The Goode Report: Celebrating with Sparkling – from Nova Scotia
Dr. Jamie Goode’s Global View on Canadian Wines
Benjamin Bridge is one of the great stories of Canada’s wine revolution. It’s a sparkling winery based in the Gaspereau Valley, about an hour’s drive from Halifax, Nova Scotia. On paper, Nova Scotia doesn’t look a great bet for wine production, but what’s going on here is really significant, as I found when I visited in September. The unique microclimate of the Gaspereau Valley enables Vitis vinifera to ripen perfectly to create sparkling base wines, garnering much acclaim. In addition, there is a local appellation, Tidal Bay, that is all about crisp, fruit-driven whites perfect with the local seafood – and they are, it’s just the rest of the world doesn’t need to hear about these, whereas the traditional method fizz is a story worth spreading afar.
Until recently, hybrids grape varieties such as L’Acadie Blanc were the rule here, because of the cool climate and low winter temperatures. There are still quite a few hybrids planted here, and given the right care and attention they can make some interesting wines. But proper vinifera varieties such as chardonnay and pinot noir – if they can reach ripeness – are capable of making world class sparkling wines.
Benjamin Bridge is the result of the vision of lawyer and businessman Gerry McConnell. Growing up in a humble background in Halifax, he took himself through law school. When he began practicing law in the 1970s he saw that a lot of large companies had moved manufacturing plants to Nova Scotia because of the lack of labour laws, allowing them to save money by exploiting the workers. Gerry saw the niche to fill, and helped unionize the work force. When that was complete and he was ready for his next challenge, he saw an opportunity for gold mining, and decided to go into business, and his NovaGold operation became very successful, and he later sold it, remaining on the board, but ready to turn his focus elsewhere.
In the late 1990s while Gerry and his wife were looking for the next thing, they witnessed the first vineyards being established in the Gasperau Valley. ‘I was captivated by the symmetry of the vines,’ he recalls, ‘so we thought we should find a place here.’ He identified what is now Benjamin Bridge as probably the best farm in the valley. Many of the family farms here have been in the same hands for many generations, and so people are reluctant to sell. Gerry convinced the owners, the Westcotts, to sell by offering to allow Chris Westcott to stay on as vineyard manager. When the current batch of plantings is complete, there will be 90 acres under vine. Scott Savoy, Benjamin Bridge’s viticulturist since 2015, has been looking to remodel the vineyards, planting at a higher density and getting each vine to do less work, moving from 3 kg of fruit per vine to 1.5 kg.
Gerry’s vision was to make internationally acclaimed wines, so he hired the best consultants available, beginning with Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling. They told him that this site had potential to make world class sparkling wine. Gerry went straight to Champagne, and pulled in Raphaël Brisbois of Piper Heidsieck, who oversaw the initial development of sparkling wines here. Sadly, in 2013 Brisbois was diagnosed with cancer and died a month later. ‘But his legacy is here,’ says Gerry. Their new consultant is Pascal Agrapart, who has just begun working with Benjamin Bridge. ‘Pascal is absolutely connected to the vineyard,’ says Gerry. ‘We’re looking forward to receiving some good advice.’
The resident winemaker at Benjamin Bridge is Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, aided by Chris Campbell who recently joined from Norman Hardie. Deslauriers, who’d previously made sparkling wine in Sonoma, explained the advantage of this region. ‘The proximity to the bay stretches the growing season,’ says Jean Benoit. ‘It allows us to pick at low sugar and high acidity two-and-a-half months after they pick for sparkling wine in Sonoma.’ A typical vintage here for vinifera would be the first week of November, while Sonoma would begin in the second week in July. ‘It’s the foundation of everything,’ says Jean Benoit. ‘Phenolic maturity that’s through the roof, with modest sugar and acidity unspoiled. There’s no substitute for time when it comes to skin and seed ripeness.’
This concept of ripeness is critical for making top quality sparkling wine. In warm climates, grapes for sparkling are typically picked early while they have good acidity and low pH, and not too much sugar. But this is usually a compromise, because the grapes haven’t reached what is known as physiological, phenolic or flavour maturity. The great advantage of very cool climates, such as Champagne, England or Nova Scotia, is that the grapes can be left to achieve flavor ripeness and they will still have high acid and sugar levels just right for making traditional method sparkling. Indeed, sometimes they can have a little too much acidity.
The typical analysis here would be 10.5% potential alcohol (18 Brix), pH of 3 and 9.5 g/litre acidity, but with brown seeds and a tremendous amount of phenolic ripeness. ‘It’s the gateway stylistically for doing what great traditional method sparklings are supposed to do,’ says Deslauriers. ‘It allows freshness and richness to emerge at an elevated level but not one at the expense of the other.’
There are perils here, chief of which is winter cold. ‘Twice we’ve seen -24 C,’ says Scott. ‘This is the challenge for bringing vinifera to fruition.’ To this end they hill up the graft union in the winter, as this is the most vulnerable part of the vine. In good winters they’ll have snow deep enough to help protect against the lows, too. But vine balance is critical in helping the vines go dormant at the end of the season. Another challenge is downy mildew, but again, balanced vines with well adjusted crop loads seem to be much more resistant to this.
The wines? They’re quite lovely. There’s a precision and freshness here, but it’s allied to real depth of flavour. The range begins with the fun Nova 7, but gets serious with the NV Brut, which still has some hybrid content. 2008 was the last vintage brut with L’Acadie and Vidal, and it shows that these hybrids shouldn’t be dismissed. The real action is the Reserve Brut vintage, of which 2008 is a stunner, and also the Rosé.
Where do these sparklers fit into the Canadian wine scene? The Okanagan Valley is making some really good traditional method sparkling, with the promise of more good things to come. And in Ontario, as well as some solid efforts from Niagara, there’s some superb fizz coming out of Prince Edward County. But at the moment, it’s Benjamin Bridge from Nova Scotia that is getting people talking, and putting Canada high on the global sparkling spectrum.
Photos: Jamie Goode
The Goode Report
Dr. Jamie Goode is the first international member of the WineAlign team, and one of our core judges for The National Wine Awards. He completed a PhD in plant biology and worked as a science editor before switching careers to wine writing. He’s a book author (The Science of Wine and Authentic Wine), writes a weekly wine column for a national newspaper (The Sunday Express), freelances for international magazines and blogs daily at wineanorak.com, the site he founded in 1999 and one of the world’s most popular wine websites. A sought-after speaker and experienced wine judge, he has judged wine in the UK, South Africa, France, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. He tweets as @jamiegoode and is on Instagram as @drjamiegoode.