It was my first time in Nova Scotia. This is on the Atlantic coast of Canada, and it’s the youngest of Canada’s cool climate wine regions. I was here to visit Benjamin Bridge, the sparkling wine producer that’s making waves, and has the reputation of being Canada’s finest sparkling winery.
I was travelling with three sommeliers from Toronoto: Krysta Oben, Jay Whitely and Jake Skakun, and our merry tour guide was Nicole Campbell of Lifford, who represent Benjamin Bridge in Canada.
Our first evening was spent exploring Halifax, in the company of Chris Campbell and Jean Benoit Deslauriers, the winemaking team of Benjamin Bridge. We began in the Stillwell Beer Garden, which is a lovely outdoor space, and then progressed for some dinner at Little Oak, which has a really good wine list. Gimonnet’s Cuis went down well, as did a Tempier Bandol Rosé and the Lapierre Morgon 2015. We then headed off to Obladee, Heather Rankin’s place, which also has a really good wine list and some nice beer. Overnight was in the lovey, grand Lord Nelson hotel.
Then it was off to the Gaspereau Valley, about an hour’s drive. This is where Benjamin Bridge is located, and it has a unique microclimate that enables Vitis vinifera to ripen perfectly to create sparkling base wines.
The valley looks pretty stunning, although we had a day of solid, heavy rain for our visit. This was welcomed, though, because the previous few months had been really dry, and the vines needed this extra drink to set themselves up for the last push to ripeness.
Harvest was underway for some of the hybrids, such as L’Acadie Blanc. Until recently hybrids were the rule here, because the cool climate and winter low temperatures make growing vinifera varieties properly marginal.
Benjamin Bridge is the vision of Gerry McConnell. He has an interesting story. Growing up in a humble background in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he worked hard to put himself through law school, getting a scholarship. When he began practising 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, which meant that they could save money by exploiting the workers. So his focus was on labour law and he helped unionise the work force and campaign for better rights for the exploited workforce. Then he decided to go into business, and saw an opportunity for gold mining. His NovaGold operation became huge, and he sold it, remaining on the board.
In the late 1990s he and his wife were looking for the next thing and they witnessed the Gasperau vineyards being established. ‘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, but it took some manoeuvring to persuade the owners to sell. Many of the family farms here have been in the same hands for many generations, and so people are reluctant to be the ones who broke the chain by selling. In the end, Gerry convinced the Westcotts to sell by offering to allow Chris Westcott to stay on as vineyard manager. ‘He takes tremendous pride in seeing what we’ve done.’
When the current batch of plantings is complete, there will be close to 90 acres under vine here. Scott Savoy, the viticulturist here came on board in 2015 and he’s been looking to remodel the vineyards, planting at a higher density and getting each vine to do less work, moving from 3 kg per vine to 1.5 kg.
‘This was an experiment,’ says Gerry. His view was that if he couldn’t make internationally acclaimed wines, he’d abort the project. So he looked to hire the best consultants he could. He began with Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling, who had a lot of experience (and are still involved in the project), but they didn’t have experience with sparkling wine. So when they recommended to Gerry that there was potential here for world class sparkling, Gerry realized he’d have to find a consultant from Champagne to supplement this team. He spoke with Tom Stevenson, one of the world’s top Champagne writers, who gave him a short list of three names. Top of the list was Raphaël Brisbois of Piper Heidsieck, who initially was a terrible sceptic. He eventually joined when Gerry convinced him that there’s be no risk to his reputation. Brisbois oversaw the development of sparkling wines here, and loved coming to Nova Scotia, and getting his hands dirty. Sadly, in 2013 he was diagnosed with cancer and died a month later. ‘But his legacy is here,’ says Gerry. The new hire as 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 advantage of this region is the final stages of ripening taking place in very cool conditions. ‘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.’ [He was working in Sonoma before he was hired here.] A typical vintage here for vinifera would be 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.’
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. It allows freshness and richness to emerge at an elevated level but not one at the expense of the other.’
‘There will always be a foundation of freshness in these wines,’ says Jean Benoit. ‘We always have electricity and tension, but not all the wines have a richness. We have to work at getting inherent richness from within, rather than relying on hefty dosage.’
‘When you scratch and claw your way to ripeness and get there at the 11th hour, that’s the territory for greatness,’ declares Jean Benoit. Chris Campbell adds, ‘you are still pushing for it at the very end, and that’s where the magic happens.’
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.
Benjamin Bridge Brut 2008 Nova Scotia, Canada
This was the last traditional method sparkling Benjamin Bridge made containing hybrid varieties. It’s 10% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with 80% L’Acadie and Vidal. There’s a beautiful balance here, with ripe pear and white peach fruit, a bit of richness but a lot of fresh acidity. There are also hints of apples and honey, with linearity and finesse. 91/100
Benjamin Bridge Blanc de Blancs 2009 Nova Scotia, Canada
This small production wine was made from a vineyard with limestone soils in Bear River. So linear and focused with lovely reductive hints, some mineral notes and lovely precision. Lemon and subtle toast notes, showing amazing precision and finesse. 93/100
Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2008 Nova Scotia, Canada
60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, low yields of 0.8 kg per vine and a dry extract twice the level of Dom Perignon. Concentrated and intense with real power. Tightwound citrus fruits with some pithy notes and well integrated acidity. Intense, pure, lemony and focused with amazing intensity. Has a really long finish. 94/100
Benjamin Bridge Rosé 2011 Nova Scotia, Canada
43% Pinot Meunier, 42% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay. Lively, linear and bright with fresh raspberry and cherry notes. Lovely supple green herbiness, showing nice freshness and focus. 91/100
Benjamin Bridge Rosé 2012 Nova Scotia, Canada
70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir. Nice purity with lively, pithy, bright fruit. Cherry and plum notes. Fresh and vivid with lemony acidity. Fine, delicate and pure. 92/100
Benjamin Bridge Brut NV Nova Scotia, Canada
This is a blend of hybrid and vinifera varieties, with 2010 as the base. Very fresh, linear and fruity. Direct and lemony with nice fruit quality and a bit pf pithiness. 90/100
Benjamin Bridge Blanc de Blancs 2004 Nova Scotia, Canada
This was the wine that caused the world to sit up and take notes of Benjamin Bridge. It’s from Dr Al McIntyre’s Kingsport property. There’s a bit of toasty development, but it’s still pretty youthful with nice lemony fruit. Really linear and rounded with a faint (nice) hint of cheese, and some ripe apple notes. 92/100
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