Photo: Northern Lights winery (courtesy of winery)
Northern Lights Estate Winery, which
opened last year, 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
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
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
brother, Pat, and their 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
The Bells have an
established track record in the Prince George business community. Pat Bell,
Sr., the father of the brothers, 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 his brother 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
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.”
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
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.
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
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. C0nveniently, she also is an aunt to the Bell
The design will accommodate a future
“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