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Sparkling Nova Scotia (October 22, 2015)

When Life gives you lemons, goes the old saw, make lemonade. When Nature gives you an overabundance of acidity in your grapes and you're a wine region, what do you do? Well, you play to your strengths and make fresh sparkling and white table wines that pair so well with the wealth of seafood around your coastline.

That's the philosophy that will turn Nova Scotia into the next darling of sommeliers looking for something new to offer their clientele.

Recently I spent six days touring the wineries of the Annapolis and Gaspereau Valleys and the Malagash Peninsula. What I tasted convinced me that some of the best sparkling wines currently made in Canada are being produced in a province that is, famously, midway between the Equator and the North Pole.

Nova Scotia vintners respect the traditional Champagne blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but they are also pressing into service their own local varieties, such as L'Acadie, Vidal and Seyval Blanc.

The first signal that something special was going on here was seven years ago when I visited Benjamin Bridge in the Gaspereau Valley. In keeping with the new wave of Canadian wineries, Benjamin Bridge's owner Gerry McConnell made his fortune in another field (mining) before getting his feet into the vat, as it were. Given Nova Scotia's climate, he wisely decided to concentrate on sparkling wines but he set his sights ambitiously high.

McConnell wanted to make sparkling wine up to the standard of Champagne's Grandes Marques, and if he couldn't do it he would abort the project. To realize his dream, in 1999, he purchased a 50-acre property with its 1845 Westcott family barn and did an initial vineyard planting of 10 acres. He then hired consultant Peter Gamble, the founding executive director of Ontario's Vintners Quality Alliance. When McConnell shared his vision with Gamble, the former winemaker for Hillebrand suggested that if you want to rival champagne you have to get a Champenois winemaker on board – which is exactly what McConnell did.

He brought in the late oenologist Raphael Brisbois, a former chef de cave at Piper Heidsieck, who had created India's celebrated sparkling wine, Omar Khayyam, as well as consulting to California's Iron Horse, Mount Dome in Washington and Blue Mountain Vineyards in BC. Together with Gamble, the pair started experimenting with sparkling blends in 2002, using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Vidal and Nova Scotia's signature white grape L'Acadie. Gerry McConnell had given Bribois and Gamble carte blanche to leave the wines on their lees as long as they wanted – an invitation that would make any bank manager cringe.

Ten years later Peter Gamble held a blind tasting in Toronto's tony Canoe restaurant for sommeliers and wine writers, pitting two of Benjamin Bridge's 2004 bubblies against the likes of David Léclapart L'Apôtre Blanc de Blancs 2005 and – here's where the real chutzpah comes in – Roederer Cristal 2004, which at the time was the champagne of choice of Hip Hop artists, selling for $289 a bottle.

Interestingly, the grape blend in the Benjamin Bridge wines would make a traditional Champenois shudder – 57% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay, 15% the hybrid Vidal, and 6% of the local Nova Scotia variety, L'Acadie. (Since 2009 Benjamin Bridge'`s sparkling wines en tirage have been 100% vinifiera.)

So there we were, 18 sommeliers and wine writers, with four glasses of bubbly in front of us, two champagnes and two Benjamin Bridge sparklers. Their colour didn't give anything away, nor did the activity of the mousse, nor the size of the bubbles. It would be all in the taste to determine which were champagnes and which were the Nova Scotia sparklers. My notes at the time read:

Wine #1: Bready, leesy nose; rich, green nut flavour, crisply dry, good length, mature apple flavour on the finish. Very champagne-like. 91 points.

Wine #2: Leesy, bready nose with lemony, floral and honey notes; very elegant, light and crisp on the palate. Delicious. Probably Cristal. 93 points

Wine #3: Earthy, apple and lemon flavours, mature notes, with a touch of sweetness in mid palate. Late Disgorged? 90 points

Wine # 4: Minerally, crisply dry, green apple, lemony, very fresh and lingering. Likely BB. 91 points.

When the dust settled the majority of the tasters placed Wine #2 as their favourite wine. The serving order was:

  1. David Léclapart L'Apôtre Blanc de Blanc 2005 ($138)
  2. Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2004 ($74)
  3. Roederer Cristal 2004 ($289)
  4. Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2004 Late Disgorged ($89.50)

And what does this prove? a) Nova Scotia has the climate and soil to make world-class sparkling wines. b) It pays to hire experts, and c) ultimately, I'm a cheap date. My preference was for the least expensive bubbly.

And Benjamin Bridge is not the only winery making great sparkling wine in Nova Scotia. If you visit, don't miss Grand Pré Vintage Brut 2009; from the province's newest winery, Lightfoot & Wolfville Sparkling 2013 and Blomidon Estate Winery Woodside Road Vineyard Sparkling Brut 2011.

And then there is Nova Scotia's unique appellation for white wines that express the terroir of the region, called Tidal Bay. But that's another story...




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