Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Twenty three camels remembered in wine

Photo: Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek

In 1862, a resident of Lillooet named John Callbreath had the bright idea to import 23 camels as pack animals for the Cariboo gold rush.

It proved to be a fiasco, as the CBC’s Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson wrote in their book, The Trail of 1858. “The trail mules and horses were terrified of the Arabian interlopers, and stampedes often ensued with supplies flying everywhere; some animals fell over the cliffs to their deaths. It got so bad the government outlawed camels on the Cariboo Trail.”

This history has now found its way onto an excellent white blend called 23 Camels, made by Fort Berens Estate Winery, the first and, so far, only winery in Lillooet. 

During the gold rush, Lillooet was briefly the largest city north of San Francisco. When Dutch immigrants Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek established their 20-acre vineyard and winery there in 2009, they dipped into local history. First, they named the winery for a Hudson’s Bay post that was set up at Lillooet, but never completed. And they were attracted to the unlikely story of the 23 camels for a wine they are making exclusively for restaurants.

John Callbreath was “a pioneer,” Rolf and Heleen write on the wine’s back label. A century and a half later, they are the new pioneers in Lillooet by opening up what their consultant, Harry McWatters, calls Canada’s newest wine region.

Fort Berens has just released its first two estate-grown wines, a rosé and a Riesling. The latter wine has just won a gold medal and “best in class” at the recent Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in California. What a way to introduce a new region!

Rolf and Heleen were in high-powered consulting and banking careers in Holland when they decided in 2005 that they want a change of lifestyle and career by entering the wine business. Fluent in English, they began looking at vineyard property in the Okanagan. In took them three years to get their immigration papers sorted out and by that time, vineyard prices were sky high.

 One of the viticulturists they spoke with directed them to Harry McWatters, the founder of Sumac Ridge and now an independent consultant. It turned out that Harry had recently been in Lillooet to look at grape growing trials then being sponsored by the province. He thought there was excellent potential – and vineyard land was very reasonable in price.
Photo: Harry McWatters

Following his advice, Rolf and Heleen leased property there and planted 36,000 vines in the spring of 2009. The varieties chosen are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. All are doing well although there is still a question mark about Merlot, a vine susceptible to winter kill.

Growing conditions in the Lillooet and Lytton areas are somewhat like those of the south Okanagan – hot sun-soaked days and cool nights. The average frost-free days at Lillooet total about 183 days. There is some concern that winters might be colder than in the Okanagan, killing vines. However, Harry notes that the hard cold comes later in the season in Lillooet, meaning that the vines have had time to go into protective hibernation.

A handful of other vineyards have now been planted in the area. “I would love to see more wineries come to the area,” says Heleen. Not that Lillooet is especially isolated: it is a little more than an hour from Whistler (via the picturesque Duffy Lake Road) and three hours from downtown Vancouver.

With Rolf and Heleen needing to make a living, they began selling Fort Berens wine since the fall of 2009 with wines made from Okanagan grapes. The strategy has paid off. The winery, now making about 2,200 cases a year, has its wines in all of the VQA stores and in many restaurants.

Okanagan winemaker Tim DiBello (formerly with CedarCreek) supervised their initial vintages. Last fall Bill Pierson, who was Tom’s assistant at CedarCreek, became the fulltime winemaker for Fort Berens.

In 2011, when Fort Berens got its first harvest from the Lillooet vineyard, the estate-grown fruit provided 40% of the production. Rolf expects that, by 2013, the vineyard will provide 80% of the grapes they need. They will buy grapes from other vineyards in the area, if those grapes are available, showcasing this emerging wine region. 

But they may never quite wean themselves from some Okanagan fruit. The winery needs Cabernet Sauvignon for its Meritage blend and that is a long-season variety unlikely to succeed in Lillooet.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Fort Berens Riesling 2011 ($17.99 for a production of 175 cases). The wine begins with honeyed floral aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and grapefruit, with just a touch of sweetness to give additional lift to the fruit flavours. The wine is drinking well now (see the gold medal) but there will be further development here with more bottle age. 91.

Fort Berens Pinot Gris 2011 ($17.99 for a production of 275 cases). This wine, made with 35% estate grapes and 65% Okanagan grapes, won a bronze medal at the Pacific Rim competition. The wine is crisp and refreshing, with aromas and flavours of citrus, apples and pears. 88.

Fort Berens White Gold 2010 ($24.99 for 98 cases). This is a Chardonnay; White Gold signifies an upper tier of quality. Half of this wine spent six months in new French oak while the remainder was in stainless steel. About half of the wine also went through malolactic fermentation. All of this detailed fussing paid off. The wine retains lovely aromas and flavours of citrus supported subtly by hints of oak and by buttery flavours and texture. 90.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir Rosé 2001 ($17.99 for 90 cases). This is 100% from Lillooet grapes, the first small harvest (1.6 tons) of Pinot Noir. The juice spent 48 hours on the skins to extract a vibrant colour and lots of flavour. The wine begins with aromas of strawberries and cherries. On the palate, there are flavours of sour cherries, raspberries and cranberries. There is a hint of spice on the crisp, dry finish. 88.

Fort Berens 23 Camels 2011 ($N.A.). This is a delicious blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling, finished in the apple-fresh style that screams wine by the glass … the perfect restaurant wine. It is crisp but also fruity, with floral and herbal aromas and with flavours of citrus, melon and apple. 90.


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