Euphemistically, the co-founder of Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet refers to this summer as “unique.”

“Well, last summer there was the pandemic and we struggled through,” said Rolf de Bruin.

“And this summer it was wildfires and smoke and heatwave and an evacuation alert and the pandemic. It all meant for a much quieter summer here with people concerned about travelling.”

Ironically, while there were certainly fires nearby, flames never threatened the winery and the evacuation alert was brief.

There were only four or five smoky days, much less than the Okanagan, thanks to the winery’s location in the Fraser Canyon, which enjoys prevailing coastal winds that constantly cleanse the air.

De Bruin chooses to be optimistic and feels the summer allowed Fort Berens to impress the visitors that did drop by with its location and wines.

Five of the most popular wines in the tasting room this summer were fresh and bright 2020 whites and a rose. 

“I’m a big Riesling fan and like all expressions of it, and so do most of our visitors,” said de Bruin.

Therefore, the classic 2020 Riesling ($20), with a hint of sweetness, is a hit, as is the 2020 Dry Riesling ($22).

Fort Berens’ first attempt at Gruner Veltliner ($22) resulted in a rich-and-ripe release of the 2020 vintage in spring 2021.

“Gruner is an amazing varietal, super-interesting and different from Riesling and more complicated than Pinot Gris,” said de Bruin.

Not to say the 2020 Pinot Gris ($20) isn’t a little complex with its kiwi-grapefruit-and-mineral profile.

The 2020 Rose ($20) is Fort Berens’ first pink made of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from its own Red Rock Vineyard in Lillooet.

Despite the intense heat in late June and early July, vines have bounced back and the grapes that will make the 2021 vintages look good.

In fact, early harvest has already started with the first of the Chardonnay being picked and also Pinot Noir and Merlot coming off the vines for the next vintage of Rose.

Fort Berens’ new winemaker is Alessandro Nel, an Italian from South Africa, who also has the job of vineyard director.

It’s worth the trip to Fort Berens to experience Lillooet’s first winery at 1881 Highway 99 North.

The winery is open daily 10 am to 6 pm for tastings, its restaurant is open Thursdays through Mondays for lunch, noon to 4 pm, and dinners, 5:30-8:30 pm, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Reservations are recommended at FortBerens.ca.

Red winemaker excels at whites

With this batch of new releases, Gavin Miller proves he’s equally adept at making red and white wines.

Initially, Miller, co-owner and winemaker at Upper Bench Winery & Creamery on the Naramata Bench, considered himself a red winemaker, especially of Merlot, which he considers the ideal varietal for the Bench.

But Upper Bench also produces excellent 2019 Chardonnay ($27), 2020 Pinot Blanc ($22) and 2020 Riesling ($24).

In fact, the 2020 Riesling is the just-as-good follow up to the 2019 Riesling, which won wine of the year at the BC Lieutenant Governor’s Wine Awards, which were part of the 2020 Fall Okanagan Wine Festival.

Three of the four winery’s new red releases feature Miller’s beloved black-cherry-and-dark-chocolate profile Merlot — the 2017 Estate Merlot ($40), 2018 Merlot ($30) and 2018 Yard Wine ($33), a blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

The winery also released the 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), Upper Bench’s biggest and boldest red with aromas and flavours of blackberry and oaky spice.

As the winery and creamery name suggests, Upper Bench is B.C.’s only combined wine and cheese operation with Miller’s wife, Shana, crafting artisan cheeses such as double brie and baby blue.

Steve MacNaull is an Okanagan wine lover and Canadian Wine Scholar. Email: steve.macnaull@ok.bc.ca.