Friday, July 22, 2016

Fort Berens brings Lillooet to life

Photo: Entrance at Fort Berens Estate Winery

The Fort Berens Estate Winery arguably is one of the most important developments for the sleepy town of Lillooet since 23 camels arrived in 1862 as pack animals during the Cariboo gold rush.

That did not end too well. Smelly and bad-tempered, the camels spooked the other animals and were finally abandoned by their owner.

The episode was not forgotten. When a bridge was built across the Fraser River in 1981, it was called the Bridge of the 23 Camels. And soon after Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek founded the winery in 2008, they named two of their blends 23 Camels.

That recalls a time when Lillooet, with a population of 15,000, was the second-largest settlement north of San Francisco. While those glory days vanished when the gold was exhausted, the development of winegrowing here has definitely breathed life into the town.

The first, and still the only winery in Lillooet, Fort Berens has become a thriving business. The modern winery built several years ago includes an excellent restaurant. The food and the wines have begun to turn Lillooet into a destination for wine lovers who like to explore off the beaten path. The chef sources much of his food from local farms, surely a boon to the area’s agriculture.

In this vintage, Fort Berens plans to produce about, 9,000 cases of wine. At full capacity, the winery can make 12,000 cases a year. The 20-acre vineyard, planted in 2009, is now well-established. There are plans to plant another 20 acres in a few years.

The winery is also extending its portfolio. This fall, an ultra-premium blend called Red Gold will be released, a partner to the ultra-premium Chardonnay called White Gold.

As well, the winery has made trial wines with grapes from its 25 Grüner Veltliner vines. The two and a half cases made in 2014 show this white variety has considerable promise.

Here are notes on recent releases from Fort Berens.

Fort Berens Riesling 2015 ($16.99 for 1,184 cases). This estate-grown Riesling is refreshing, with aromas of and flavours of lime. A long, cool ferment preserved the fruity flavours while an excellent balancing of the residual sugar against brisk acidity led to a  zesty finish. 91.

Fort Berens Pinot Gris 2015 ($16.99 for 614 cases). A small portion of this wine was fermented in neutral oak and put through malolactic fermentation to add a fleshy texture and complexity to the wine. This begins with citrus aromas leading to flavours of apples and peaches. There is a hint of anise on the finish of this generous wine. 91.

Fort Berens White Gold 2014 ($25.99 for 213 cases). This full-bodied Chardonnay is made with grapes from the Similkameen Valley. The wine was fermented and aged 10 months in older barrels. It has buttery citrus flavours reminiscent of fine marmalade. 90.

Fort Berens Grüner Veltliner (not released). This is a delicious white with a core of tropical fruit flavours that linger on the palate. The texture is full but the finish is dry. 91.

Fort Berens Rosé 2015 ($17.99 for 352 cases). This is 56% Pinot Noir and 44% Merlot fermented primarily in stainless steel (a small proportion was fermented in neutral barrels).  Juicy in texture, the wine has aromas and flavours of strawberry and pomegranate. The wine is balanced to finish dry but the tiniest hint of sweetness. 90.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2013 ($24.99 for 1,045 cases).  This begins with a glorious aroma of red berries mingled with chocolate. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, black currant and blackberry. 90.

Fort Berens Meritage 2013 ($23.99 for 1,246 cases). This is 60% Merlot and 20% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The wine has rich, even earthy flavours of black currant, black cherry and chocolate, with a hint of vanilla. 91.

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