BC Wine Region Matures

Young West Coast wineries close to producing from 100% estate fruit

by Peter Mitham
fort berens
A gap in the mountains to the west ensures that Fort Berens' vineyards in Lillooet, BC, receive adequate sun exposure.
Vancouver, British Columbia—A five-year adventure of cultivating a new wine-producing region on Canada’s West Coast has borne fruit, and the first wines are hitting store shelves.

Fort Berens Estate Winery, based in the Fraser Canyon three hours north of Vancouver, hosted an official launch party Monday for the first wines made from locally grown grapes.

Fort Berens owners Ralf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek immigrated to Canada in 2008, leaving corporate careers in the Netherlands for a slower pace of life as vintners. They sold their home just outside Amsterdam and, after consulting with John Vielvoye (a former provincial government grape specialist) and viticulturist Richard Cleave, they opted to settle in Lillooet, where trials had been under way since the mid-2000s.

“Prime land in the Okanagan was becoming scarce and very expensive,” Rolf de Bruin said during the launch event.

In 2009 De Bruin and Pannekoek planted 36,000 vines at a 20-acre site on the east side of the Fraser River, where the breadth of the river valley and a gap in mountains to the west ensured adequate sun exposure.

The couple initially made wine with grapes from the Okanagan that helped establish awareness of the fledgling operation while their vines matured. With the 2011 vintage, however, their own estate vineyards in Lillooet yielded 40% of the grapes needed for production, enough for three wines using estate-grown fruit—Riesling, Pinot Gris and a Pinot Noir rosé.

Winter sinks to -19ºF
The slopes above the Fraser River are more akin to those of the arid Okanagan than those of the snow-clad Coast Mountains, however. Winter temperatures can sink to -28.3ºC (-19ºF) in December, but summer temperatures exceed those of the Okanagan and sometimes crack 40ºC (104ºF), making Lillooet one of the hot spots in Canada. Temperatures in Fort Berens’ vineyard, located at an elevation of 230 meters (more than 750 feet), haven’t exceeded 35ºC (95ºF), however. Grapes have more than enough heat to ripen, while the soils are wind-blown sand and loam atop glacial deposits of river rock that ensure good drainage. Vigor is not a concern.

Steps to develop commercial winegrape vineyards here began in 2005, a year after a local economic development study identified viticulture as a potential avenue for diversifying the local economy. Grapes had been grown in the area since 1965, but the 2005 trials were the first to investigate large-scale commercial potential.

Then-mayor Christ’l Roshard was one of two landowners who made property available, with nine white and nine red varieties planted at the two sites. Three additional plantings were established in 2006. BC government granted $40,000 to the British Columbia Grape Growers Association in 2007 to support further exploration of the region’s commercial grapegrowing potential.

Wine industry doyen Harry McWatters, founder of one of the province’s first estate wineries, was called in the same year by BC’s then-agriculture minister Pat Bell, and gave the project a thumbs up. He looked at weather data going back to the 1940s and couldn’t see any reason why grapes wouldn’t have a chance.

“It gets a little colder than the South Okanagan, it gets a little hotter than the South Okanagan, but the cold tends to happen, on average, a little later than in the Okanagan Valley.…It gives us a longer time to get into senescence and full dormancy,” he said Monday. “We think with the right farming practices, the right clones and a little bit of luck, we should be able to manage the risks pretty well.”

Backing from banks and miners
The risks for de Bruin and Pannekoek have been many. The venture was planned in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008, but is now on firm footing with backing from a consortium including investment bankers and mining executives who became aware of the opportunity through the Lillooet paper—a fact that amazes de Bruin, but which he appreciates.

“They’ve been very supportive in growing the business,” he told Wines & Vines.

The support has been especially welcome, given that the 2010 and 2011 growing seasons weren’t the easiest on record. The 2011 season was particularly short, at just 175 frost-free days, but scant precipitation during the growing season meant clear skies and steady accumulation of heat units.

“We had a very cool start,” de Bruin said. “But if you look at July onwards, it was near perfect.”

The result is wines of moderate alcohol content, ranging from 12.5% to 13.6%. The wines are also relatively balanced, though Pannekoek would like to work on the fruit to brighten up the natural acidity available to winemaker Bill Pierson.

Fort Berens hopes to tap its vineyards for 40% of its production this year, 80% next year and to source all of its grapes from local vines starting in 2014.

Pannekoek told Wines & Vines that Lillooet has about 35 acres of vineyard in total. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling are the primary white varieties, with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir leading the red plantings. Fort Berens’ vineyard includes Pinot Noir clones 115 and 667, while its Riesling clones are 49 and 213.

Other vineyards in the region include 10 acres planted by a family from China, underscoring the promise the region holds for newcomers to the local industry.

More BC investments
The developments in Lillooet are just one sign of fresh investment in the BC wine industry.

Black Hills Estate Winery near Oliver recently completed a new 4,000-square-foot expansion to its winery to the tune of $800,000 (all values in Canadian dollars), part of a $4.4 million expansion plan that includes a $1 million tasting room on a 14-acre vineyard site acquired in fall 2011 for $2.4 million. The expansion is funded by an offering of 140 units in the limited partnership that owns the winery.

On the opposite side of the valley, Road 13 Vineyards added a 30-acre site with 18.6 acres of vines to its holdings in March, boosting its vineyard holdings to 61 acres. The latest purchase, a property formerly owned by Vincor, adds to its supply of Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer grapes. Production should be in the 25,000- to 30,000-case range this year.

And in Summerland, Neil and Betty Massey recently sold Hollywood and Wine Estate Vineyards to Jayne and Paul Graydon of Calgary, Alberta. Graydon, founder of the Calgary wine agency Great Wines of the World has renamed the property Saxon Winery Ltd., and plans to expand the venture in the coming years.

Meanwhile, Gene and Shelly Covert have acquired sole ownership of Dunham & Froese Estate Winery just north of Oliver and renamed it Covert Farms Family Estate.

Kirby and Crystal Froese, the Coverts’ former partners, have relocated to Saskatchewan.

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