Photo: Winemaker Alex Nel (Credit Brad Kasselman)
The fall releases from Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet were made by two different winemakers and have set a high standard for the new winemaker, Alex Nel.
“Over the last few years, we have had a few transitions in winemakers,” co-founder Rolf de Bruin observes.
South African born and trained Danny Hattingh was Fort Beren’s winemaker from the 2014 vintage through the 2018 vintage before leaving to set up a coffee business in the Okanagan. Ontario-trained James Cambridge, who had been the founding winemaker at Fort Berens in 2012 before going to Backyard Vineyard in the Fraser Valley, returned to the Lillooet winery in early 2019. He left after the 2019 vintage to deal with a family matter.
“We were very fortunate to find Alex Nel through an international search,” Rolf says. Alex is also from South Africa. He graduated in 2008 from the renowned Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute (where Danny also trained). In addition to doing harvests in New Zealand and California, Alex was the winemaker and brewmaster at Cederberg Wines, a family-owned South African winery highly rated for wines from its high-altitude terroir.
“Having worked with Danny, we knew that South African winemakers are highly educated, often with work experience around the globe,” Rolf says of the decision to recruit Alex. “There was a great fit, as Alex worked in a remote area in South Africa, which made the move to Lillooet seem like a step toward a more urban lifestyle.”
The decision to hire Alex was made in March 2020. Due to the Covid pandemic, Alex was unable to leave South Africa until December 2020.
“Luckily, Danny Hattingh was willing to jump back in for the 2020 vintage,” Rolf says. “Alex took over in January 2021 to finish the wines for bottling.” And he started the 2021 Fort Berens vintage by pruning the vines last spring.
He comes with a strong track record that includes a trophy at the Global Fine Wine Challenge for the Cederberg Chenin Blanc 2020 and a Top 100 at Decanter Wine Competition for the Cederberg Five Generations Cabernet Sauvignon 2018.
“Alex has made several changes to our winemaking protocols to further raise the quality of the wines,” Rolf writes in a letter accompanying the new releases. “Our white wines are made extremely reductive, combined with aromatic yeasts and cold fermentations to produce fresh, lively white wines with great aging potential.”
As for the red wines, Alex directed that the grapes be picked selectively within each block as the grapes were ready. In the winery, the grapes had a one-night cold soak before fermentation. The wine had as much as 20 days on the skins after fermentation to produce more intense colours and fine tannins.
Fort Berens also enhanced its barrel aging program. The winery purchased an additional 60 barrels so that all the reds will be aged in barrel for at least 15 months. As well, the winery is moving away from American oak to French oak, with Alex selecting very specific coopers.
“Going forward,” Rolf writes, “anticipate red wines that are more integrated with the oak for a softer, richer more integrated wine.”
The wines in the fall release are from the 2018, 2019 and 2020 vintages, representing the craftsmanship of Danny Hattingh and James Cambridge. They have set a high bar for Alex. Here are my notes.
Fort Berens Chardonnay 2020
($20.99 for 715 cases). Most of the fruit (71%) is from the estate vineyard; the rest is from a Peachland vineyard. Twenty per cent of the wine was fermented in new and neutral French oak barrels, with the rest fermented in stainless steel. That accounts for the fruit-forward character of this dry, medium-bodied Chardonnay. It begins with aromas of citrus and apple. On the palate, there are flavours of apples and stone fruits. 89.
Fort Berens White Gold 2019
($29.99 for 209 cases). The Chardonnay for this reserve wine is all from the winery’s Dry Creek Vineyard at Lillooet. The wine was fermented in French oak barrels and aged six months in French barrels. The wine begins with aromas of apple, vanilla and butter. Rich on the palate, the wine delivers luscious flavours of peach, apple and butter. The oak is subtle and the fruit is the star. 92.
Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2019
($27.99 for 198 cases). The intensity of this elegant Riesling is explained by the fact the vines in this special block in the estate vineyard were cropped less than a tonne an acre. The grapes were whole cluster pressed and then fermented cool for seven weeks in stainless steel. The wine had 18 months bottle age before release. It begins with aromas of lemon and lemon zest. On the palate, there are flavours of lemon, raisins and apricot. The 18.9 grams of residual sugar, well balanced with bright acidity, add to the concentrated flavours. The wine is drinking well but will also age well. 92.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2019
($29.99 for 522 cases). The fruit for this wine is from a Naramata vineyard. The wine was aged nine months in neutral French oak barrels. It is a bright and cheerful wine, with aromas and flavours of cherry, strawberry and raspberry. 90.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir Reserve 2018
($36.99 for 218 cases). The fruit is from the winery’s Dry Creek Vineyard. After whole cluster fermentation with native yeast, the wine was aged nine months in French oak barrels and a further 24 months in bottle before release. The wine begins with cherry, strawberry jam and spice. With a classic silken texture, the medium-bodied wine delivers flavours that echo the aromas. 91.
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2019
($28.99 for 652 cases). The wine is made primarily with estate-grown fruit harvested fully ripe late in the season. The wine was aged 15 months in seasoned French and American oak barrels. It begins with aromas of spicy, brambly fruit leading to lively flavours of cherry and red currant. The wine is full-bodied with a long finish. 91.
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc Reserve 2018
($36.99 for 247 cases). A portion of the grapes went into the fermenting tank as whole clusters; the remainder were destemmed and whole berries went into the tank. The fruit was left to cold soak for four days before spontaneous fermentation began. The wine was aged 14 months in barrel. The wine begins with a rich brambleberry aroma. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, blackberry, blueberry with a hint of chocolate on the lingering finish. 93.
Fort Berens Meritage 2019
($27.99 for 21,272 cases). This is a blend of 88% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Cabernet Franc, each fermented separately and then blended. The wine was aged separately in seasoned French and American oak barrels. It begins with aromas of spice and red fruit, leading to flavours of cherry and blackberry. Medium-bodied, it is soft and juicy on the finish. 90.
Fort Berens Meritage Reserve 2018
($36.99 for 330 cases). The blend is 57% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. A portion of the Cabernet Franc was in the passimento style, to further concentrate the flavours. This is drama in the glass: bold aromas of cassis, blueberry and cherry are echoed by the abundant fruit on the palate. The finish lingers and lingers. This is an elegant and sophisticated wine. 94.