I was fortunate enough to head to Nova Scotia wine country with a fellow new CAPS certified Sommelier, SommBilly (Instagram). We spent 3 days, 2 nights exploring what N.S. wine country had to offer and trust me, we were both impressed.
We flew to Halifax from Toronto, rented a car and drove one-hour north-west to Wolfville, in the heart of the Gaspereau Valley, a subsection of the much larger Annapolis Valley. The Annapolis Valley is a valley and region in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It is located in the western part of the Nova Scotia peninsula, formed by a trough between two parallel mountain ranges along the shore of the Bay of Fundy. What makes the Annapolis valley special is its ability to warm up and grow fruit, specifically grapes. Most of the wineries are located at the north-east tip of the valley with on the Minas Basin, a part of the Bay of Fundy. This basin helps to bring in the moderating air which helps to keep things cool on hot days and warm on cool nights.
In early June of this year, an epic frost wreaked havoc in the vineyards of Nova Scotia. In some parts of wine country, it got as low as -4C while the buds were flowing and it killed for some vineyards vines upwards of 60% or more which is truly devastating. Some vineyards were less affected, but with even, a 10% reduction in vines could mean the difference between profit and loss for the whole year with 50% potentially putting you out of business. This was very serious with one winery manager referring to it as a "100 years frost".
I spoke with several wineries about what could have been done to save more vines and solutions from flying helicopters over the vines to blow down warmer air, windmills to spread warmer air downwards, spraying the vines with water to cacoon the vine in ice to literally burning fires in each row of vines to try and keep things above 0C. One winery, for which I will not mention, lit hay bales on fire in each vineyard row and had a person monitoring each bale all night long only to have the fire department show up because someone though the whole vineyard and winery was on fire.
The winery employee agreed perhaps a bit of notice to the fire department would have been a good idea but at the moment it was pure hysteria with all hands on deck to try and save the vines. No one in the wine business slept that night as it was the night from hell. Some wineries were more fortunate than others and hopefully, with lessons learned, better techniques and practices will be able to better tackle another epic frost if it strikes again. The 2018 vintage will be a special vintage, even if a bit tragic.
Below are three photos of Chablis, Northern Burgundy, France, during their epic frost of 2017. #ClimateChange
Onto Benjamin Bridge.
I'll be honest, I have a strong bias towards Benjamin Bridge. I've been sipping their wine for a few years now and even my amateur photography skills have landed me in one of their ad campaigns. I guess I just feel a love for them. Just know I will be honest in my review.
We pulled up to BB to have Brent meet us for an afternoon tasting. Brent and I have been chatting on Instagram just prior to the trip so I was happy to meet him in person. You can find BrentWinsor on Instagram and for some shameless self-promotion, RyansWinePicks on Instagram as well.
We were driven around the vineyard to check out the different vines with a little BB NV Brut. This must be how the rich and famous live...or so I could only believe.
After some exploring, back to the main hub where there was a large heated tent for a more serious tasting.
We sat down and started with a 2013 Brut Reserve which was 71% Chardonnay and 29% Pinot Noir with 4 years lees ageing. It was a big, rich, complex and quite an exquisite sparkling wine.
Then we cracked the 2012 BB Brut Reserve. This sparkling wine was made from 65% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 10% Meunier. This wine was made under the expert guidance of winemakers Peter J. Gamble, Jean-Benoit Deslauriers and the late Raphaël Brisbois as this was his last vintage. I told Brent I like rich champagnes like Bollinger that have a good amount of Pinot Noir and Meunier over chardonnay and this one delivered. While it was made with over 50% chardonnay it was quite rich, voluptuous and stunning. This had to be the best sparkling wine I have ever had that was made in Canada! The richness, minerality, the salinity, the complexity....the lengthhhhhhhhhhh. Grand Cru Champagne quality with a Moet price.
Next up, their 2013 Sparkling Rose made from 66% Pinot Noir, 23% Pinot Meunier, 11% Chardonnay. It was good but I never been blown away by a sparkling rose before, perhaps that's just me. Last Christmas my partner and I had Lobster Benedict with their Sparkling Rose and while solid stuff, it just didn't tickle me like the 2012 Brut Reserve did.
Here is where things started to get interesting as we tried their small lot 2016 Chardonnay. Let's set the record straight here, I came out east expecting to taste some fabulous bubbles, some ok white's and what I assumed was pretty rough red's. The reason sparkling wine does so well out here is the climate is so cool the grapes only ripen so much, leaving a lower sugar and higher acid content perfect for sparkling wine. The reason there are so many hybrids out here is that most Vitis Vinifera doesn't do well out here. Varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon simply don't get the heat units they require to fully rippen....or so I thought.
The 2016 Chardonnay was on the vines ripening until late October. For some perspective, in Burgundy, they have been picking as early as August lately due to climate change. This wine had 2-day skin contact, wild ferment, French oak barrels and gravity fed. The intense minerality, salinity, elegant oak use, this was probably my favourite wine of the trip next to my beloved 2012 Brut Reserve. Biased? Taste it for yourself and tell me otherwise!
We dived into the 2016 Cabernet Franc. The nose, quite floral and pretty but the palate was lean and mean. I argued again how it was too cool to grow this type of wine out here to which Brent, much like Drew at Luckett, disagreed with me. I think in 10-20 years time when these vines are old and the climate is warmer I think this Cabernet Franc will do wonders, but for now, I'll slide that in the "maybe later" category.
One thing that was a first for me, was trying a base wine for their future sparkling wines. We tried a fully fermented Chardonnay from one of their concrete eggs. Brent asked us "Can't you taste how rich this Chardonnay is" to which my fellow sommelier and friend Billy looked at each other in confusion. Compared to the French oaked chardonnay we tried before, this was battery acid. I started to wonder if my palate had suddenly stalled, have I lost my mind. We finally clued in that he meant rich for a sparkling base wine. I've never had a sparkling base wine before (before the second fermentation to make the bubbles) but as I have read it is low alcohol, low sugar and very high acid. I'm a trained Sommelier who can taste finished wines and tell you everything about them but to be a winemaker and know which ratio of these different acidic base wines to blend to know how they will taste after their second fermentation and 20 years in the bottle is quite frankly mind-blowing. To make wine you have to see what the future has in store for a wine, much like witchcraft.
Let's take a minute and congratulate all of the winemakers in Nova Scotia for battling the brutal cool climate while striving for greatness.
We thanked Brent for a great afternoon only to have the cellar master drag us back into the facility for a Pinot Noir barrel sampling as we were walking out.
What a day, only to be finished at Le Caveau Restaurant. If you let Kim the Sommelier pair your wines with dinner, she won't disappoint. The highlight was trying for the first time, a Chasselas Ice Wine from Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards. FYI, I have never head of Chasselas grown outside of Switzerland, let alone Nova Scotia.
What a trip!