The Canadian Sparkling Wine Region You Need to Know About
Nova Scotia's wines, which some say rival Champagne, didn’t always hold such an esteemed reputation in the wine community
In a covering note for Restaurant Gordon Ramsay’s online wine list, head sommelier James Lloyd explains what his team looks for when choosing a bottle. “The most important attribute in a wine, for us, is that of character,” he says.
The three-Michelin-starred restaurant made headlines in Canada this year after adding a sparkler from Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge to its wine list. The nod may have come as a surprise to Canadians—Nova Scotia is the smallest of the country’s major wine producing provinces; the largest, Ontario, has over 21 times as much land under vine—but if you’ve been keeping up with what the critics have to say, you probably saw it coming.
Much of the critical attention to Nova Scotia has focused on Benjamin Bridge, and it has been overwhelmingly positive. Variations on the phrase “best [vintage] yet” feature repeatedly in a chronological reading of the winery’s sparkling wine reviews. Tony Aspler, who’s been in the game since 1975, says in his book Canadian Wineries, “They are, without question, the best sparkling wines I have tasted in Canada.” Steven Spurrier awarded Benjamin Bridge’s 2011 Méthode Classique Rosé 91 points; Alder Yarrow offered between nine and nine-and-a-half (would that be nine and a quarter?) out of 10 for the Brut Reserve 2008—the same vintage you’ll find at Ramsay’s London flagship.
But Nova Scotia didn’t always hold such an esteemed reputation in the wine community. Winery Association of Nova Scotia (WANS) executive director Jerry White believes that there are two major misconceptions about the province and its producers.
The first, he says, is that Nova Scotia is putting out “low quality, low value wines.” That’s a hangover from the earliest days of the industry, he explains, when some wineries imported cheap, bulk wine to blend and bottle. “Sometimes there were Canadian wines blended in,” he says, “But quite often or most times, there wasn’t.” Although the practice provided “much-needed” cash flow for the wineries involved, he says that the end result “does not reflect the reality of NS wines produced from local grapes.”
The second misconception, White says, is about climate: that Nova Scotia gets too cold to make sense as a wine region. But the reality isn’t so extreme. Nova Scotia’s wineries are mainly scattered through the Annapolis Valley—Benjamin Bridge is in the Gaspereau Valley, a sub-valley of the Annapolis—where they benefit from the moderating effect of the Bay of Fundy. “Thanks to that dynamic of moderation,” says Benjamin Bridge head winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, “The extreme cold disappears.”
In fact, climatically, the Annapolis Valley is thought to have a lot in common with Champagne. Those shared conditions—climate and growing period—make Nova Scotia’s wine region “near perfect” for traditional method sparkling wines, says White. That’s because grapes experience a slow, steady increase in sugar content over a longer growing season. The valley’s cool nights keep grapes from losing acidity—which you really want when you’re making sparkling wine. The result is what Deslauriers calls a “fascinating combination of freshness and richness.”
But the Canadian sparkling wine region has a growing advantage over the French. Says Deslauriers, “Nova Scotia has climatic parameters that look like Champagne’s about 15 years ago—more so than Champagne today.” Climate change hit France hard in recent years, with extreme weather patterns in winter and in summer. This year’s frosts are thought to herald a record low in French wine production. In Champagne, this year’s harvest—one of the earliest since 1950—may still have started too late. Previous hot summers, like 2003, robbed grapes of their acidity.
Deslauriers says that Nova Scotia’s climate allows for a higher margin of error among sparkling wine producers. Still, the point isn’t to emulate Champagne, he says, but to showcase what’s unique about Nova Scotia. “If there is such a thing as a stamp,” he says, “A signature that should define our wines from inside out—it is that foundation of freshness.”
Referencing the region’s still wines, White has a similar thought. “NS is becoming well known for crisp, aromatic white wines,” he says, “Especially the Tidal Bay appellation launched in 2011.”
Despite the relative youth of the region, Nova Scotia’s wines are earning recognition for their character. (Just ask the team at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.) White believes that this distinct identity—and its growing renown on an international scale—is the most exciting thing about Nova Scotia wines right now.
“The ability to differentiate the wines from a particular region is important to getting people to try them,” says White. “NS wineries are doing a great job of this.”