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Make It Sparkle  (June 19, 2008)

Not since New Zealand hijacked the Sauvignon Blanc grape has one country so successfully dominated the international market with a wine style. That's what Canada has managed to accomplish in a mere decade or so with Icewine.

Eiswein is a German invention that dates back to the late eighteen century, when a freak drop in temperature froze the late harvest grapes in Franconia before they could be picked. Today true vine-frozen Icewine (Eiswein) is made in Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Romania, Slovenia and Switzerland; but it is Canada that has co-opted Icewine and made it its own.

A good 80 per cent of Canadian wine export is Icewine. Where it was originally made from Vidal or Riesling, today you can get it in virtually every variety that's planted. You want Semillon Icewine? Pillitteri has it. Chenin Blanc? Inniskillin Okanagan. Shiraz? Konzelmann. Meritage? Royal de Maria.

But you cannot sustain an industry in the long term on a single wine, especially one that has its major market in the Far East. China will soon be making Icewine in its own vineyards. And when that happens they'll be undercutting the price mightily for the rest of the world.

I have always believed that Canada should be a major producer of sparkling wines. In many vintages growers cannot get optimum ripeness to produce balanced table wines; but the grapes for sparkling wines are picked with lower sugars and higher acids than table wines.

The following chart prepared by Hanno van Schalwyk and Eben Archer from the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch shows the grape composition components that determine optimum ripeness in various wine styles.

Wine type Sugar Concentration (°Brix) Acid Concentration (g/l) pH
Sparkling wine 18.0–20.0 7.0–9.0 2.8–3.2
White table wine 19.5–23.0 7.0–8.0 3.0–33
Red table wine 20.5–23.5 6.5–7.5 3.2–3.4
Sweet wine 22.0–25.0 6.5–8.0 3.2–3.4
Dessert wine 23.0–26.0 5.0–7.5 3.3–3.7

Even in poor years Canadian growers can achieve the requisite sugar and acid levels for sparkling wines. So why don't we play to our strengths? The sparkling wine category is growing internationally – the Champenois can't keep up with demand and are not only planting new vineyards but are looking north to Sussex and Kent in England to buy vineyard land.

The move to sparkling is already beginning to happen in Nova Scotia. A French winemaker, Raphael Brisebois, whose résumé includes making champagne for Piper Hiedsieck, starting up the Omar Khayyam sparkling house in India and consulting to Iron Horse and Piper Sonoma in California and Blue Mountain in BC, is now working with Benjamin Bridge, a new winery in Nova Scotia's Gaspeau Valley. Ontario's Peter Gamble, who is also consulting on the project, believes that Nova Scotia could soon be making sparkling wine in the classic champenois style. "You're getting minerality as opposed to fruit here. It has tremendous potential. We're planning to leave (our) wine six or seven years on the lees. The objective is to make something on the level of Grande Marque champagne. We haven't even disgorged the 2002 Brut Reserve. We're still tasting off the lees."

Planted in Benjamin Bridge's 27-acre vineyard are the grapes the Champenois use – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, each on three or four different root stocks and three or four different clones. Brisebois and Gamble have also done sparkling wine experiments using Vidal and L'Acadie Blanc (a variety unique to Nova Scotia).

Bruce Ewart, former winemaker at BC's Hawthorne Mountain and Summerhill, now has his own totally organic winery, L'Acadie Vineyards, located five minutes outside of Wolfville, N.S. True to the name, Bruce makes bottle-fermented sparkling wine from this winter-hardy varietal.

Perhaps Nova Scotia will ultimately rival and surpass Ontario and BC, whose winemakers are doing a great job with sparklers made by the champagne method. If you haven't tried Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine (both white and rosé), Château des Charmes Brut, 13th Street Blanc de Noir or Hillebrand Trius Brut from Ontario, you're in for a treat. Out west, the best you'll find are Sumac Ridge Steller's Jay Brut, Hawthorne Mountain See Ya Later Ranch Brut, Cipes Brut from Summerhill, Venturi-Schulze Brut Naturelle and Blue Mountain Brut, Rosé and Blanc de Blancs Brut.




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