Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Class of 2015: Northern Lights Estate Winery

                                     Photo: Northern Lights winery (courtesy of winery)

Readers will recognize that this blog has appeared previously. It appears again with some minor details corrected. The tasting notes are unchanged.

Northern Lights Estate Winery, which opened in 2015, is the northernmost winery in Canada.

At 53.5 degrees north, it is a full three degrees of latitude closer to the North Pole than Celista Estate Winery above Shuswap Lake and four degrees higher than Auk Island Winery at Twillingate, Newfoundland.

But these wineries all belong to a growing group of producers pushing the envelop in northern climes. There are wineries above 60 N. throughout Scandinavia and there are at least five wineries in Alaska. Solitude Springs Farm & Vineyard at Fairbanks is at 65 N.

Why are wineries galloping ahead of global warming? Partly it is that people in the wine industry are uncommonly passionate about what they do. And partly, it is because there often is an enthusiastic local market for the wines.

That about sums up the Bell family, the owners of Northern Light; and it sums up the market. This fruit winery’s sales are running about three years ahead of the business plan.

The winery is managed by Doug Bell, his father, Pat, and his mother Brenda. The winery idea was sparked when Pat Bell was British Columbia’s minister of agriculture from 2005 to 2008, with responsibility for wineries in his portfolio.

“He met a lot of owners of different wineries,” Doug says. “He realized that this is an industry in which people who work for different companies around the province support each other and really would like to see the growth of the British Columbia industry. That was very attractive to us. Also, it was something that was well needed in Prince George. There was a significant amount of demand but obviously no supply.”

The Bells have an established track record in the Prince George business community. Pat Bell, Sr., the Bell patriarch, helped the Wendy’s restaurant chain establish franchises across western Canada. In 1988, he left the corporate world to open his own  Wendy’s in Prince George. The Bells now operate two restaurants there.

Pat Bell went into politics in 2001 and retired from the legislature in 2013.

“I grew up in the family business, doing many different things,” says Doug says, who has a commerce degree from the University of Northern British Columbia. About the time  Pat went into politics, Doug joined a group developing oil change franchises and then worked in human resources.  In 2007, a love of retailing brought him back to the family businesses which at various times also included car rental agencies, logging companies and farm operations.

“We decided around 2012 that we wanted to open this winery,” Doug says. “It was on our minds for a long time.”

They saw the winery as an important new tourism attraction. “I have been big into tourism and travel the last few years,” Doug says. “You know that we have quite an urban centre here in Prince George. We have all these shopping facilities. You can do anything outdoors that you want to do. We have very high disposable incomes up here and the cost of living is very affordable. And it is beautiful country.”

Like most other northern wineries, Northern Lights is focussed on fruit wines. (To be sure, a good deal of experimentation with vineyards has also begun elsewhere in the north. Lerkekåsa Vineyard in Norway, for example, reported good results with wines from Solaris, a white German hybrid widely planted in Scandinavia.)

“I really see the fruit wine as the grape wine of tomorrow,” Doug says. “I don’t mean it will overtake grape wines but the product that is being released now is much more suited to today’s consumers. I think that people are starting to recognize the quality. Although there are only 30 fruit wineries today, I see that as picking up and increasing.”

They visited a number of those wineries while researching their project, confirming for themselves how fruit wines have evolved. “Everyone has a grandmother who has made a few fruit wines,” Doug says. “Often, they can be very sweet and more of a dessert nature. When we started tasting, we realized that in many cases the fruit wines were different from what they had been in the past.  You can do a lot of blending and capture the complexity of the wine. You don’t always have to make it sweet or low in alcohol. You can actually match a lot of the qualities of grape wines.”

Just as the Bells were putting together their wineries plans, the owners of Bonaparte Bend Winery, a fruit winery at Cache Creek, decided to retire, closing a winery that had opened in 1999. Northern Lights bought the winery’s equipment and some of Bonaparte Bend’s remaining wines.

To make Northern Lights wine, the Bells retained Christine Leroux, a consulting winemaker and educator based in Penticton. Her previous clients have included Elephant Island Orchard Wines, one of the most acclaimed of the Okanagan’s fruit wineries.

The Northern Lights winery and its three-acre orchard are on the banks of the Nechako River. “We are only 30 meters from that river,” Doug says. “We have a beautiful orchard. On the other side of the winery, we have built an amphitheatre into the cut banks the river has created the last few years. Standing in that amphitheatre, you overlook our orchards and the river, right into downtown Prince George. The view is just phenomenal.  People come expecting a small quaint winery; and they are getting the experience that they expect from the Okanagan.”

The handsomely designed winery and tasting room are the work architect Everest Lapp, who owns Elevation Design Studio on Pender Island. Conveniently, she also is an aunt to the Bell brothers.

The design will accommodate a future restaurant. “We are looking at constructing a facility similar to the Hester Creek demonstration kitchen to start with,” Doug says. “It is about bringing the food and the wine together, in a way that people can interact with; whether it is the chefs doing cooking classes; whether it is an intimate dinner with set menus; or during the day, a café/bistro style.
“Our wines,” he adds, “are really built for food, more so than a lot of other fruit wines. Many of our wines are built to be primarily eaten with food while others are more casual sipping wines. It is an important part of our business plan.”

It is a plan that is going very well. “In our original business plan, we felt we were going to be small winery, producing 1,000 to 2,000 cases a year,” Doug says. “Right now, we are on pace to go into the fourth or fifth year of our business plan in our second year. We are expecting to sell anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 cases in the next year. By no means a huge winery yet, but we think we will be among the top five of fruit wineries within the first couple of years.”

The winery buys fruit from sources in addition to its own orchard. Northern Lights has been the first fruit winery in B.C. to release a product made from the haskap berry. Grown by Heritage Farms at Quesnel, haskap is a Japanese name for the edible blue honeysuckle. Since 2006, several varieties have been developed by the University of Saskatchewan.

“It is going to be a very premium wine,” Doug predicts. “The berry has a deep rich red colour. And it ages very nicely.” The winery’s first releases, now sold out, is a blend of haskap and blueberry and was aged in Hungarian oak. Northern Lights already considers this its flagship wine.

Here are notes on three Northern Lights wines that I have been able to taste.

Northern Lights Seduction NV ($17). This aromatic wine, now sold out, is a blend of strawberry and rhubarb. It has a pale blush hue and has an appealing strawberry aroma. Well balanced, it has subtle flavours of strawberry. The role of the rhubarb is to add the refreshing, tangy acidity that gives the wine a reasonably dry finish that lingers. This is a bottle I would take on a picnic or have with salad in summer. 90.

Northern Lights Bumbleberry NV ($18). This wine is a blend of raspberry, saskatoon and blueberry. The ruby colour is appealing in the glass. The aromas and flavours of raspberry explode from the glass and coat the palate. This is fruit wine’s answer to Beaujolais. It is a lively and refreshing wine that I might want to a pair with spicy food. 89.

Northern Lights Cassis Noir NV ($19). This is a black currant wine, striking for its fruity aromas and flavours. The usual bracing acidity of black currant is balanced here with some residual sugar. The texture, however, is silky. 87.


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