Saturday, May 3, 2014

Fort Berens recruits new vineyard and winemaking team

 Photo: Megan de Villiers and Danny Hattingh, with their dog Kimbra

Fort Berens Estate Winery, which pioneered grape growing in Lillooet, announced two major steps with the release of its newest wines this spring.

First, it is well along on the construction of a 9,500-square foot winery. The tasting room is expected to open in July. The winery will be ready to process the 2014 vintage, when about three-quarters of the grapes are expected to come from the winery’s Lillooet vineyard, now reaching full production.

Secondly, the winery has now recruited a resident winemaker and vineyard manager team, Danny Hattingh and his partner, Megan de Villiers, a pair of 30-year-old South Africans previously working in the Okanagan.

Since its initial 2009 vintage, Fort Berens has had its wines made primarily by consultants in various Okanagan wineries. The 2013 vintage was made at Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland by Matt Dumayne. The 2012 vintage was made at the Township 7 winery near Penticton by James Cambridge (now the winemaker at Backyard Vineyards in the Fraser Valley). These and the other consultants all have done excellent work for Fort Berens. But given the location of the vineyard, Fort Berens is better off with a resident team now that a full harvest is expected.

“We are very excited now to finally be able to make our wines on site in our own facility,” Fort Berens co-proprietor Rolf de Bruin says. “With Megan and Danny’s input, we have high expectations for the next vintages.”

Danny received his enology degree at the renowned Elsenburg Institute in Capetown. He met Megan at university where she was studying law. She began helping him on his practicums and that triggered her to switch to viticulture and pomology.

They first came to Canada in 2006 as vacationing students to visit Danny’s stepfather, a doctor in Dawson Creek. As soon as they arrived in Vancouver, they were drawn to Canada. When they returned in late 2007, they made a point of travelling across the country. Nova Scotia might have held them but they decided that the wine industry there was too small and rustic.

They send résumés to numerous wineries, especially in British Columbia, and were snapped up by Saturna Island Vineyards in the summer of 2008.

Due to illness and inexperience of previous staff, Saturna was desperate for help. The vineyard was so neglected that the 40 acres produced a mere 19 tons of grapes in 2008. By the time the couple left after the 2010 vintage (to travel for a year), they had almost tripled the yield and Danny had raised the quality of the wines significantly.

Returned in 2012 from their travels, the couple headed for the Okanagan. Megan found a variety of viticultural assignments while Danny became a well-regarded winemaker for two Summerland wineries, Saxon Winery and Sage Hills Winery.  

“We are all friends in this industry,” Saxon owner Paul Graydon says. “Danny is leaving on good terms.”
For a young winemaker, Danny has packed in a fair amount of experience.  “I worked at three wineries in South Africa  - Siyabonga, Boschendal and Asara Wine Estate,” he told me in an interview several years ago. “I also worked in Oregon at Domaine Drouhin two and a half months before finishing my studies. I was part of the 2005 vintage.”
As the couple showed by taking on the jobs at Saturna Island, Danny and Megan like being challenged. Megan offers a telling comment in the Fort Berens press release: “We are both ready for this next adventure and to begin exploring Lillooet. Geologically, this area is very different from other areas where we have worked, yet the climate is very similar. We are excited to work in this new area and to see what we can create in this unique geographical pocket. We are both very passionate and motivated as we take on these new challenges in our careers.”
It is worth noting that the newly-released whites from Fort Berens all are made with estate-grown grapes. The quality speaks well for the terroir.
Here are notes on the wines.

Fort Berens 23 Camels White 2013 ($16.99 for 204 cases). Made from Lillooet grapes, this is a blend of 46% Riesling, 42% Chardonnay and 12% Pinot Gris. The wine begins with aromas of apples, pears, bananas and even oranges. On the palate, the wine is simply a delicious bowl of fresh fruit dominated by citrus and apples. 90.

Fort Berens Pinot Gris 2013 ($17.99 for 520 cases). This wine is remarkably refreshing and generous, beginning with aromas of pear and citrus and leading to flavours of peach, pear and citrus. 91.

Fort Berens Riesling 2013 ($17.99 for 610 cases). This is also made with estate-grown grapes. Because Riesling takes a little more time to express itself in the bottle, this is not as immediately seductive as the Pinot Gris. The lime, grapefruit and crisp green apple flavours are lifted by the touch of sweetness that balances the acidity. 88-90.

Fort Berens Late Harvest Riesling 2013 ($24.99 for 451 cases of 375 ml bottles). This is the first desert wine from Fort Berens, made with grapes from the winery’s five-acre Riesling block. But these grapes were picked at 25 Brix on November 26, a month after the harvest for the dry Riesling. The finished wine almost approaches Icewine with 55.7 grams of residual sugar. It begins with aromas and flavours of apples – fresh and baked – along with notes of pear and mango. The flavours linger on the persistent finish. One might like a hair more acidity, a minor quibble for a delightful aperitif. 90.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir Rosé 2013 ($17.99 for 204 cases). The grapes for this rosé are also from Lillooet. The wine’s dark rose-coloured hue creates immediate appeal in the glass. There are notes of strawberry and raspberry both in the aroma and on the palate. The finish is crisp and almost totally dry. This is a rosé designed for food: the winery recommends wild mushroom risotto. 89.

Fort Berens 23 Camels Red 2012 ($21.99 for 323 cases). The winery’s notes do not indicate the source of the grapes, which probably means most are from the Black Sage Road vineyard that been supplying Fort Berens for a while. The blend is 50% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Along with other Fort Berens wines, this is closed with a screw cap. It took a few minutes for the slight reductive aromas to dissipate, revealing aromas of raspberry and spice. On the palate, there are flavours of raspberry, blackberry, cherry and black pepper. 88-90. 


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