As the crow flies, Lillooet is about 300 kms from the South Okanagan but the climate and mountain influence are similar, image supplied

Last week in Holland they were celebrating Koninginnedag or Queens Day—a national holiday in honour of the Queen, when everyone wears orange to the max. Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek (who came to BC from the Netherlands) were also celebrating (and wearing orange), for a different reason. They were pouring the first releases of their Fort Berens, Lillooet, estate grown wines (complete with orange capsules) at a small luncheon at Gastown’s Cork & Fin.

Suitably orange clad, Rolf de Bruin, Heleen Pannekoek and Harry McWatters raise a glass

There’s something quite ironic but also quintessentially Canadian about the couple’s story. A few folks have been looking at the viability of vineyard sites surrounding areas such as Lillooet and the Thompson and Fraser rivers for some years now. But it’s intriguing, to me at least, that it took somebody from outside of Canada to come here and put it all together. That said, the fluently English-speaking couple (who hail from backgrounds in corporate finance) have tapped into some pretty solid Canadian advice.

The Hired Belly has driven no shortage of backroads over the years and has lost count of the times we’ve taken the Duffy Lake road from Pemberton to Lillooet and Lytton as an alternative to the Fraser Canyon or well travelled Coquihalla. But rarely did I contemplate the likelihood of seeing vineyards along the way.

Here’s the text of today’s North Shore News column…

BC’s newest wine region is gradually taking shape. And it’s likely not where you expected.

Seven years have passed since immigrants Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek left behind stable careers in finance in the Netherlands to embark on an entirely new chapter of their lives: establishing and running a winery—not in the booming Okanagan Valley but in the very much uncharted reaches of the Thompson River, on an east bench just beyond the bridge where the road goes on to Lytton.

Some of the decision to locate Fort Berens Estate Winery in unproven Lillooet was driven by pragmatism and a realisation that the Okanagan’s overheated land prices (over $100,000 per unplanted acre) were not conducive to a successful business plan.

However, the couple’s well connected partners had put them in touch with a few of the right people—including vineyard guru Richard Cleave, ex CedarCreek winemaker Tom DiBello, and Sumac Ridge founder, pioneering Harry McWatters, as well as interested parties from government and the agricultural sector.

Trial plantings have taken place on a small scale at Lillooet over decades; and McWatters has always been plugged in to the possibility of establishing vineyard sites beyond the Okanagan (not only at Lillooet but at quite a few other spots, about which he’s still coy to reveal too much information). He will remind you, though, that some of BC’s first Chardonnay (which went into the earliest Sumac wines) was grown on a bench in the Kamloops area.

The vineyard, clearly visible here, is across the bridge from downtown at the Junction of Hwy 99 and Hwy 12 to Lillooet

Rolf de Bruin points out that their site touches the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, that stretches south to the Mexican border.

Lillooet, of course, is known as the name that always pops up beside Lytton’s as Canada’s summer hot spot with daytime highs sometimes pushing 40 C. But de Bruin says cooling breezes off Seton Lake keeps the mercury at 35 tops and yields significantly cooler nights to produce good acidity in their 20 acres (of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Merlot, planted 2009). Combine those conditions with a long growing season, low rainfall (little or no precipitation between July and October) and you can see how it’s easy to draw comparisons with the Okanagan.

Any new winery (especially once they’ve talked to their banker) will tell you of the challenges in finding cash flow while the young vines reach maturity. Fort Berens’ team has already shown its ability in producing well-made wines using Okanagan fruit (including a luscious, pineapple and tropical toned Pinot Gris 2011 $17.99 (part estate fruit), which was a finalist in the just announced Okanagan Best of Varietal Awards).

The winery is transitioning to all estate fruit by 2013 but already the results are reassuring. Just released is a green apple and lychee toned, all estate grown Riesling 2011; and all estate, appealingly dry, crisp and clean strawberry-apple Pinot Noir Rosé 2011 with a nice streak of acidity. $13.99 VQAS.

Harder to track down is 23 Camels 2011, a well balanced half Pinot Gris plus Chardonnay Riesling blend (40 percent estate) with lively stone fruit and juicy acidity. c. $15, from the winery.

Planning a trip via Duffy Lake to Lillooet and beyond? Be sure to check out this new winery that looks to become the anchor in BC’s newest wine region. Check www.Fortberens.ca for more info. And join their Discovery Club for easy access to all the wines.