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A new year brings new hope in the B.C. wine industry

By Rick VanSickle

No one is happier to see the year 2021 in the rear-view mirror than winemakers in British Columbia.

Mother Nature threw everything it possibly could at those who toil in the art of making wine — mudslides, floods, road closures, widespread wildfires, extreme weather episodes, supply chain issues. And looming large over chaotic weather episodes was the ever present threat of COVID-19, an endless pandemic that continues to threaten the health and viability of many wineries throughout the province. It’s a time of uncertainty.

B.C. Wine

“These times continue to push us to pivot and innovate as we look for new ways to connect with our customers,” Rolf de Bruin, co-founder of the Lillooet winery Fort Berens, says. That word “pivot” has become the most hated word of the pandemic as wineries not only in B.C., but across the country (and world, I suspect) strive to keep one step ahead of an enemy that keeps mutating and finding ways to wreak havoc on the wine industry.

No one can predict what 2022 has in store, but with the Omicron “tsunami” now sweeping through the world’s population, it appears another challenging winter is settling in.

What can you do? What can we do? It’s pretty simple. Support local wineries wherever you are. Buy wines online as wineries learn to pivot (that damn word again!) to digital sales. These are difficult times and many wineries won’t be able to survive another bleak winter without a significant uptick in online sales.

In this B.C. Wine Report, we look at new releases from two wineries — Fort Berens in Lillooet (that’s new winemaker Alex Nel in the very top photo) and Hester Creek in the Okanagan Valley.

First up, Fort Berens …

Fort Berens Estate Winery

The White Wines

Fort Berens Chardonnay 2020 ($21, 88 points) — Sourced from primarily estate fruit, this Chardonnay is lightly oaked and has a nose of expressive citrus, golden apples, melon and light toasted spices. It shows ripe orchards fruit on the palate with zesty lemon and lime, integrated spices and a vibrant finish. 

Fort Berens White Gold 2019 ($30, 92 points) — The grapes for this well made Chardonnay are sourced from the estate’s Dry Creek Vineyard in Lillooet. The wine was aged for six months is French oak barrels with light lees stirring. This is a more elegant, restrained version of the above with notes of pear, quince, bergamot, fresh pineapple and oak spices in perfect harmony. It’s refined and layered on the palate with lovely pear, toasted almonds, flinty minerality, subtle oak spices and mouth-watering acidity on the finish. Can cellar 3+ years.

Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2019 ($28, 92 points) — The fruit for this reserve tier Riesling comes from the estate’s Dry Creek Vineyard that’s cropped to less than one tonne per acre. It was bottled 18 months before release. What a lovely nose of bright lime and saline notes with grapefruit, peach and wild honey notes. It has mouth-filling citrus on the palate, honeycomb, apricots and peaches with electric acidity providing balance and lift on the finish.

The Red Wines

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2019 ($29, 89 points) — Sources primarily from estate vineyards, this CF was aged in a combination of French and American oak barrels for 15 months with an additional six months of bottle age. The nose shows a rich broth of black cherries, anise, wild raspberries, mocha and spice. Look for darker fruits of cassis and anise on the palate with ripe tannins and some earthy/savoury/spicy notes on the lifted finish.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc Reserve 2018 ($37, 91 points) — The reserve version of Cabernet Franc was aged in oak for 14 months and a small portion of Cabernet Sauvignon was blended in. The nose shows juicy red berries, plum pudding, sweet herbs, baking spices and some earthy/savoury notes. It’s smooth on the palate with ripe black cherries, plums, cassis, savoury herbs, spice and length through a vibrant finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2019 ($30, 90 points) — The Pinot grapes for this wine were sourced from the Flaherty Vineyard in Naramata and the wine was aged in French oak for nine months with a further 12 months of aging in bottle. It has a nose of ripe black cherries, wild raspberries, red currants and light, toasty oak spices. The red berries on the palate are rich and ripe with fine grained tannins and a juicy, lifted finish. Can cellar 4+ years.

Fort Berens Meritage 2019 ($28, 89 points) — The blend is 88% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon and a smidge of Cabernet Franc with 15 months of barrel aging in French and American oak. It’s laden with strawberry tart, raspberries, ripe cherries, cassis and integrated spice notes on the nose. It’s smooth and juicy on the palate with the full range of red berries and a touch of earth all leading to vibrant finish.

Hester Creek Estate Winery

Hester Creek Character Red 2020 ($19, 88 points) — From the “Foundation Series,” the Character Red is a blend Italian Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec sourced mainly from the estate’s Golden Mile Bench vineyards. The wine is aged for 8 months in 75% French and the rest American oak. There is a lot of bang for the buck in this pleasant red blend with a nose dark cherries, blueberries, cassis, nutmeg, cloves and earthy notes. It has soft tannins on the palate with bright red berries, anise, lightly toasted spice notes and a tangy, bright finish.

Hester Creek Old Vine Cabernet Franc 2019 ($26, 92 points) — From the “Source Collection” at Hester Creek, the grapes are harvested from Block 3 of the Golden Mile Bench estate vineyard that was originally planted in 1968. It’s aged for 18 months in a combination of American and French oak. It has an alluring nose blackberries, forest berries, cola, Okanagan herbs, lavender and integrated barrel spice notes. The front jumps to the front on the palate, showing brambly raspberries, a melange of dark berries, herbs, spice and bright, lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Hester Creek Old Vine Merlot 2019 ($26, 91 points) — Also from the “Source Collection,” the Merlot is sourced from Block 2 of the estate vineyard and is aged for 18 months in a combination of American and French oak. It has a spicy nose of black raspberries, plums, dark cherries, anise and lavish oak spices. On the palate it’s an intense mix of dark cherries, wild raspberry tart, anise, black licorice, earth, cocoa and an abundance of fine oak spice with a finessed and bright finish.

Hester Creek Old Vine Late Harvest Pinot Blanc 2019 ($17 for 375 mL, 92 points) — Sourced from Block 4 of the estate vineyard, this Pinot Blanc sweet is a delight with a nose of candied lime, honeycomb, baked peach pie, nectarines and baking spices. It’s honied and layered on the palate with a rich broth of stone fruits, compoted apricots, sweet lemon peel and nutty notes all leading to fairly vibrant finish. Sweet, but not too sweet, and nicely balanced.