When will I learn? Never, ever, ever judge a wine immediately after opening it! These wines came across my desk only a few days ago and, as I was familiar with them, I opened them immediately and started to make notes. Wrong! Almost all wines (there must be an exception) benefit from some measure of decanting and these wines; these young wines that had just been packed up and shipped hundreds of miles certainly deserved the respect of at least minimal decanting. I didn’t write any notes that first day… just put the cork back in, non-plussed, and went on to other work. In a day or two they all started opening and they are beautiful!
Rolf (right) with guests
But let me first take a moment to share some thoughts on the founders of this new venture: Rolf de Bruin and his charming wife Heleen Pannekoek. What kind of bravery does it take for a young family to move from Holland to Canada – to make wine? Does this then infer a level of boldness bordering on foolishness when the same family decides to push the known boundaries of wine production for the most northerly growing region in the world?!
Yes, maybe foolish – even crazy… crazy like a fox
Some readers will be familiar with the price of land in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, which has reached ludicrously high levels for a region that in the 1980’s only had 30 wineries in it and none of those what one might consider “competitive on a global level”. But in a flash and a generation that has blossomed to over 240 wineries and several of those garnering the highest accolades for: sparkling wines, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, rosé and bold Bordeaux-styled blends. Oh yes, and a little gem known as Icewine.
So then this crafty, foxy family moving from Holland sees right past the incredibly competitive Okanagan Valley and hears of a little town to the north-east of the “great Valley” named Lillooet. It seems that a forward-thinking mayor had the notion in the early 2000’s to have the soil and climate of the Lillooet region (Fraser Canyon) tested for suitability for viticulture… she was another smart-cookie and the researchers told her as much: the Fraser Canyon could produce beautiful grapes. But who was going to take a chance on the northern-most region of the northern-most region?
Savvy business people – that’s who! There are only a few ways to make money: be the first, be the cheapest or be the best. Being cheapest is an impossibility in a region like this (and who wants to fight that battle anyways?). Being the best is a noble endeavor but, with tens of thousands of wineries with pedigrees of winemaking – perhaps not the easiest business plan. So why not be the first?
And so Rolf; a management consultant with almost two decades of track record bringing others success and Heleen; an equally accomplished banker having worked with medium and small businesses – helping them find the path to their financial goals. These two can see the diamond-in-the-rough. A fitting analogy as who comes into the picture as investors? A venture-capitalist, an investment banker (former mining executive), the Co-Head of BMO Capital Markets’ Metals and Mining practice, the President and CEO of Victoria Gold Corp and the head of National Bank’s Metals and Mining practice (whose family is from Lillooet).
As I said if this is a diamond-in-the-rough then these are the people who are going to see that, and make it work. And work it has: these wines have earned awards at some of the most competitive competitions in the world: the International Wine and Spirit Competition (London, UK), the Los Angeles International and the National Wine Awards of Canada just to name a few.
Yet, to me, the greatest joy in tasting these wines isn’t in the pride of choosing something that won awards. I’m not excited when I see them at a wine tasting because somebody (even me) gave them a high recommendation or 90+ points. What gives me a thrill is that these wines, these absolutely juvenile wines (please don’t consider that derogatory) are already starting to express a sense of place that exists nowhere else on earth.
These are the first, and only, winemakers on this land as of 2014. And what they are creating is worthy of note: consummately professional, eloquent, even poetic in their own way… I invite you to try for yourselves and, please, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
2013 Estate Chardonnay
602 cases, $19.99 CAD
90 points, Very Good/Excellent Value
… unique! I tried my best to compare this to other regions… tried to put this wine into the same box as someone/somewhere else, and fell short. This Chardonnay simply doesn’t taste like Chardie (as they say in Australia) from anywhere else: the reserved aromas of young pineapple/Amalfi-coast lemons could make me think of a cool California region (Central Coast AVA maybe) or Chile, but the palate is led by a fierce chalky minerality… Chablis right? Or at least Petit Chablis for this price. But then there are more flavors that come in; hints of honeydew and ripe canteloupe, grilled pineapple with it’s sugary-goodness burning to the barbeque and apricots soaking in juice. Impressive levels of balance, structure and balance for such a young winery/vines. FOOD PAIRING: Oysters. Oysters and more oysters. Don’t like oysters? Anything from the sea is going to love the strength of this salty-mineral palate. Coquilles-St-Jacques a natural, this recipe comes from a mentor and guru to me (though he’s unaware of the fact): Anthony Bourdain.
2012 Estate Pinot Noir
475 cases, $25.99 CAD
90 points, Very Good/Excellent Value
*MERITS ONE HOUR DECANT OR RUN THROUGH AERATOR*
… Rich layers of aromas blend ripe raspberry tea with wet sage leaves, tight minerals, dark cocoa and old leather. The palate is precise: utterly focused on bright/lean/full cranberry-raspberry-red currant acid and a medium/fine-yet-grippy tannin structure. The flavors are much the same as the nose, though slightly simpler; most of the focus being on the brightness of fresh young red berries and that keen mineral backbone holding it together. Very good structure, balance and the concentration is excellent. If I had to compare this, I would say it’s much like the great examples of Gamay Noir from places like Morgon or Fleurie in northern Beaujolais when they gather some age and become so like Pinot Noir that many sommeliers can’t tell them apart. FOOD PAIRING: the pizza-purists in the audience will shudder when I say duck pizza with sauteed watercress, garlic jam and Sbrinz cheese. The watercress will emphasize the herbal tones, the garlic brings out earthiness, the duck is just beautiful – seriously though a bit of fat in the food will make this wine happy. And Sbrinz?? I prefer this over most of the Parmegiano family and when you try it you’ll understand why
2012 Estate Cabernet Franc
482 cases, $26.99 CAD
90+ points, Very Good Value
*MERITS 1/2 HOUR DECANT OR RUN THROUGH AERATOR*
… I was charmed by the “friendliness” of the perky red berry aromas; melding with that Fort Beren’s seasalt-mineral-undertone much like one of my favorite treats: Lindt dark chocolate with seasalt. The palate carries brisk red currant acid and the same fine yet chewy tannin structure. Very good balance, structure and concentration of flavors which carry those same currant/young raspberry/raspberry tea flavors with a deliciously savoury backdrop. FOOD PAIRING: call me crazy but as soon as I tasted this I thought: Jerk Turkey!! If you’re not familiar with “Jerk” then please follow the link and prepare your taste-buds for a whirlwind adventure in spice and flavor! A very good representative for Lillooet winemaking AND Cabernet Franc, this young wine will not develop appreciably and is best enjoyed 2014-2017
844 cases, $28.99 CAD
72% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc
89+ points, Very Good Value
…this Bordeaux styled blend finds a unique home in Lillooet; Merlot certainly drives the bulk of the aromas: plush red raspberry jam still warm on the stove with a touch of that Cab-Franc savoury sage/wild thyme. It could almost be St-Emilion except for the fact that very very few wineries there grow any Cab-Sauv, much less blending 18%! And that’s where the subtly creeps in; aromas more (as stated above) of seasalt dark chocolate rather than what many of us are used to from the varietal as a more graphite/pencil-lead smell. The palate is cool climate class: crisp, almost-but-not-quite brittle medium+red currant acid drives a medium+chalky/chewy tannin structure. Concentration is quite good and carries much of the nose with it, balance and structure also being good. FOOD PAIRING: call it Beef Stew or Pot-au-Feu, it’s still the same: the best quality beef you can afford, braised for long hours in wine and stock with ample amounts of sweet onion and roast garlic… some garden fresh thyme and rosemary thrown in. Steam some brilliantly fresh winter veg: Savoy cabbage, parsnip, turnip, squash, celeriac and serve with crusty bread or scones fresh from the oven with too much butter. #Heaven #ComfortFood
Fort Berens Horse train
Many thanks to Heleen and Rolf for the generous sample bottles: your bravery took root, literally, and has shown us a completely new face to varietals we’ve tasted a thousand times before. As always you can find more recipes, free wine reviews and my notes on premium distillates and cigars on: