News » Whistler

Lillooet's white gold

Fort Berens Estate is pioneering B.C.'s newest emerging wine region



In 1858, a far-flung fur-trading district known as New Caledonia experienced its first major gold rush when more than 30,000 treasure seekers flooded the banks of the Fraser River, from the town of Hope to just north of Lillooet, in what would eventually become present-day British Columbia.

The chance at a life of excess and unfathomable wealth drew droves of out-of-work place miners from across the continent to this latest, "New Eldorado," longing for the glory days of the California Gold Rush a decade earlier. The influx of foreigners transformed the sleepy First Nations centre of Lillooet, as it would be renamed in 1860, into a bustling town of 15,000, at the time the second-largest North American settlement west of Chicago.

For prospectors and miners on their way to the nearby goldfields, Lillooet served as Mile 0 of the original Cariboo Road, and was an important stopping point for the thousands seeking their fortune along the Fraser and its tributaries.

In some ways, modern-day Lillooet remains little more than a thoroughfare for the visitors who stop in on their way west to Whistler and the Lower Mainland, or east to Kamloops and beyond. But thanks to the pioneering spirit of an ambitious Dutch couple looking to fulfill their own dream there, as so many have tried before them, Lillooet is on the cusp of becoming the latest must-see destination on the south Coast Mountains' tourism map, and the nexus of an emerging wine region that's earning acclaim across the country.

Taking the leap

Nestled into the mountains on a sagebrush covered bench near the Fraser Canyon lies award-winning Fort Berens Estate Winery, named after the former Hudson's Bay Company post that was meant to serve as a supply centre for the rush of gold hunters who settled in the nearby boomtowns of Parsonville and Maryville.

More than a century and a half after the rush had died off, husband and wife Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, and their two young children, left Amsterdam and their fast-paced corporate lives with the goal of snatching up a piece of prime vineyard land in the heart of B.C. wine country.

Dismayed by the Okanagan's soaring real estate prices, the couple met with several of the region's major industry players, who pointed them in the direction of Lillooet, which, despite lacking a commercial winery, was known to those familiar with the area and its weather conditions as a more than viable option for grape growing.

So the couple hit the books, extensively researching what it would take to establish a successful and productive vineyard three-and-a-half hours away from the rich and fertile soils of the Okanagan, eventually securing financing from a group of investors who, appropriately enough, all work in the Canadian gold mining sector.

"We did not make the decision to come here lightly," Pannekoek explained. "Coming to Lillooet, we did a lot of research to see what the area was like, what the climate was like."

With Lillooet's hot, arid summer weather — the town shares the record with nearby Lytton for the highest temperature ever recorded in B.C.— and cooling nighttime breezes that typically drop the thermometer a degree or two below average temperatures in the South Okanagan, it's an ideal locale for producing fantastic, crisp grapes, as attested by Vancouver Sun and Pique Newsmagazine wine columnist Anthony Gismondi.

"What's encouraging is, the mountains there mean there's a lot of cold air at nighttime coming down and flushing out the vineyard," he said of Fort Berens' 8.5-hectare domaine. "They're getting a big diurnal shift between day and night, and that means they're retaining acidity in those grapes. Once you have acidity, you're on your way to making great wine."

But even though Lillooet's terroir has helped earn Fort Berens a slew of industry accolades, that doesn't mean there weren't the naysayers early on who doubted de Bruin and Pannekoek's plans to situate a winery so far north and so far from B.C.'s historical wine country.

"We've been very welcomed here by the local community, but there were people who said, 'You can't grow grapes here, it's too cold,'" de Bruin said, adding that one of the biggest challenges was convincing the banks a foreign couple with zero industry experience could make a go of things as the only winery for miles around.

"I remember very well walking into a bank, and being told, 'Essentially, we look at your risk profile and with three strikes, you're out. You've got four: you're new to the country; you're new to the wine industry; you're setting up in a new region and it's a new business.'"

Fortunately for the husband-and-wife team, they knew they had both history and science on their side.

There's gold in them hills

In the early 2000s, municipal officials began working with the provincial government on the development of a Land Resources Management Plan for Lillooet. One of its recommendations was to remove 18 per cent of the working forest from Lillooet's timber supply, and, just like when Hudson's Bay halted construction on the original Fort Berens after the gold rush collapse, the town had to start thinking of new ways to diversify its economy.

Long regarded for its high quality orchard produce, including what is widely considered B.C.'s tastiest apricot, the idea of establishing a nascent viticulture sector was introduced, and by 2004, a study assessing the feasibility of growing wine grapes in the Lillooet area was launched.

Researchers collected temperatures and planted five experimental test plots to get a sense of what the terroir could express. When the results started pouring in, they were extremely promising, which, for at least one longtime local family, didn't come as much of a surprise.

"I had always known you could grow grapes here because we are still making some small-lot wine for our personal use off some vines my father planted that are 44 years old this year," said former Lillooet Mayor Christ'l Roshard, who proposed the study as a member of council at the time. Interestingly enough, she's been so inspired by Fort Berens' vision that she now works a couple days a week in the winery's tasting room.

"I think Rolf and Heleen are absolutely fearless," she added. "They really took a huge leap of faith and they just amaze me and humble me everyday."

The BC Grapegrowers' Association study wasn't, in fact, the first of its kind in Lillooet. In the 1960s, Roshard's late father, Robert, managed Riverland Irrigated Farms, a BC Hydro property where Lillooet's first experimental vineyard was established on a 1.2-hectare piece of land that was used as a tobacco farm during the gold rush.

One particularly devastating winter in the late '60s, however, B.C. was hit with an uncharacteristic cold front, freezing most of the grapes. By 1970, the farm was sold, and along with it any chance Lillooet had at establishing a budding wine industry — before it had even gotten off the ground.

"After that hard freeze in the late '60s, the word was put out that the winters in Lillooet were too cold to grow grapes," Roshard recalled. "The same thing happened in the Okanagan that year, so that really wasn't correct. But the seed had been planted that it was too cold here, and we had to overcome that."

Some positives did come out of that early vineyard however; it inspired Robert to plant a small plot of Marcel Foch grapes at his own farm, where it thrives to this day. It was also where he first met renowned viticulturist John Vielvoye, who would, years later, head Lillooet's grape-growing project, and, through his mere involvement, rustle up interest in the study, even catching the eye of then Minister of Agriculture Pat Bell, along with Harry McWatters, founding chair of the B.C. Wine Institute, and a driving force in the province's wine industry for more than 40 years. On top of that, it was Vielvoye who was instrumental in pushing de Bruin and Pannekoek to their current site, where they would officially open for business in 2009.

The Terroir

In just five short years, Fort Berens has already earned its fair share of regional, national and international acclaim, including last month's prestigious Lieutenant Governor's Award naming the 2012 Riesling as one of B.C.'s 12 best wines of the year.

With similar conditions to the South Okanagan's Black Sage Bench, Lillooet is proving to be a welcome home to exceptional green grapes, producing an unmatched crispness and acidity that makes Fort Berens' white wines the perfect food companion.

And the 16-strong staff has done it without forcing their vineyard to produce a certain style of wine, or trying to emulate other, more established regions, instead letting the land dictate the outcome.

"Rolf and Heleena are very set on trying to see what qualities you can bring out of the wine of this region that's been pretty much unproven," said Fort Berens' new winemaker, Danny Hattingh.

"The experiment actually starts in the vineyard so we can see which clones, which root stocks will work," explained viticulturist Megan de Villiers, who began work at Fort Berens four months ago with Hattingh, her partner.

What's interesting is that, with just three vintages to go off, the team at Fort Berens still knows very little about what Lillooet's terroir is capable of. They've already noticed subtle tropical notes with certain wines that are seemingly unique to the area, and they will continue to produce small-lot batches to see exactly which varietals and clones work well, but, as de Villiers pointed out, it can take years, even generations, for a terroir to reveal its secrets.

It's a quest former Whistler councillor Eckhard Zeidler finds himself on at his Texas Creek Ranch, where he planted an experimental vineyard with 25 different varietals the same week de Bruin and Pannekoek put their grapes in the ground.

"They say that growing wine grapes is easy. It's only the first 400 years that are difficult, and I'm a believer in that," Zeidler laughed. "What I find when you learn something about grapes or the land (in Lillooet), it's generally not a subtle thing, it's very obvious and in your face."

Zeidler and his family hope to begin selling their wine commercially in the coming years, and have high hopes for what the terroir can produce.

"Lillooet is not the Okanagan, it's a whole new area and I think there's a tremendous opportunity to not just mimic the Okanagan or other wine regions but to create some flavours that are completely unique and new."

Whatever the future holds, one thing is for certain: everyone from industry veterans to amateur oenophiles has fallen in love with what Fort Berens is bottling so far, testament to the 1,700 per cent sales growth the winery has enjoyed over its first half-decade.

"What I like most about Rolf is the style of wine that he makes, it's very balanced," Gismondi said. "That's helped him coming out of the gate; not too much oak, not too much fruit and certainly no residual sugars.

"He's letting the site really predict the style of the wines and that's a fantastic way to start out."

A new home

In July, Fort Berens opened the doors to its new $3.5-million, state-of-the-art winery that was more than three years in the making.

With its sleek, contemporary design, floor-to-ceiling windows offering dazzling views of the lush, green vines ripening in the sun, Fort Berens finally has a building that conveys the forward-thinking philosophy that de Bruin and Pannekoek bring to every aspect of their business.

Unlike many other facilities in the Okanagan that were converted into wineries, Fort Berens open-concept building was designed solely for the purpose of making and showcasing their products. When you arrive, you pull up right next to the upper crush platform. Walk in, and you'll be basked in the warm sunlight streaming into the tasting room before peeking through the glass into Fort Berens' fermentation room. It's all designed to give visitors a glimpse into the winemaking process.

"We really wanted to share our passion for making wine with our visitor," said de Bruin. "So we spent more time trying to design a winery where people would actually be able to see what we do."

De Bruin and his wife are the first to admit the estate's former winery, a dusty, decades-old converted garage affectionately known as "the wine shack" that was previously used to store farming equipment, simply did not suit their needs. Actually, you begin to understand just how resourceful the team at Fort Berens are when you consider that the cramped space, which was used at various times to serve and make wine, store barrels and host events, produced almost 3,000 cases of wine last year.

"Anyone in the industry knows that producing 3,000 cases of wine on 900 square feet is an impossibility," de Bruin said.

Such a near impossibility in fact, that as demand for their products grew, they were forced to make larger amounts of wine offsite in both 2012 and 2013. But with their new 9,500-square-foot site that has the capacity to produce 12,000 cases a year, de Bruin is hopeful Fort Berens will play host to other young wineries trying to get their foot in the industry door.

"We have the capacity to help other starting wineries as an incubator," he said. "I think it's in our best interest as a region to have multiple wineries here. I don't see another winery starting at all as competition. As a matter of fact, I think it will only help to grow this region."

The Future

While some of the winery's earliest champions were restaurateurs and sommeliers from the resort — like Araxi's award-winning Samantha Rahn — average residents and visitors are also starting to consider Fort Berens as Whistler's winery.

"We're the closest winery to Whistler," said de Bruin. "Whistler's been one of our strongest markets, and it's a great market to have that close. Over two million visitors every year, and we're working very hard to get a very small percentage of those to come over the Duffy Lake (Road)."

In the early goings at least, de Bruin admitted one of the major challenges was proving to consumers just how great a B.C. wine from Lillooet could be.

"There were a lot of people that we had to convince, and the easiest way was to just let them taste the wine," he said.

Now, with their glowing reputation firmly in place, Fort Berens is changing people's minds, not only when it comes to their products, but on the town of Lillooet itself, planting the seeds for what Pannekoek sees as an incipient wine region set to stake its claim as B.C.'s next epicurean destination.

"Obviously you cannot just pop a brand new resort out of the ground with five vineyards, restaurants and all those things, but we are certainly foreseeing that in Lillooet's future. We'll have more wineries to visit for more people just to come out for a day and enjoy themselves and the local vegetable and fruit producers," she said.

Being reachable from the Sea to Sky via the stunningly beautiful Duffy Lake Road certainly doesn't hurt either, according to Zeidler, who thinks there's "no question" Lillooet is poised to become B.C.'s newest successful wine region. "Grapes are not only an agricultural or beverage product, it's a tourism experience product," he said. "With the growth in tourism in this whole area, Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton ... there's no lack of people interested in the wine of Lillooet. And, as you can see from the experience at Fort Berens, they're pretty much constantly selling out of wine, so everyone here is pretty excited about the potential.

"Agriculturally, whether it be grapes or anything else, this is truly a land of opportunity."

The Wines

Since establishing Fort Berens Estate in 2009, the 8.5-hectare vineyard has become home to half a dozen grape varietals, not including the handful of small, experimental test plots de Bruin and Panekooek are intent on planting to help them uncover the hidden treasures of Lillooet's unique terroir.

In just five short years, Fort Berens has managed to produce a level of consistent quality many young wineries spend years, or even generations, trying to achieve. The crown jewel of the vineyard's selections so far is undoubtedly the Riesling, with the 2012 vintage being named one of B.C.'s 12 best wines of the year last month, but the estate's other wines have also turned the heads and delighted the palates of oenophiles across the province.

Here's a look at the distinct characteristics of all of Fort Berens' lauded varietals.

The whites

Riesling: As is typically the case with Rieslings, produced from grapes originating from the Rhine region of Germany, this varietal is bursting with aromatics and retains its crisp taste due to high acid levels and minerality from Lillooet's terroir. What makes Fort Berens' Riesling so unique are the subtle tropical flavours, like lychee and mango, that you won't find in the South Okanagan, and certain spicy sagebrush notes that hint at some very terroir-specific characteristics. A bottle of the Late Harvest Riesling 2013 retails for $20.

Pinot Gris: Another white wine with amazing aromatics, the likes of which "I have yet to find in the Okanagan," says winemaker Danny Hattingh. You'll be struck with smells of honeydew melon and ripe autumn pears. The crisp acidity means this Pinot Gris is a highly flexible wine that can be paired with a variety of foods, from breakfast to dinner.

The Pinot Gris 2013 retails for $18 a bottle.

Chardonnay: Touted as one of the estate's most versatile wines, the chardonnay leans towards fruity aromas of peach, pineapple, passionfruit and guava. A fresh, crisp wine with a creamy finish, the chardonnay is paired beautifully with lighter fare, like seared scallops and grilled chicken.

Retails for $20 a bottle.

The reds

Pinot Noir: Because of the warmer conditions in Lillooet, Fort Berens' dry-style Pinot Noir tends to have a riper characteristic than the ones produced in cooler climates. Bursting with red berry flavours and earthy undertones, the Pinot Noir is a perfect pairing to richer, succulent dishes, like grilled salmon steaks, pork loin and duck. The 2012 Pinot Noir retails for $25.99.

Cabernet Franc: A bright, pale red, earlier vintages of Fort Berens' Cabernet Franc were produced from the Black Sage Bench near Oliver, B.C., rich with herbal and berry characters. But the Cab Franc is now produced from estate grapes, and, with its bold freshness and acidity, has convinced Gismondi that it will become one of Fort Berens' "stars" in years to come, alongside the Riesling. The 2012 Cabernet Franc retails for $26.99.

Merlot: This well-ripened varietal is imbued with deep, dark red fruit characteristics. An essential summer wine, the merlot is a perfect accompaniment to your next backyard barbecue. With notes of freshly picked cherries, toffee and cacao, this medium-bodied wine would work with a juicy burger or a plate of delectable beef short ribs. A bottle of the 2012 Merlot sells for $25.