City Cellar: Give Lillooet wines a try. Yes, seriously
A few weeks ago, my wife and I spent a weekend visiting friends in Birken, a very small town past Whistler, past Pemberton, with the next major town being Lillooet. Yup, the focus of this week’s column is Lillooet of all places.
It’s because of our very long drive through snowy mountains and fertile valleys that I recognize the giant leap of faith that Dutch immigrants Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek took in 2005 when they decided to grow grapes in what has just become Canada’s newest wine region. Originally hoping to break ground in the Okanagan, the availability and cost of land was too prohibitive, resulting in them following the recommendation of legendary B.C. viticulturist (or “vineyard guru”) Richard Cleave and heading over the northwest horizon.
Let’s get some myths and assumptions out of the way, shall we?
First off, the elevation isn’t as high as you’d imagine, holding fort at about 230 metres compared with Whistler Village’s 675. Second, and probably most important, though the region is in The Great Beyond, it’s quite hot in the summer and their grape-growing season stretches out just a tad longer than Oliver or Osoyoos in the South Okanagan. An extra benefit is that it’s quite rare for the mercury to go past the 35° mark, a crucial threshold where,when surpassed, grapevines temporarily “shut down”, as is known to occur occasionally in the Okanagan. The gravel and mineral-rich soil is the result of glacial deposits, and is low on organic material making the roots of the vines work extra hard, having an upshot of better-quality fruit.
For now, Heleen and Rolf’s vines are quite young and only producing enough decent grapes to do a couple of full-fledged estate wines, the rest of their bottling being partially or wholly composed of Okanagan fruit. Since we’re talking about Lillooet vineyards and Lillooet terroir this week, we’ll focus on the two wines that are composed from 100 per cent Lillooet grapes.
Fort Berens 2011 Riesling ( $19-ish) is a rich, fruit-forward wine loaded with pineapple, peach, apple and blood orange. There’s a good dose of residual sugar on the finish and a honeyed element making it a really good match for anything spicy. In fact, I’d wager it’ll envelop as much heat as you can throw at it. There’s the slightest hint of an old-school British Scrumpy apple cider in there as well, a kind of tangy, savoury edge. With no shortage of flavour, complexity and character, and that unique edge to it, I’m interested to find out what others will think of it. It’s quirky, but I really dig it. Give it a whirl and let me know.
There shouldn’t be a hung jury with Fort Berens’ 2011 Pinot Noir Rosé ( $18-ish), however. The cheery, raspberry and cherry-laden pink wine should prove to be a crowd pleaser that — at 90 cases— will sell out quickly. A brilliant rosy hue, the wine totally glides along with clean acidity, keeping all of those berries buoyed with red plums and white flowers strewn all over the place. A fairly dry style, don’t go too spicy food-wise on this one, but feel free to barbecue some salmon and pour it liberally for you and your friends.