Wine Culture Magazine

Surrounded by sun-baked hills, the award-winning Fort Berens Estate Winery was the first in Lillooet. Brad Kasselman photo

As a second winery opens, a wine region evolves in the former Gold Rush town

Until recently, the Fraser Canyon town of Lillooet was best known for its rich Aboriginal and gold rush heritage and its roasting heat, persistently rivalling Osoyoos for the hottest spot in Canada. Now, thanks to those high temperatures, it has a tasty new heading as one of B.C.’s most promising wine regions.

In 2018, a 100-kilometre stretch of land in Lillooet was recognized as a Geographical Indication (GI), making this an official wine region in British Columbia. What is particularly fascinating is that at the time of designation, it had only one licensed winery, the pioneering Fort Berens Estate Winery. The second, Cliff and Gorge Vineyards, just released its first vintage in July 2019.

And then there were two.

Most winery dreamers start out looking in the Okanagan Valley, but with skyrocketing land prices, it is no wonder people are venturing to more affordable regions like Kamloops, the Kootenays and Lillooet.

What makes Lillooet so ideal for growing grapes is its hot, dry, sunny summers—with more growing degree days even than Osoyoos—paired with cooler evenings, thanks to the protection from the Coast Mountains. The heat ripens the grapes, while the cool nights preserve the acidity, a signature trait in B.C. wines.

It was those conditions that prompted wine-growing pioneer Robert Roshard to plant the first experimental vineyard here back in the 1960s; indeed, some of his Marechal Foch vines are still thriving. But it took another four decades for wine-making to really catch on.

In 2009, Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, recent immigrants from the Netherlands, decided to pursue their dream of owning a winery in what then seemed like no man’s land and opened Fort Berens Estate Winery.

Although the endeavor was backed by all the right people (there are eight owners, with a wine-focused board of directors), it took heroic amounts of research and hard work to establish the vineyards and the wines. But to de Bruin, starting in Lillooet “was the best thing that happened to us.” He also gives credit to the 2010 Olympic Games for piquing interest in the region, with Whistler claiming Fort Berens as its “local” winery. Notable winemaker James Cambridge is owed his dues as well, having set the benchmarks for some of their first runs of wine (we’re looking at you, 2012 Riesling). He recently returned after a few years away, so we can anticipate more great wines to emerge.

In 2019, Fort Berens celebrated its 10-year anniversary, a decade brimming with awards for some of B.C.’s most impressive wines.

Cowboy past and winemaking future come together at Cliff and Gorge Vineyards. Supplied photo

But even before de Bruin arrived, former Municipality of Whistler councillor Eckhard Zeidler started planting grapes here in 2008. This year, the sole proprietor and winemaker of Cliff and Gorge Vineyards released his first vintage, including a Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. He is adamant in showcasing purity of fruit. His wines undergo no adulteration, including no use of oak, so you can taste the honest expression of the vineyard. For a first run, he is showing a true knack for making balanced, quality wines.

There are a handful of other non-commercial vineyards in the area, and more in the works, although no new wineries are slated to open right now. Despite its exciting potential, Lillooet has its viticultural challenges, including the threat of early frost and wildfires. But the real challenge is less about weather and more about red tape. The Agricultural Land Commission delineates the parcels of land available and, according to Zeidler and de Bruin, they are all too large for independent farmers to buy, whether for grapes or other crops.

Where a wine region develops its character is through the smaller wineries.

To de Bruin, it stunts innovation. “When small parcels open, small new farmers do interesting things,” he says. Zeidler, no stranger to politics himself, acknowledges the ALC has its hands tied, as all provincial regions are governed by the same rules, grouping Lillooet alongside cities like Richmond or Prince George, regardless of their unique and independent needs. Those large parcels might not intimidate larger companies, but, Zeidler says, “Where a wine region develops its character is through the smaller [wineries]. Purchasing a 500-acre ranch to plant 20 acres of grapevines just doesn’t make economic or agricultural sense.”

Time will tell how Lillooet grows as a wine region, but with hardworking innovators such as de Bruin and Zeidler at the reins, it’s hard not to believe something great is coming. Who knows? Perhaps the next gold rush will be discovered in a bottle of Lillooet VQA wine.

A taste of Lillooet

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2016
(Lillooet, $28) Full body, brambly dark fruit, spicy.

Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2017
(Lillooet, $24) Citrus, spicy, candied oranges, mineral backbone.

Fort Berens Sparkling Rosé X 2018
(Lillooet, $23) Candied red fruit, round bubbles.

Cliff and Gorge Pinot Auxerrois 2018
(Lillooet, $18) Soft white stone fruit, round, clean.

Cliff and Gorge Cabernet Franc 2018
(Lillooet, $18) Clean, crunchy red fruit, bright acidity.

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