Wineries around northern British Columbia are breaking new ground

By Gurvinder Bhatia
Fort Berens Estate Winery

Despite the relative youth of British Columbia’s wine industry, it is no longer accurate to refer to regions such as the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys as emerging. They have emerged.

Yes, these regions are still evolving, but the maturity of these regions is evidenced by the consistently high-quality wines being produced, which are not just being lauded domestically, but by consumers, industry and press well beyond the province’s and our country’s borders.

While 90 percent of all vineyards in BC are located in the Okanagan and Similkameen, there is an emerging segment to the industry represented by regions in which modern wine production ranges from maturing to truly being in its infancy.

I recently spent time in some of BC’s northernmost wine-producing regions. The wineries around Lillooet, Kamloops and the Shuswap are in some instances literally breaking new ground. Each at different stages in evolution, which is what one would expect. In many ways these areas, with respect to the maturity of their wine production, can be compared to the Okanagan as it was 10 to 20 years ago.

The drive along the Sea-to-Sky Highway (Hwy 99) from Vancouver to Lillooet via Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish is, quite simply, stunning. The journey is, in itself, a reason to make the four-plus hour trek through the coastal mountain range to Fort Berens Estate Winery, established in 2009 as Lillooet’s first winery.

The north-easterly proximity (more north than east) from Vancouver would naturally incline one to believe Fort Berens to be located in a much cooler, if not colder, climate. But according to Fort Berens co-founder/co-owner Rolf de Bruin, the mountains create a microclimate resulting in temperatures 10 degrees warmer than Vancouver and a growing season that mirrors the southern Okanagan.

De Bruin explains that the mountains surrounding Lytton and Lillooet are higher than those in the Okanagan and create a sharp rain shadow. While Vancouver is notoriously damp due to the Pacific winds blowing clouds to collide with the coastal mountains and dumping their moisture, the valleys to the east of the mountains are generally dry.

The result, according to de Bruin, is desert-like conditions (Lillooet is one of the hottest spots in Canada), with an average annual precipitation of 7 inches (less than Osoyoos), which mainly falls in the winter and a little in June.

Remarkably, due to the microclimate, the growing season at Fort Berens mirrors that of Osoyoos, despite being located 350 km north of the southern Okanagan. The winery currently grows Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Gruner Veltliner on its 20 planted acres. In 2018, the winery plans to plant an additional 20 acres that will also see plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The wines being produced at Fort Berens are well made, clean, accessible, approachable, enjoyable and relatively safe. That’s not a knock, nor is it uncommon for a relatively new producer in an emerging wine-producing region.

Tasting room at Fort Berens Estate Winery
 

 

Wineries still need to continue to learn about and understand their terroir and focus on what grapes are best suited to the particular microclimates.

They are also still purchasing grapes from other parts of the province and blending with their estate fruit. Over time, de Bruin would like to focus more on estate fruit. This would be a positive step in my opinion for this region to truly gain an identity. The wines need to reflect the place, which can only be accomplished by using locally grown grapes. I would anticipate that as the winery, vineyards and region mature, wineries will take even greater advantage of their microclimate, sunlight hours and large diurnal temperature range and resulting natural acidity, which would add a lively and bracing vibrancy to the wines. But it also took producers in the Okanagan time to learn to embrace acidity (and many are still learning).

De Bruin indicates that there are approximately 5,000 plantable acres of viable vineyard land in the region; more farmers have been moving to the area from the Lower Mainland and southern BC due to the significantly lower price of land. Combined with the growing conditions, the area seems to have a tremendous amount of potential to become British Columbia’s next major wine-growing region after the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. Time will tell.

Further east in the Thompson Valley around the city of Kamloops, the rain shadow created by the coastal mountains also results in semi-arid conditions allowing for viable grape-growing, although the winters can be harsh, leading to winter damage if the vines are not protected. The Kamloops Wine Trail connects Privato, Sagewood, Harper’s Trail and Monte Creek Ranch wineries.

At Privato Vineyard and Winery, owners Debbie and John Woodward grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Ortega and Foch, but produce wines from approximately half their own fruit and half from grapes purchased from various vineyards throughout the province. Last winter they lost 70 per cent of their Pinot Noir to winter damage, but they expect for it all to come back as their vines are all own-rooted versus being grafted onto rootstock.

Barrel tastings of Privato’s estate Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir purchased from the Rise Vineyard in Vernon showed distinct differences based on site, as would be expected. The Rise Vineyard Pinot was savoury and spicy while the Privato estate-grown Pinot Noir was fruitier and juicy with fresh acidity. Both were quite delicious.

Harper’s Trail Estate Winery is located on limestone-rich soils, and owners Ed and Vicki Collett have the benefit of working with one of British Columbia’s most experienced and knowledgeable industry professionals with Michael Bartier as their consultant winemaker. The winery’s Rieslings and Cabernet Franc stand out, but their new sparkling wines show potential and all wines show Bartier’s restrained hand. Their 2011 Pioneer Block Riesling has lime and gunflint aromas, is waxy and gives the impression of lime on toast. It clearly shows the potential of the Rieslings from the estate.

Monte Creek Ranch Winery appears to have the greatest resources of any winery in the region and is already a busy tourist destination. The whites are crisp and fresh, while the reds seem to reflect the classic emerging region dilemma.

Around the Shuswap, wineries such as Celista, Lavina and Sunnybrae are all at various stages of evolution. In Tappen, near Salmon Arm, Recline Ridge Vineyards has been in existence for a number of years and owner Graydon Ratzlaff seems to have a good sense of what they can grow well in their vineyard sites. The winery grows a mix of hybrids and vinifera and their wines are clean and fresh with good varietal character. Their 2014 Just Being Frank Blaufränkisch (cherries, currants, dark berry, structure and freshness) and 2014 Too Many Zweigelt (fruit, spice, juicy) stood out amongst the reds.

The emergence of British Columbia can be seen as a sign of a maturing and healthy wine industry. There is seemingly demand to grow and a desire to discover and explore to determine where else in the province viable grape-growing and wine production can exist.

Wineries still need to continue to learn about and understand their terroir and focus on what grapes are best suited to the particular microclimates. The debate of whether to continue to grow hybrids will likely to also arise.

For consumers, visit the regions and taste the wines, but understand that the wineries in these areas are in many ways in a similar situation as Okanagan wineries were 10 to 20 years ago. Hopefully wineries in these emerging regions will be able to take these lessons from the past couple of decades and apply to their situation and shorten their learning curve. Foreshadowing? If so, Canadian wine lovers have something special to look forward to.