris 2011 $17.99, which was a finalist in the just announced Okanagan Best of Varietal Awards).
The winery is transitioning to all estate fruit by 2013 but already the results are reassuring. Just released is a green apple-and lychee-toned, all-estate grown Riesling 2011; and all-estate, appealingly dry, crisp and clean strawberry-apple Pinot Noir Rose 2011 with a nice streak of acidity. $13.99 VQAS.
Harder to track down is 23 Camels 2011, a well balanced half Pinot Gris plus Chardonnay Riesling blend (40 per cent estate) with lively stone fruit and juicy acidity; $15, from the winery.
Planning a trip via Duffy Lake to Lillooet and beyond? Be sure to check out this new winery that looks to become the anchor in B.C.'s newest wine region. Check www.Fortberens.cafor more info. And join their Discovery Club for easy access to all the wines. www.hiredbelly.com