Long time readers may recall that I have long been a fan of Canadian wine, especially those made right next door in neighbouring British Columbia.
While the bulk of wine production in BC is concentrated in the Okanagan Valley between Kamloops and Osoyoos, there are a few other areas of note that are up-and-coming.
Vancouver Island is home to more than 3 dozen wineries, most of which grow Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes, along with the less common Ortega and Maréchal Foch varietals.
With Vancouver Island being noticeably cooler than the desert-like Okanagan Valley, it should come as no surprise that the big and bold red grape varietals being notably absent, as those grapes need to spend their days baking in the hot sun, which is simply too short in supply on the misty and cool Vancouver Island.
Even the smaller Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland have gotten in on the action, with Salt Spring Island boasting three wineries, a craft brewery with an onsite hop farm, a craft distillery making Gin from locally grown grains, a cidery producing from local apples, and a cheesemonger with the most local ingredients ever, in the form of four-legged critters mooing and bleating adjacent to the production facility.
Growing wine grapes is a fragile and delicate process, with nearly all worldwide production happening between the 30th and 50th parallels. Vancouver Island sits on the 49th parallel, so is pretty close to the northern extreme, which is why it is better known for white grapes and a few hardy and cold-tolerant red grapes. Lest you think that 49°N is too far north, consider that the Champagne region of France and the Rheingau region of Germany both fall on the 49th parallel, and are considered world-class cool climate wine regions.
The newest up-and-coming wine region in BC is Lillooet, located 200km west of Kamloops. While there has been small-scale grape production for personal use for decades, the first commercial winery in Lillooet was the Fort Berens Winery, which opened its doors in 2010, and has been gathering accolades with each passing harvest.
I discovered the Fort Berens Winery a year or two ago, when the announcement of Lillooet as an officially recognized wine region was making headlines.
Fort Berens grows a wide variety of different grapes, with the usual suspects of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling making up the whites, all clocking in around $20 each.
The Chardonnay is lightly oaked, adding subtle toasty vanilla overtones to the crisp pineapple and lime flavours that make Chardonnay so popular on those now-fading days of summer patio drinking.
As luck would have it, Fort Berens also produces a more heavily oaked Chardonnay called White Gold, which is the Chardonnay style for winter boozing. Toffee and toasted oak flavours are heavy on the nose, with flavours of caramel and vanilla complementing the peach and tropical fruit flavours on the tongue. This is a white wine to lure back those “Anything But” Chardonnay drinkers who moved on to different grapes, and pairs especially well with chicken or lamb dishes.
The Riesling is available in both dry and off-dry, which should please both novice boozers and wine snobs alike. The Dry Riesling is bursting with zesty citrus flavours and a complex finish, while the off-dry version has a bit more of a backbone due to the 6g/l of residual sugars, which helps it pair with a wider variety of foods.
The red grapes include all the typical Bordeaux varietals, with the Cabernet Franc being my favourite. Pouring a deep ruby into my glass, the Cab Franc has plenty of raspberry and black currant on the tongue, and the silky-smooth tannins that Cab Franc is famous for, which makes it a perfect pairing with tomato sauces and pastas.
For the carnivores in the audience, the Fort Berens Meritage Reserve is a blend of different Bordeaux grapes, bursting with blackberry and dark chocolate, with a peppery finish that makes it the perfect wine to accompany a sizzling steak. Meritage wines generally command a higher price point, but at only $25, this one is a steal.
Fort Berens wines are tough to find here in Alberta, so I made sure to bring back a case on my last visit to BC. Keep an eye out at your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant for this and other wines from BC, and do your part to support our domestic wine industry!