Vintage Report 2021
2021 was a challenging year globally, across Canada, within BC, and here in Lillooet. Locally, we had many challenges to deal with, from COVID-19, the heat dome, wildfires, mudslides, floods, and road closures throughout the province. In addition, there were supply chain issues and labour shortages. These challenging times continued to push us to pivot and innovate in all areas of our winery and vineyard.
Introducing our New Winemaker
Our hardworking vineyard and winemaking team also had to contend with the impact of many of these challenges. We are very grateful that we had strong leadership to manage through these challenges. Alessandro (Alex) Nel joined the Fort Berens team as Winemaker & Viticulturist in January 2021 to lead our vineyard and winemaking team. He worked on our 2021 vintage from the start of pruning to the last press load of grapes on November 10th.
An accomplished and award-winning winemaker, Alex completed his degree in Viticulture and Oenology at Elsenburg University. He spent 10 years as winemaker at Cederberg Winery in the Western Cape of South Africa. While at Cederberg Winery, Alex produced one of the Top 50 wines in the Decanter World Wine Awards 2021.
Alex also worked at wineries in California, France, and New Zealand, giving him a depth of experience working in a range of vineyards and wineries in different regions and preparing him for his time at Fort Berens and our new wine region in Lillooet.
2021 Harvest Highlights
In the vineyard, Mother Nature presented us with many challenges in 2021. The year started out well. We had a good winter without a lot of heavy frost, so we were fortunate to start the season with healthy vines. We had some mild frost in the spring, but thankfully it didn’t damage the buds. We had a fairly dry spring, and everything went smoothly during bud break and flowering.
In June, the heat wave hit. We had the highest temperatures ever recorded in June, followed by wildfires in the area. The heat dome caused some sun damage on our young vines in our newer Red Rock Vineyard. Some of the grapes were burned by the sun. The vines partially shut down during the heat wave to protect themselves, however when the heat wave ended, they came back, and new growth and green shoots pushed out. We did have a lower yield than we were hoping for from this vineyard because of the sun damage, but thankfully the majority of the grapes and the vines bounced back, and we don’t anticipate long term damage from the heat wave.
Our Dry Creek Vineyard fared well during the heat wave, in part because the vines are more established with a fuller canopy and root system that protected the grapes from the intense heat and sun.
We were fortunate that despite the McKay Creek and Lytton fires in the area, we had no smoke around the vineyards and no smoke taint in our wines. Thankfully during this time, it was also quite windy which helped blow the smoke away from the vineyard.
We were concerned about the wildfires hitting the vineyards of our grape growers in the Lytton area. Fortunately, and incredibly, the vineyard from one of our growers in Lytton, Winches Spur Vineyard, was spared from the fires. We made a small lot Pinot Gris exclusively from grapes from this vineyard which will be released in spring 2022. We are pleased to announce that proceeds from this wine will be used to help with the Lytton recovery and rebuilding efforts.
After the heat wave and the fires, the weather cooled down nicely. We had a lot of rain throughout the growing season with significant rainfall almost every week throughout harvest. After veraison, we had warm days and cooler nights for the last five weeks before harvest. This led to beautiful natural acidity and aromatics in the whites. We were able to have nice long hanging time on the reds, which also helped produce rich and bold reds.
Harvest began on August 30th as we started picking Chardonnay for a new Blanc de Blanc Sparkling wine. This new wine will be partially barrel fermented, and it will age for 36 months in bottle, so you will have to wait some time to enjoy this new sparkling wine.
Our Vineyard Manager, Christopher Marquardt, did an incredible job managing our vineyard team through harvest, despite a number of obstacles. The rain during harvest proved challenging at times requiring adjustments to the picking schedule. In addition, with the large yield of grapes and labour shortage, we had to seek help from Okanagan-based pickers to complete harvest. Harvest ended with Cabernet Franc on October 23rd.
We had an above average harvest in our existing vineyard with higher yields, compared with last year. With our young Red Rock Vineyard coming into production, 2021 represented the biggest harvest ever from our estate despite losing some of the young grapes to sun damage. The heat damage in our young vines caused smaller berries which led to more concentrated wines made from these grapes.
It has long been our goal to have more estate and Lillooet VQA fruit and to really showcase our Lillooet terroir in our wines. The 2021 vintage will move us closer to this goal, as we ended up with 2.8 tonnes of beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Rock Vineyard in addition to good third and fourth leaf crops of other grapes in this young vineyard. This is the first year that we have ever had estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and Alex says that these are among the top tanks in the winery at the moment.
What to Expect from our 2021 Vintage
In 2021, Alex made several changes to our winemaking protocols to further raise the quality of the wines. Our white wines are made extremely reductive, combined with aromatic yeasts and cold fermentations to produce fresh, lively white wines with great ageing potential. This is the case for our Chardonnay, Rieslings, Pinot Gris, and Grüner Veltliner, which will be released in 2022.
For our classic 2021 vintage whites, grapes were crushed and destemmed into tank. After six hours of skin contact, they went to press where we separated the free run juice from the press fractions. Alex and our winemaking team engaged light pressing up to 8 PSI and then settled at cold temperature.
Our reserve 2021 vintage whites were barrel fermented and underwent natural fermentation. This is the first time the Riesling Reserve has been barrel fermented at Fort Berens, so we are excited for this release in 2023.
In terms of our red wines, under direction from Alex, our picking team was quite selective with the picking of the grapes in the vineyard. Rather than picking all the grapes from a block on one day, our team picked the grapes within each block as they were ready. After picking, the red wine grapes underwent a one-night cold soak, and then started the fermentation process. We used a combination of punchdowns and pump overs every 4 hours. The wines were tasted every day to decide when to press. After ferment, some of the reds were left up to 20 days on the skins. This extended maceration period post fermentation produced more intense colours, and extracted fine tannins to provide structure. Because we didn’t press hard, the wines are more juicy and fruit-driven.
We also enhanced our barrel ageing program. In 2021, we purchased about 60 additional barrels to help expand our barrel ageing program. All our reds, both classic and reserve, will now age for a minimum of 15 months in barrel going forward, and all will go through malolactic fermentation in barrels. In addition, we are moving away from American oak and moving to all French oak. Alex selected barrels from very specific coopers to give us the results we want. Going forward, anticipate red wines that are more integrated with the oak for a softer, richer more integrated wine. You will have the opportunity to taste these red wines upon release in fall 2023.
We are very optimistic for the future, as Alex further raises the bar on our winemaking. We are thrilled with the development of the wines from our 2021 vintage, and we can’t wait to share them with you.