Saturday 19 April 2014

BCWAS Fort Berens Tasting

A recent tasting with the BC Wine Appreciation Society provided fascinating insight into the expansion of the local wine industry. Heleen Pannekoek and her husband Rolf de Bruin founded Fort Berens Estate Winery in 2005, in the small Fraser Canyon town of Lillooet, between Whistler and Kamloops. The winery has been producing a robust portfolio of wines from purchased Okanagan grapes and from their own growing estate vineyards, planted in 2009. Heleen, alongside Agent Monica Pereira from Vino Allegro, was more than happy to share her wines with the Society during a mid-month visit to Vancouver.

Heleen Pannekoek introduces Fort Berens

As Heleen introduced herself we learned about her family’s move from the Netherlands, when she and Rolf traded busy European business careers for dramatically different lives as Canadian farmers. They benefited from consultation with some of BC’s top viticultural talent, including Dick Cleave, Harry McWatters, and Tom DiBello, leading to their decision to settle in Lillooet instead of the Okanagan, where land prices can be ten times higher. One of the benefits of opening the first winery in Lillooet has been the willingness of restaurants to try their wines out of curiosity – often leading to great satisfaction and acquisition. The obvious potential of the region, awash in high and low temperatures exceeding the Okanagan, has led Rolf and Heleen to encourage neighbouring alfalfa growers to switch production to grapes. As Heleen put it, Europeans took a thousand years to develop their wine culture, so there is plenty of time to grow an industry in Lillooet.

The first flight of wines we sampled featured the new 2013 whites, bottled just last month, and produced exclusively from estate-grown fruit as the Fort Berens vineyards mature and expand. Pinot Gris impressed immediately with melon and floral aromas reminiscent of Elderflower syrup. The bright, tree fruit palate showed off lemon drop flavours and a rich, creamy mouthfeel with a lip-smacking dry finish. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the extremely successful Pinot Gris from Poplar Grove – particularly great this year – putting Fort Berens in very good company. The 2013 Riesling tasted next was off-dry, but with higher acidity than the Pinot Gris it retains impeccable balance. Heleen informed us the fermentation stopped naturally at 13 g/L of residual sugar, helping along the delicious honeyed lime palate and soft fruit flavours of peach and sweet apple.

Something of everything from Fort Berens

A saignée-style Pinot Noir Rosé next caught our eyes with a vibrant, seemingly glowing colour palate. The 200 cases of Rosé were bled off estate Pinot Noir, of which 700 cases will be forthcoming in the future. A fresh, candied berry nose led into a palate that reminded me of caramel apples, despite the wine being fermented to dryness. Crisp acidity and low sugar will provide for many superb food pairing opportunities this summer. Finally, the 2013 Late Harvest Riesling delivered a sweet treat thanks to grapes matured on the vines until late November: earthy aromas, guava, and honey yielded to tropical lychee, mango, and pineapple flavours on a silky palate.

Fort Berens’ wines have been produced thus far by the talented multi-disciplinary team at Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland, but a full-featured winery is currently under construction in Lillooet, to welcome the 2014 vintage. Heleen remarked that although the help of OCP has been invaluable, travel between Summerland and Lillooet limits the points in time during which she and Rolf get to sample the wines and make important decisions. The new winery and tasting room construction in Lillooet is occurring in concert with the recent hiring of Vineyard Manager Megan de Villiers and Winemaker Danny Hattingh, a dynamic South African couple with international experience. Megan and Danny will help lead the next stage in Fort Berens’ evolution, as the winery plants additional acreage while aiming for 12,000 cases in annual production within a few years.

Up next was a flight offering a truly unique offering, something I don’t imagine BCWAS has ever experienced before: four glasses of the same Chardonnay from differently-sealed bottles. In this case, the difference wasn’t between types of cork, or even cork versus screwcap, but four alternate Stelvin caps, each with different oxygen permeability! The manufacturer of Stelvin screwcaps recently developed several new liners that allow for slow oxygen exchange, similar to that experienced in bottles sealed by natural cork. Fort Berens bottled a mere case each of their 2012 Chardonnay using three experimental caps, in addition to the traditional Stelvin (SaranTM Tin) closure, and we had the chance to examine and differentiate the samples.

Same Chardonnay, different closures

As with the earlier 2013 wines, the 2012 Chardonnay was produced exclusively from Lillooet estate fruit – the winery’s first estate Chardonnay. Approximately one third of the grapes were fermented in new and used French oak, and then aged for 9 months, while the remainder were fermented cool in stainless steel. Two-hundred and seventy-five cases were bottled last June and it is sold out at the winery, so we were even luckier to sample it, let alone the precious experimental library bottles. While the regular bottling involved the cap with lowest – virtually no – permeability, the “Oxygen Transmission Rate” of the others ranged from low multiples to many orders of magnitude greater. At first it was challenging to differentiate between the four Chardonnay samples, but with much back and forth some unique characteristics began to emerge. Citrus, buttered popcorn, and toast aromas were generally present to different extents, and flavours of green apple, lemon, and creamy caramel emerged on the palate. However, the crowd showed no strong consensus when it came to choosing a favourite in the end, illustrating the many individual differences that exist even in experienced consumers!

With our palates sufficiently warmed up and strenuously exercised already, the final flight of four wines delved into the charming reds Fort Berens has developed by blending Lillooet and South Okanagan Black Sage Bench fruit. We began with a three vintage vertical of Cabernet Franc, from the sold out 2010 to the upcoming 2012, with increasing proportions of estate fruit over time. The all-Okanagan 2010 wine was noticeably different in colour, with rusty tones readily apparent. Dusty tannins and aromas of smoke, dark berries, and hints of leather led to an almost bloody palate with cherries and additional toasty notes. The dramatically different 2011 and 2012 wines include 70% Lillooet estate fruit, both showing brighter purple colouring, and similar profiles favouring juicy black cherries and chocolate – think Black Forest Cake! I particularly enjoyed the 2011, but fear it has been cleared off store shelves; fortunately the upcoming 2012 (with bright acidity, a mocha focus, and smooth, ripe tannins) saw increased production, and has a great deal of future potential.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc vertical

As Heleen shared some details of the winery’s successful “Discovery Club” we sipped the final wine, a 2011 Meritage blending Okanagan and Lillooet Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. The Meritage – currently available – exhibits redder colouring than the varietal Cabernet Franc, and a dry, more savoury flavour profile, with underlying blueberry hints from the Merlot and a long, enjoyable finish. Because Club memberships and sales are growing, a second vineyard field will be planted soon – including more Merlot – presumably further boosting the estate contribution to the Meritage. Heleen was particularly proud and honoured to report that over 150 Club members hail from Lillooet alone, quite a feat and a heart-warming show of support from a town of only 2,500 people! Heleen & Rolf’s enthusiasm and support for the Fraser Canyon appellation is strong: they don’t want to be the only winery in Lillooet, and are looking forward to heading up a rising new wine region. Based on the quality wines we enjoyed it certainly seems likely it won’t be long until some friendly competition and company joins them.

Saturday 12 April 2014

La Table Commune: Orofino Vineyards

For a few years Firefly Fine Wines has been holding events they call “La Table Commune” – tastings and workshops at the long (communal) table in their Cambie store. Despite living mere blocks away, and frequenting Firefly on a regular basis, I hadn’t yet made it to any of these events. Fortunately I was able to break that streak this week when the store hosted Orofino Vineyards’ owner and winemaker John Weber. John’s Similkameen Valley winery is one of my favourites, and holds a special place in the hearts of me and my wife, so we were very pleased to attend the tasting and enjoy more of Orofino’s wines.

John and Virginia Weber moved to Cawston in the Similkameen Valley a dozen years ago, taking over an established vineyard originally planted by Hungarian immigrant Sandor Mayer (now Winemaker at Inniskillin Okanagan). The Webers came from Saskatchewan careers in teaching and nursing, respectively, and despite knowing next to nothing about farming they dove into winemaking with gusto. In 2003 they harvested their first grapes, and by 2005 their unique strawbale winery building was completed, just in time for a visit by a couple of lost city-slickers! To celebrate our first wedding anniversary, my wife and I had visited Okanagan wine country for the first time, and became rather disoriented on our way home via Highway 3 through the Similkameen. We pulled up to the first inviting building we saw, and it just happened to be a winery! The Webers got us sorted out, and we departed in the right direction a few bottles heavier (having discovered their Late Harvest Muscat), happily returning many times thereafter. We are proud to call Orofino our “most-visited” winery!

La Table Commune - Orofino Vineyards

Over the past decade I’ve followed developments at Orofino closely, and stocked up on the Webers’ wines whenever possible. Firefly has carried many of them from the very start, so it was only natural that John should come visit for the most recent Table Commune series. In front of a dozen strangers squeezed together and getting to know one another, John started by sharing some stunning photos of Cawston vineyards, both his own and the approximately 20 acres from which he contracts, most within walking distance. Ensuring his wines express the local terroir is John’s passion, so much so that he is gradually decreasing his reliance on the only non-Similkameen vineyard from which he contracts. It must be a painful decision, as the Oak Knoll vineyard in Kaleden has yielded a glorious and popular Merlot for many years. John’s passion must be infectious however, as neighbouring orchardists have gladly converted from tree fruit to vineyards specifically to provide for Orofino!

Refreshing Moscato Frizzante

To share with Orofino fans Firefly poured three whites and three reds to cover the range of wines John produces (which number more than a dozen now). We started with the refreshing Moscato Frizzante (2012), a favourite in our household. Orofino started producing this lightly carbonated, off-dry basket of fruit salad in 2011 (the Late Harvest Muscat has been retired), serving it up in a beautiful crown-capped bottle sourced from Italy. Aromas of orange blossom and apricot lead into a sweet peachy palate, kept in balance by the racy acidity of a portion of Riesling included in the blend. Next was John’s ode to BC in the form of Pinot Gris, a 2012 blend of three vineyards that provides for a unique Similkameen take on our most-planted white grape. The bright acid and mineral-driven palate provide for a food-friendly wine much removed from the more floral, fruit-forward examples found elsewhere. To conclude the whites we got to enjoy a Riesling comparison by examining the 2012 vintages from the Scout Vineyard and the Hendsbee Vineyard (next door to Orofino). The dry, zingy, lime-flavoured Hendsbee wine (with only 7 g/L of residual sugar) provided a stark contrast to the off-dry Scout version (18 g/L), showing more orchard fruit on the palate. (The winery’s third Riesling, “Home Vineyard Old Vines” is similarly off-dry, but even richer due to barrel aging and lees stirring.)

Powerful Petit Verdot

Three fully-decanted big red wines comprised the second half of the tasting, and provided John with the opportunity to show off the advantages of the hot Similkameen climate, which yield dividends even in a supposedly “off” year. The 2011 Passion Pit Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon comes from one of the coolest vintages in the past decade, but amazingly showed not a hint of green notes. I conferred with my wife, the veritable canary in the coal mine of green pepper – her nemesis – and found satisfied agreement; we relished the vanilla and cassis profile and smooth, ripe tannins. Only 200 cases of this gem were produced after 20 months in barrel, and it is (still) available for only $29 at the winery (and a reasonable $36 at Firefly). Quite a bit more rare is the 2010 Hendsbee Vineyard Petit Verdot, of which only three barrels (75 cases) were produced (and only because they were leftover from Orofino’s Bordeaux-blend). On the nose this powerful wine exudes a Port-like intensity, with floral hints; while the rich, juicy palate flaunted bright acid and a chewy, full body that held up well to blue cheese from Benton Brothers. This is John’s second varietal Petit Verdot, and like the 2007 that preceded it is still a baby in his opinion, with a long and fruitful life ahead of it. We got the chance to experience where the Petit Verdot usually ends up when we sampled the 2011 “Beleza”, a blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Petit Verdot. The wine’s elegant nose presented blackberry jam and vanilla notes, with a slightly more austere palate than that of the fruity Passion Pit juice (the Cabernet Sauvignon in Beleza came from the Hendsbee Vineyard). The Beleza is another great candidate for rewarding cellar-time – I have yet to open my 2007, the wine’s first release.

Orofino produces additional wines that include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from the well-respected Blind Creek vineyard, plus delicious (Home Vineyard) Pinot Noir and (Scout Vineyard) Syrah, with additional vineyard-specific Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot coming soon. With overall winery production hovering around 5,000 cases each release is relatively small, and quite frankly the best way to ensure your own enjoyment is by joining the winery’s new “Collector’s Club” – I’m proud to have been one of the first enthusiastic members! A commitment to receive two cases per year ensures every rarity ends up in your hands, including bottles either made solely for the Club or from the winery’s library (such as the 2007 ‘Canadian Oak’ Chardonnay that blew me away last fall). All of these details and other benefits were shared by John after sufficient audience prompting. The Club has actually been even more successful than expected, helping to ensure Orofino’s continued success, plus many more opportunities for us to maintain that “most-visited” status!

Monday 7 April 2014

Naramata Bench Spring Release Events

The week spanning the end of April and beginning of May sees the many fine wineries of the Naramata Bench returning to the coast for their annual spring release events in Victoria and Vancouver. Both of these events, “Uncork Your Palate” in Victoria, and “Wine for Waves” in Vancouver represent superb value and opportunity. For a price similar to that of an evening at the Vancouver International Wine Festival ($95) you get to sample from nearly two dozen local wineries (and more wines than you could possibly try in one night), plus another couple of dozen celebrated restaurants. Even better, both events serve to support cherished local initiatives in the arts and environment, via direct ticket sales as well as from the exciting and bountiful silent auctions.

Uncork Your Palate

In Victoria on Wednesday, April 30, visit the recently renewed Crystal Garden in the heart of downtown to join 19 Naramata Bench wineries and their winemakers while 22 local restaurants and eateries serve up complementary cuisine. The focus of this event is a musical one, with proceeds benefiting the music education and outreach of the Victoria Conservatory of Music – celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year. The live musical performances during the evening will no doubt serve to inspire and entertain while you learn about what the wineries have been up to over the winter – you can expect plenty of fresh new 2013 releases!

Wine For Waves

Wine joins with ocean preservation in Vancouver just two days later, when the Four Seasons Hotel hosts “Wine for Waves” in concert with the Vancouver Aquarium on May 2. Twenty-three Naramata Bench wineries will be matching their best wines with sustainable seafood at the home of celebrated restaurant YEW, joined by a dozen more restaurants and partners such as the BC Shellfish Growers Association and Upper Bench Creamery. Proceeds will help to expand the Aquarium’s very successful Ocean Wise program that designates responsibly harvested seafood, in partnership with over 500 restaurants and retailers across Canada.

These well organized events are a valuable opportunity to “visit” wine country in your own backyard, while providing the chance to better plan your next trip to the region as well! Expectations are that both events will be fully attended, so be sure to obtain tickets well in advance – like right now!

Tuesday 1 April 2014

The Inaugural BC Wine Brunch

Regular readers will know that I’ve spent the last few years nurturing a monthly BC wine dinner club in partnership with my wife and several close friends. Although some members have come and gone over time as lives have grown and changed, we’ve maintained the focus on home-grown wine and homemade food. To better accommodate the myriad work schedules of the eight people now involved we decided last month to try a weekend brunch instead of the traditional dinner. It would provide for new food pairing opportunities and take advantage of the sunny days we’re starting to enjoy as spring takes hold in Vancouver. (I think most of us were thinking it might provide time to try out more wines too!)

Arriving at our hosts’ beautiful home, awash in the aforementioned spring sunshine, we greeted each other gleefully after a couple of months since our last great get-together. I wasted no time in sharing a bottle of brand new 2013 Fort Berens Riesling, having just welcomed it on to the shelves of Swirl Wine Store last week. Estate grapes from Lillooet have yielded another superb vintage bursting with zingy fruit salad and a fresh, honeyed palate – altogether reminiscent of an Ehrenfelser in fact. Off-dry, with 13 g/L of sugar, the wine is nonetheless well balanced by mouth-watering acidity. My wife and I liked last year’s version so much we ordered a case for summer enjoyment, and the superb value price of only $18 will ensure many more bottles make it through the door this year.

Homemade Fruit & Yogurt Parfait

Our previous club configuration provided for three courses (appetizer, entree, dessert) by three couples, but with four couples now involved we made the simple decision to allow for a second pre-entree course. The first of these highly anticipated dishes was particularly ideal for the circumstances: homemade vanilla coconut granola had been lovingly layered with creamy, yogurt and similarly homemade raspberry-blackberry sauce. To pair with this fresh and light starter the chefs had pulled a unique bottle of Elephant Island Cherry wine from the cellar. The Reserve 2008 vintage from Naramata turned out to be an excellent companion, particularly to the toasty granola, having taken on some earthy, savoury hints over time. Tart cherry flavours and a long finish ensured the wine held its own against the unsweetened yogurt and berries, and provided for some great exposure to the excellent fruit wines of BC!

Buttery Perogies and Pinot Noir Partners

As everyone finished their cherry wine and the remaining Riesling my wife and I got to work on our contribution, frying up a few dozen perogies we had painstakingly assembled from scratch the night before. There is no doubt that handmade perogies are time-consuming – given the many steps involved – but they seemed like the perfect starter course, and I had some stellar wines with which to pair them. Along with the buttery Carrot & Brie and Potato & Smoked Cheddar dumplings we enjoyed another new release in the form of 50th Parallel’s 2012 Pinot Noir. This young winery north of Kelowna was joined last year by former Quails’ Gate winemaker Grant Stanley, who has been helping founders Curtis & Sheri-Lee Krouzel develop 50th Parallel for the past several years.

I couldn’t resist developing a theme by unearthing a bottle of Quails’ Gate 2008 Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir from my cellar for a little Stanley comparison. Although technically the 2012 vintage at 50th Parallel was initiated by inaugural winemaker Adrian Baker, it was bottled by Grant and only just released this month. We found the younger wine to be fresh and bright, with a nose of delicate smoke and cranberries, followed by a smooth and light berry-focused palate. It proved to be best with the Potato & Smoked Cheddar perogies, while the more subtle Carrot & Brie versions were on good terms with the older Quails’ Gate. The Stewart Reserve Pinot has aged well, retaining a nose of spice and cherries and a rich but soft palate with hints of red currant and clove.

Brunch Plate with Waffles, Hash, and Chickpea Tofu

Although a few more perogies were sorely tempting, we knew we had only just reached the halfway mark, and so stood back as our hosts leapt into action assembling a clearly complex entree course. Fortunately there was plenty of wine to sip on as we observed the chefs, including a bottle of Orofino 2012 Home Vineyard Old Vines Riesling, courtesy of our first-course contributors. The wine is the richest of Orofino’s three vineyard-specific Rieslings, coming from nearly 25-year-old vines on a small parcel under an acre in size. Winemaker John Weber uses the wine as a bit of an experimental undertaking, opening up the entire bag of tricks, including barrel fermentation (including Acacia wood), wild yeast, and lees stirring to enhance the texture. Twenty grams of residual sugar remain, and contribute to the round, full body and key lime pie flavours. We smelled and tasted a basket of citrus fruit – lemon, lime, grapefruit – and green apples to boot; it provided for a superb palate cleanser and discussion topic.

After our hosts had finished in the kitchen we were treated to a spectacular vegetarian breakfast plate of Sweet Potato Hash with Kale & Brussels Sprouts, Grilled Chickpea “Tofu” Patty, and Vegan Waffles – all homemade from scratch! It was all irresistibly scrumptious, garnished with plenty of real Maple Syrup, and the savoury Chickpea “Tofu” – made entirely from chickpea flour – garnered well-deserved praise. Versatile pairings came in the form of Arrowleaf 2012 Pinot Gris and Sumac Ridge 2011 Cabernet Merlot, both yielding some pleasant surprises. The Pinot Gris, from Lake Country vineyards north of Kelowna, was drier than expected, providing for zesty lemon and green apple flavours and food friendly acidity. The earthier Cabernet Merlot turned out to be ideal with the whole wheat waffles – definitely not something one would expect to find on the winery’s tasting notes! From the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot we were particularly struck by the spicy cedar character contributed by the Cabernet Franc, with some hints of unobjectionable green pepper to finish.

Chocolate Gingerbread Cake with Ice Cream & Caramel Sauce

Our dessert course turned out to include a bevy of beverages, from homemade 16-year-old Whiskey (source withheld, for obvious reasons), to some crisply floral and nutty homemade beer courtesy of our hosts. A couple of local dessert wines were included as well, all to pair with luxurious Chocolate Gingerbread Cake, with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. As we paid tribute to the cake and continued socializing well into the afternoon we enjoyed Road 13’s 2011 Late Harvest Chenin Blanc, a very rare sighting considering only 223 cases were produced. Soft floral aromas and flavours of honeyed linen and apple basket garnered many contented smiles before the little bottle was empty. For additional enjoyment we also delved into Tinhorn Creek’s 2011 Kerner Icewine, superbly representing that traditional profile of honey, apricot, guava, and mouth-watering acidity. With so many delicious memories fresh in our palates it didn’t take long before we had scheduled the next brunch – this could become an exciting new tradition!