Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fruit wineries raise their profile






 Photo: Northern Lights proprietor Pat Bell

Pat Bell, one of the owners of Northern Lights Estate Winery, a fruit winery in Prince George, has a story about himself which sums up why fruit wineries battle to be taken seriously.

When he was the BC Minister of Agriculture from 2005 to 2008, he discovered the good grape table wines of the Okanagan. One summer, he and his wife swung through wine country, filling their vehicle with wines. On the way back to Prince George, they came upon the Bonaparte Bend Winery at Cache Creek. Not having heard of the winery, they stopped at the tasting room.

“When I discovered they only had fruit wines, we walked out,” Pat said recently, a little embarrassed to admit it today. In 2013, he launched a fruit winery with his son, Doug. When they built Northern Lights, they bought some production equipment and wine from Bonaparte Bend, which had just closed.

He told that anecdote at a recent meeting of leading fruit wineries. The owners had assembled, along with government and wine industry experts, to brainstorm ideas to raise the profile of fruit wines.

The fruit wine industry believes it has achieved critical mass in BC. There are about 25 licensed fruit wineries, along with about a number wineries making both grape wines and fruit wines. There is also a growing number of cideries. Cider sales are on fire, both in BC and across North America but fruit winery producers are still developing a following.

Pat Bell’s business and political careers have put him in unique position of leadership among the fruit wineries. He and Tommy Yuan, head of Canada Berries Winery in Richmond, put together the recent brainstorming session. Enough was achieved that the group is planning a second meeting in mid-June to advance strategies for the fruit wineries.

Bell enumerated several of the fruit wine industry’s operating disadvantages:
·       The wineries lack access to the sales channels for VQA wines because the VQA program, as currently administered by the British Columbia Wine Institute, does not extend to fruit wines.
·       As a result, fruit wines do not enjoy the markup rebate that VQA wines get. That means a much lower margin on fruit wines. One participant at the meeting told of netting just $1 on a bottle of wine that retails for $16 or $17 if sold through liquor stores.
·       Fruit wineries are not invited to take part the tastings and other public events organized by the VQA wineries.
·       Fruit wineries are not part of the grape wine industry’s quality assurance program. The VQA program was vital to the credibility of grape wines when the BC wine industry was reinventing itself in the 1990s.
·       And there is no single voice that speaks for the fruit wineries in the market place and in discussions with government.


After the recent meeting, about a dozen of the leading fruit wineries are now on the same page, at least to a degree. Canada Berries is more focussed on exporting fruit wines to Asia (Tommy Yuan argues they go well with Asian food). For Pat Bell and most of the others at the meeting, the domestic market has a higher priority.

Everyone seems to agree the fruit wineries might benefit from being associated with a quality standards program. They will now begin a conversation with the BC Wine Institute as well as the BC Wine Authority.

I think it unlikely that the BCWI’s 160 member wineries would agree anytime soon to share market and promotional channels with fruit wineries. They might agree to take on government relations. If not, the fruit wineries seemed prepared to establish an association of their own.

A quality standards program might be set up with the BCWA. The authority is an independent body administering the VQA tasting panels and the appellation and sub-appellations. Its audits ensure that only BC grapes are used to produce VQA and other BC wines. The authority, on a fee for service basis, could do the same for fruit wineries.

Some consumers are buying fruit wines but the volumes are modest. The quarterly market report from the BC Liquor Distribution Branch shows that fruit wine sales in the three quarters of 2016 ending in December totalled $3,632,717. That was barely one percent of total BC wine sales in that period.

If you are in the fruit wine industry, there is just one way to look at that figure: there is a lot of room for market growth.


Here are the wineries and the wines that were tasted.

Canada Berries Winery: 12791 Blundell Road, Richmond, V6W 1B4. This winery in the heart of Richmond opened in 2006 as Sanduz Estate Wines. Several years ago, it was acquired by entrepreneur Tommy Yuan, president of the Canada Asia Business Network.

Canada Berries Raspberry Princess ($NA). The wine presents with a deep garnet hue and with berry aromas that explode from the glass. The flavours are tart and the wine is dry. 87.

Canada Berries Cranberry Princess ($NA). This wine slots nicely into the dry rosé category. It begins with aromas of cranberry and cherry and delivers spicy cranberry flavours. 88.

Canada Berries Blackberry Prince ($NA). This is a deeply coloured full-bodied off-dry wine with concentrated berry flavours. There is a slight chemical note that takes away from the clean berry aromas. 87.

Canada Berries Blackcurrant Prince ($NA). This is a classically bold, dark-coloured wine with dramatic aromas of cassis and mint. Even with some residual sweetness, the vibrant acidity gives the wine a dry finish. 89.

Canada Berries Blue Queen Special Edition ($NA). This wine delivers ripe, juicy flavours of blueberries, with aromas that spring from the glass. 88.

Canada Berries Blue Queen Blueberry Dry ($NA). A dry wine with a polished texture, it has the appropriate berry aromas. On the palate, the blueberry flavours have an earthy note on the finish, a complexing factor. 90

Canada Berries Blue Queen Gold Blueberry/Cranberry ($NA). Blending fleshy blueberries with spicy tart cranberries producing a good dessert wine, and one that is not overly sweet. 89.

Canada Berries Blue King Blueberry/Merlot ($NA). The wine begins with good berry aromas. On the palate, the oaked Merlot mingles with the berry flavours. The texture is full. 88

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Elephant Island Orchard Wines opened in 2001. Owners Del and Miranda Halladay have since added several grape table wines and a cidery to the business. With a production of about 6,000 cases, Elephant Island is among the largest and most successful fruit wineries.


Elephant Island Cherry 2015 ($18.39). The winery advocates this dry red wine for those who suffer from headaches when consuming dry red grape wines. This wine is dark in colour. The cherry flavours are slightly tart. The wine has the weight of a Beaujolais. 88.

Elephant Island Framboise 2015 ($21.84 for 350 ml). This raspberry-based wine is fortified to 16% alcohol. There is excellent intensity to the raspberry aromas and flavours. The sweet finish is very well balanced and lingers a long time on the palate. 92.

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Krause Berry Farms & Estate Winery opened in 2012. It is an extension to the berry farm, food market and restaurant that Alf and Sandee Krause operate near Langley. The winemaker is Sandra Kiechle whose long career around the wine industry included almost 12 years with RJ Spagnols Wine & Beermaking Ltd. At Krause, she makes a portfolio of more than 20 wines.

Krause Oaked Apple ($19.95). This is a blend of six apple varieties aged a short time in American oak. The wine is crisply dry with clean apple flavours. The oak adds a slightly spicy note to the finish. The texture is generous and the finish linger. 88.

Krause Tayberry ($19.95). The tayberry, a cross between the blackberry and the red raspberry patented in Scotland in 1979, is not widely grown because the tasty soft berries do not ship well. They do make an exotic deep-coloured wine, judging from this example. The spicy, fruity aromas explode from the glass. The wine hits the palate with exotic, spicy berry flavours. The wine is dry and robust enough to pair with meat dishes. 89.

Krause Sparkling Blueberry ($28.75). This is one of four sparkling wines made at Krause and one of two gold medal winners. This is a real winner – festive in the glass with aromas and flavours of freshly-picked blueberries. It is well balanced with a dry and refreshing finish. 92.

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Maan Farms Estate Winery was
established in 2012 on a farm near Abbotsford where the Maan family has been farming since 1977. Before diversifying to wine, the family was already operating a successful farm market. A fire started by an arsonist damaged the winery and farm market in July 2012. The Maan family bounced back with a new building and tasting room. Laurente Lafuente, a French-born consulting winemaker and distiller, makes the wines here (and at several other fruit wineries).

Maan Farms Strawberry Raspberry Blend 2016 ($23.10). The wine presents an appealing strawberry hue in the glass. Strawberry also dominates the aromas and flavours, with the raspberry adding complexity and restraint to the usual exuberant strawberry notes. The finish is long, with a touch of fruit sweetness. 90.

Maan Farms Jovin Oaked Blueberry 2015 Limited Edition ($30.10). Only 23 cases were made of this wine. Full-bodied and dry, the wine has rich blueberry flavours, effectively enhanced by aging in French oak. One could take this for Merlot in a blind tasting. 91.

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Monte Creek Estate Ranch Estate Winery opened
in 2014 east of Kamloops. Last year, it completed a spacious winery with a large tasting room. The object is to attract the tourists passing nearby on the TransCanada Highway. An aggressively managed business, Monte Creek in 2016 made 14,000 cases of grape wines and 3,500 cases of fruit wine.

Monte Creek Blueberry Wine ($16.99). The owner of Monte Creek also is a major blueberry grower in the Fraser Valley. This wine is made from a blueberry variety called Reka, an early-season berry developed in New Zealand. The fruit wineries might add some mystique by promoting the varieties on the label, like grape wineries do. This is a full-bodied wine with flavours recalling blueberry jam. The wine has a spicy and reasonably dry finish and can go toe to toe with Merlot. 90.

Monte Creek Haskap Berry Wine ($29.90 for 350 ml). Haskap is the name for the edible blue honeysuckle traditional with the Ainu people of northern Japan. Because of the berry’s claimed health benefits and its ability to grow in cool northern regions, the University of Saskatchewan has developed at least five varieties for commercial use. Monte Creek has one of the few plantings in BC. So little haskap is grown that the berries currently sell for about $10,000 a ton, twice the price of premium Okanagan Cabernet Sauvignon. The berry makes a juicy dessert wine with mouthfilling flavours recalling cherries. 90.

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Northern Lights Estate Winery is in a
handsome winery and tasting room constructed in 2013 beside the Nechako River in Prince George. It is owned by Pat Bell, his son Doug, and their families. Christine Leroux, a veteran consulting winemaker from the Okanagan, is the winemaker here. This BC’s most northerly winery, an example of how the expansion of fruit wineries can take winemaking to non-traditional wine regions.

Northern Lights Cuvée Blanche ($16.98). This is a blend of gooseberry, apple, apricot and rhubarb. None of the individual berries dominates this clever blend. It is a dry white with herbal and nutty notes mingling with the complex fruit. 88.

Northern Lights Heritage Haskap ($23.99). This is a full-bodied, age-worthy red. Some blueberry has been added to the blend and all has been aged in Hungarian oak. The wine begins with aromas of cherry. On the palate, there are notes of cherry and mocha. Time in barrel has added a note of tannin. The finish is dry. 90.

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Ripples Estate Winery is the newest BC
fruit winery, with a grand opening planned for early May in the garden-like setting at its berry farm in the Fraser Valley, east of Abbotsford. It is owned by Paul and Caroline Mostertman. The winemaker is the ubiquitous Laurent Lafuente.

Ripples Intemperance 2015 ($24.95 ). This concentrated red is made with three blueberry varieties (Reka 40%, Liberty 30%, Draper 30%). The wine has black cherry flavours with a robust and lingering finish. 88.

Ripples Cupere ($19 for 375 ml). This is a dessert wine made with the same three blueberry as in the table wine. The residual sweetness gives the wine a juicy texture, with flav0urs of blueberry jam. 91.

Ripples Antheia ($29 for 500 ml). Once again, the same three varieties of blueberries have been combined, this time for a fortified port-style wine with 17% alcohol. It is a wine with good intensity of berry aromas and flavours with what seems to be a hint of oak. 90.

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Scenic Road Cider Co. opened last year
north of Kelowna, one of a burgeoning number of new cider producers in BC. It is based on an orchard that grows traditional cider apples.

Scenic Road Cider Nearly Dry ($NA). This is crisply fresh, delivering apple flavours and finishing with a bit of grip, a hallmark of the classic European cider varieties comprising 25% of the blend. 88.

Scenic Road Cider Razz ($NA). This is a blend of Honeycrisp apples and raspberry. The cider has crisp, refreshing flavours of these two fruits. Pink and effervescent, it is a delightful alternative to a rosé. 90.

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Wellbrook Winery opened in Delta in
2004 on a farm that blueberry farmer Terry Bremner bought three years earlier. The winery itself is in a century-old barn while the tasting room is in renovated heritage grain storage building. One technique for introducing fruit wines to consumers is through the cooking lessons the winery offers.


Wellbrook Wild Blackberry ($13.95). This is a dry table wine whose flavours echo freshly picked blackberries. The minimal exposure to seeds the wine had during processing imparted a complexing nutty hint on the finish. 88.











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