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
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,
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
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
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
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
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 ($17.99 for 90 cases). This is 100% from Lillooet grapes, the first
small harvest (1.6 tons) of Pinot Noir. The juice spent 48 hours on the skins
to extract a vibrant colour and lots of flavour. The wine begins with aromas of
strawberries and cherries. On the palate, there are flavours of sour cherries,
raspberries and cranberries. There is a hint of spice on the crisp, dry finish.
Fort Berens 23 Camels 2011 ($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.