I’ll say it straight. One of the best Canadian wines I’ve tasted comes from Nova Scotia. I’m only surprised that it didn’t come from the Champagne region of France.
It’s called Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve, a sparkling white crafted in the image of France’s best bubblies. Brimming with orchard-fruit characters, notes of fresh brioche and stone-dry minerals, it tickles the palate with pinpoint-fine bubbles, the elegant sort of froth that makes your throat crave a second glass rather than burp.
I’d wager that few fans of domestic wine know the name Benjamin Bridge, named for a nearby landmark. It would make sense because the winery’s offerings, which include the $74.50 Brut Reserve and a second bubbly at an eyebrow-raising $119.50, are sold almost entirely within Nova Scotia and are produced in exceedingly tiny quantities. But the small estate’s ambition stands in contrast to its volume output.
Founded a decade ago by Gerry McConnell, a veteran gold-mining executive, with his late wife, Dara Gordon, Benjamin Bridge first released its flagship 2004 sparkling wines late last year, quickly selling out all 1,400 bottles (though more is scheduled for release later this year). There’s no pretentious faux château, just a prosaic, 20-by-30-metre building near Wolfville in the Gaspereau Valley subregion of the Annapolis Valley. Most of the $5-million Mr. McConnell invested in the project was channelled into the vineyard, a grass-carpeted, rolling sea of intense green that looks as though Napa Valley had been airlifted into an Irish meadow.
“For me, it wasn’t viewed as a business,” Mr. McConnell said. “It was a love and passion for the land, a love and passion for seeing things grow, and to show that there could be a viable industry in Nova Scotia producing acclaimed wines.”
The McConnells, long fond of fine food and wine, were less than thrilled with what they had tasted of the province’s output in the 1990s. It was mostly gutsy stuff pressed from rugged hybrid grapes that can easily withstand Nova Scotia’s cool climate, not the tender European vinifera varieties responsible for virtually all quality wine. A 1999 tour of South African vineyards during his 20-year tenure running the Halifax-based African gold-mining company Etruscan Resources Inc. gave Mr. McConnell resolve.
He called on Hans Christian Jost, Nova Scotia’s most prominent winemaker, for help in finding the best consultant in the country. Mr. Jost suggested Peter Gamble, the former executive of the VQA wine-standards council in Niagara. “I said to Peter that we wanted to produce the very best that Mother Nature could give us and that would in the end be nationally and internationally recognized as fine,” Mr. McConnell said. If at any point Mr. Gamble decided that it couldn’t be done, Mr. McConnell would abort the project. “I’m not trying to be a snob,” he said. “I just didn’t want to do $12 wine.”
After poring over the 75-year weather record, Mr. Gamble concluded it would have to be a sparkling wine, whose grapes tend to be picked early in the season, before their precious acidity drops, a key to the razor-sharp wines of France’s northern Champagne region. Improbable as it may seem, the Gaspereau Valley, while cooler than Niagara and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, shares uncanny temperature parallels with Champagne. “It’s so close to Champagne it’s frightening,” Mr. Gamble said.
Better versed in still wines than sparkling, Mr. Gamble prevailed on British friend Tom Stevenson, widely considered the world’s foremost sparkling wine critic, for his own referral. Top of the list was consultant Raphaël Brisbois, the former winemaker at Piper-Heidsieck, one of the most prominent Champagne houses, who had also helped craft the esteemed sparkling cuvees of Iron Horse in California and Blue Mountain in British Columbia.
“I was really surprised to find grapes,” Mr. Brisbois told me over the phone from his home in California. “I thought Nova Scotia was next to the Arctic Circle.”
To gauge the region’s potential, he sampled a range of older vintages from around the province assembled for the team by Mr. Jost, finding promise in a still wine made from the hybrid l’acadie grape. But the key, they all felt, was to grow the vinifera varieties of Champagne, namely pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay and to pray the vines could survive the punishing winters.
Mr. McConnell, who concedes that he lacks an expert’s palate, recalls having a moment of doubt leaving a group tasting of some of the first, unaged wines years ago. “I got in the car with my wife and said, ‘I don’t know where this is going.’ ” The wines were awful, he told her. “She said, ‘Didn’t you hear them? They’re the experts.’
Top-quality Champagne must age for many months, in the best cases several years, in individual bottles as opposed to large tanks. Close contact with yeast produces fine bubbles as well as a prized dough-like essence. That’s why the flagship 2004 Brut Reserve and Blanc de Noirs bubblies, carefully tended by full-time winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, were released only last November. It was clearly worth the wait.
Will Predhomme, senior sommelier and wine buyer for Toronto’s Canoe Restaurant & Bar, with one of the finest domestic-wine selections in the country, sat in thrall as he took his first sips. Earlier this year, he had assembled a Twitter group of industry professionals and amateurs to taste through 38 domestic sparkling wines, including two bottles of Benjamin Bridge’s Brut Reserve.
“Out of the whole 38 we tried, those are the ones that really blew me away,” Mr. Predhomme said. “I thought, ‘How is this not famous? How is Nova Scotia not known for this style of wine?’ ”
That may soon come to pass. Of the province’s 15 wineries, at least three are said to be considering adding bubbles to the mix. And L’Acadie Vineyards, founded in 2004 by former B.C. sparkling wine veteran Bruce Ewert, beat Benjamin Bridge to market with Nova Scotia’s first award-winning Champagne-method wine three years ago. Though made from the hybrid l’acadie grape, its Prestige Brut, which I reviewed favourably last year, captured gold at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards.
It may come as consolation to bubbly fans with deep pockets that, in addition to the planned release of more bottles from the 2004 vintage this year, Benjamin Bridge has been ramping up production, with 10,000 bottles of the 2010 vintage now aging in cellar – awaiting release in about five years.
“Two months ago, I tasted everything [in the cellar]” said consultant Mr. Brisbois. “I was surprised that the wines are so good. ... I know that people would be absolutely stunned. I didn’t think it would turn out like this, but it did.”