Cool climate viticulture can produce world-class wines by trading effortless growth for potential greatness.” This from Nova Scotia winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers. His Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Sparkling Rosé was selected last year to represent Canada at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England. Deslauriers’ comment also embodies the challenges that all Canadian vintners face in making gold standard wines every year.
“We use our cool growing season to ripen our grapes slowly during the fall, preserving a high level of acidity and avoiding premature ripening and sugar buildups that result in flabby, sweet, alcoholic wines,” he explains. The winery’s three most planted grapes are from the classic “vinifera” family: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, all of which are less winter hardy, but more complex than hybrid grapes. It’s a roll of the dice with nature when you grow these sensitive grapes in winter frost zones.
Although Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy moderates climatic extremes, and is why the wine industry in the Annapolis Valley is growing, winter temperatures can still dip below -22°C. Heavy annual rainfall also requires a strict management of moisture-related threats, such as the fungus botrytis cinerea. “The lifespan of a grapevine can exceed a hundred years, so we have to weather variations over the long term and not rest easy on a few dry, mild winters,” he adds.
Across the country on Canada’s west coast, temperatures and rainfall are also a challenge for British Columbia winemakers like Tony Stewart at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. As well, Stewart deals with unique soil conditions for his benchmark Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir.
“The volcanic soils on Mount Boucherie in which the vines grow drain away moisture quickly and are poor in nutrients and organic material,” Stewart says. “This makes the vines struggle valiantly, thrusting their roots deep into the rock for sustenance, and in doing so picking up very subtle and diverse nuances that create small grapes of concentrated flavour.”
Vine age is important with pinot noir as the resulting wines from Quails’ Gate vines that are 25 years or older are more terroir-driven, with flavours and aromas becoming less fruity, more earthy, and complex and ethereal over time. The Reserve Pinot Noir is made from a meticulous selection and blending from 16?different barrels—and the barrels themselves are made in the finest French cooperages, costing more than $1,250 each.
“We also practice low-yield viticulture, pruning a lot of grapes that we don’t use so that the grapes that remain get more concentrated flavours,” Stewart says. “Green fruit thinning at the pea size is time-consuming and expensive, but worth it.”
High cost of production is also built in to Canada’s most iconic wine: icewine. The grapes for this wine are usually picked in December or January when they’re frozen on the vine. Waiting that long can mean a crop loss of as much as 60 percent compared to the fall harvest, due to poor weather and hungry starlings. The yield of juice for icewine is only 15–20 percent of unfrozen grapes, and these frozen grape pellets even broke the wine press one year at Inniskillin Wines.
Inniskillin first put Canada on the wine map for its icewine when Niagara’s Inniskillin Wine Estates won France’s Grand Prix d’Honneur in 1991, beating out more than 4,000 of the world’s best wines in the viticultural Olympics.
“Creating great icewine is about being patient enough to ride a rollercoaster of freezing and thawing conditions that create layered flavours in the grapes,” says winemaker Bruce Nicholson. The thin skins of the riesling grape can easily break down and rot in mild, rainy conditions.
“Last year’s fermentation was also a nail-biter because it was long and slow, and it could easily have gotten “stuck” and stopped before completed so that the alcohol level was out of balance with the acidity and sweetness in the wine. But fortunately that didn’t happen, and I think we’ve produced one of our best icewines ever.”
Patience has its rewards, especially when it comes to making—and enjoying—Canadian wine.
Three Canadian All-Stars
2008 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine, V.Q.A., Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
The contrasting combination of apricot richness and the silver thread of zesty acidity is spectacular! Not cloyingly sweet: delightfully so with a long, satisfying finish that leaves you longing for more. Pair with crème brûlée, butter tarts and post-ski fireside reading. Drink: 2013–2020. $72 Score: 93/100
2008 Quails' Gate Estate Winery Pinot Noir Stewart Family Reserve, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
Satin pleasure unrolls across your mouth, with gorgeous aromas of fleshy cherries and violets. There's a meaty note in the middle of this wine that gives it heft and texture. Pair with grilled or planked salmon, mushroom risotto and (naturally) quail with heirloom beets, with walnuts and goat cheese. Drink: 2013–2015. $45 Score: 92/100.
2008 Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Sparkling Rosé, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia
Seductive aromas of fresh field strawberries tickle the nose in this bubbly. It has a lovely pale salmon tint with a celebratory toastiness. Pair it with fresh Nova Scotia lobster, duck a l’orange, Mediterranean-inspired dishes and sparkling conversation. Drink: 2013–2015. $45 Score: 91/100