When Lillooet's Fort Berens Estate opens the doors to its new 10,000-square-foot winery this summer, a special shelf will be installed for one very specific purpose: Showcasing one of the industry's most sought-after pieces of hardware, the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Excellence in B.C. Wines.
The prestigious honour was announced earlier this month for Fort Berens' 2012 Riesling, the first award for the young winery.
"We're very humbled," said founder and co-owner Rolf de Bruin. "We've been working very hard to achieve a level of quality that would be worthy of the Lieutenant Governor's Award. We're not where we want to be at, but we never expected to win it."
The award was also something of a coup for the emerging wine region in and around Lillooet, as the award typically goes to wines produced in the Okanagan or Similkameen Valleys, renowned for their optimal growing conditions.
"We're out on the frontier, and if the frontier is now producing wines worthy of that award, it's a great vote of confidence that this region is not just viable but it's actually very exciting in terms of growing conditions and the wine that's being produced here," de Bruin said, adding that he expects the award will go a long way towards putting Lillooet on the map of prospective winemakers.
In operation since 2009, it's astounding the team behind Fort Berens has been able to learn enough about the region's terroir to produce one of the province's most lauded varietals — although de Bruin admits it's an ongoing process.
"It's very early going... but there are some tropical flavours we're finding, some lychee (notes), that are not very typical. We're finding some spices, like the sage brush coming through that again is starting to hint to some very terroir-specific elements that would be specific to this region," he said.
The growing conditions in Lillooet — known for its blistering hot, dry summers — are on par with what you'd find in the heart of B.C.'s Wine Country in the South Okanagan, de Bruin said.
"What we're seeing is that the varieties we have planted are thriving and doing well. They're sustaining in this climate in terms of growth and development, not only in the long term, but in the seasonal cycle," he said.
This year is already shaping up to be a momentous one for Fort Berens. July 4 will mark the opening of the estate's tasting room, with the official grand opening of its new winery set for September 18.
Having a brick and mortar location will not only help in attracting B.C.'s oenophiles to Lillooet, but allows the Fort Berens team to further hone their winemaking process.
"Having a facility you can call home is super exciting because we now finally have the ability to share some of our passion," de Bruin said. "The way the winery has been designed is to really open our doors as much as we can, and that means there are plenty of opportunities to actually see what's going on in the winery.
"I'm also excited because the facility offers us so many opportunities in managing our process," de Bruin continued. "My expectations for this upcoming vintage are huge, and that's not only because it's looking like a great growing season this year, but also because we're able to do things in the cellar that we have been waiting for over the last five years."
Visit www.fortberens.ca for more information.