Fort Berens finding prairie pairings 

Lillooet winery's pinot gris highlighted at Canadian Culinary Championships

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KIM LAWTON - WINNING PAIR Mystery Wine champion chef Mike Robins and Fort Berens Estate Winery co-owner Rolf de Bruin at the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna.
  • Photo by Kim Lawton
  • WINNING PAIR Mystery Wine champion chef Mike Robins and Fort Berens Estate Winery co-owner Rolf de Bruin at the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna.

Fort Berens Estate Winery played a pivotal part in the recent Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna.

The Lillooet-based winery's 2016 pinot gris was selected as the centrepiece beverage for the mystery wine competition, where the 11 competing chefs sought to create the perfect pairing.

Co-owner Rolf de Bruin said the winery hadn't been affiliated with the competition before this year, but after a year in which many media members paid a visit, it caught the attention of writer and Gold Medal Plates wine advisor David Lawrason of Toronto.

"When he decided to select a wine for the mystery competition, he thought back through the summer and what he experienced, and contacted us to say that our pinot gris was selected to be the mystery wine," de Bruin said.

However, with Lillooet still an unknown on the greater national wine scene, de Bruin pointed out that not only was the wine a question mark, but so was its origin.

Chef Mike Robins of Winnipeg's Sous Sol created the People's Choice Award-winning dish of cold smoked halibut cheek and Salt Spring mussels, juniper berry, chantrelle mushroom lobster bisque with Parissienne gnocchi and cashew cream.

"We wanted to take a really simplistic approach and not overthink it," said Robins, who spent five years living in Whistler on-and-off before returning to the prairies. "We sat down with some ridiculously talented sommeliers and winemakers, who are known in the industry as masters of wine, to get some tasting notes and get what they thought the varietal was, which we nailed.

"We went separately into the kitchen and just thought of what we wanted to eat with it... We tried not to think too much about different flavour profiles and acidity or things like that."

As a spectator, de Bruin said he wasn't flabbergasted by any of the combinations, but was impressed with the creativity of the 11 dishes nonetheless."These chefs are being judged not just on the pairing itself, but on the wow factor and the presentation," de Bruin said. "They go out of their way in order to create combinations that are really unique. Therefore, you saw a large variety of ingredients being used, from shellfish to seafood, to pork to chicken in a number of different cold and hot plates.

"We were just amazed at how many combinations worked really well with the wine. Maybe that says something about how versatile this wine is at the table, but maybe it's just the skill of the chefs."

Modesty aside, to even be considered for such a competition, a wine would have to play nice with a number of different flavours. While pinot gris generally isn't necessarily the flashiest choice at the table, de Bruin said Fort Berens takes care to set theirs apart from the field.

"In a lot of ways, the pinot gris that we make isn't a cookie cutter," de Bruin said. "We do a number of things with the wine here in small batches, we create some experiments to see how things would work. Those smaller batches slowly get blended into the main batches to add a little bit more complexity, so we have a little bit of the wine that was fermented in new, American oak barrels. It just adds a little bit of depth to that wine that you don't necessarily expect."

While de Bruin feels Fort Berens has established itself within the province, the competition helped the winery grow fans across the country.

"It's nice to have some connections in Regina and Winnipeg and Toronto to build from," he said. "We make great wine in B.C., but it's definitely not available in every place across the country. This is a pretty good start to broaden our market."

However, just days after the competition capped, the provincial wine industry took a hit when the Alberta provincial government announced a boycott of B.C. wines as a salvo in an ongoing dispute over the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline.

The most frustrating part for de Bruin and other operators is a feeling of helplessness, as they haven't erred so there aren't any actions they can take to move toward a resolution.

"Certainly, for us, it's disappointing to see that B.C. wine has been caught in the middle of a dispute between the Alberta and B.C. governments about oil pipelines," he said. "Getting caught up in a trade war that we're no party of is very, very trying for us."

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