Grape expectations: Winemaking in Nova Scotia

Cheap land and climate change foster a fast-growing winemaking industry in Nova Scotia.

When Gerry McConnell decided to start a winery, in 1999, he vowed to produce the highest-quality grapes nature would allow. So he brought the best wine consultant he could find to his 75-acre plot of land in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: Peter Gamble, a Canadian winemaking icon, who in turn summoned internationally renowned sparkling-wine specialist Raphael Brisbois, a native of Champagne, France. Brisbois was especially skeptical upon finding himself in a region with only a few hundred acres of grapes. Says McConnell, “On the first day, I’m sure Raphael was asking himself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?'”

Brisbois had a point. Nova Scotia’s 10 wineries and 320 acres of vines make up only a small portion of Canada’s $4-billion wine industry; Ontario and British Columbia boast nearly 300 wineries and thousands of acres of grapes. But that’s changing. McConnell’s winery, to be named Benjamin Bridge Vineyards and targeted to open in 2008, isn’t the only new operation to take advantage of the province’s grape-growing climate. Nova Scotia, and the Annapolis Valley in particular, is being touted by some in the industry as Canada’s next premium wine region, with at least four new wineries under construction and the number of wineries and their acreage expected to double within the next 10 years. Cheap land, an increasingly warm climate for grape growing and a new culture of research are drawing vintners from across North America. “We’re where Ontario and British Columbia were 10 years ago,” says Martha Reynolds of the Winery Association of Nova Scotia.

Currently worth almost $8 million, with one million bottles produced per year, the Nova Scotia wine industry is still far from maturity. But winemaking itself is no longer the biggest challenge. Rather, it’s getting the province’s offerings accepted by consumers who still have no idea Nova Scotia can even grow grapes.

The province’s winery boom began about five years ago, though the first wine grapes in Canada were planted there in the 1600s. Table grapes rather than wine grapes dominated Nova Scotia until the mid-1970s, however, when Roger Dial began experimenting with vines and opened Grand Pre, the province’s first farm winery. (Andrew Peller Ltd. has operated a winery in Nova Scotia since 1964, but has never grown or used local grapes.) A French hybrid grape known as l’Acadie, bred but rejected by growers in Ontario because of its poor performance, grew exceptionally well in Nova Scotia’s cooler climate.

Encouraged by Dial, a few small wineries opened in the 1980s, growing mostly little-known varieties like l’Acadie. But they failed to build momentum until 2001, when the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. cut red tape that had held back would-be winery owners for years, and featured Nova Scotia bottles prominently on store shelves. The Winery Association of Nova Scotia formed the following year. Grape acreage also increased. The value of land for vineyards in the Annapolis and Gaspereau valleys, though still a bargain compared to that of Niagara and the Okanagan, has increased by 50% to an average of $2,500?$3,500 per acre in the past five years, doubling or tripling in some cases. Vintners are now beginning to plant in new areas like the LaHave Valley.

After four years of test crops at Benjamin Bridge, Brisbois and Gamble have been won over by Nova Scotia’s potential. The vineyard has produced season after season of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, varieties that had not done well in the province in the past, and they’ve met the same strict standards for ripeness and acidity as grapes in Champagne. It’s something Gamble hasn’t seen anywhere else in Canada, not to mention in the best sparkling wine regions of California. “Nova Scotia is unbelievably close to the climate of Champagne,” he says. Tony Aspler, author of The Wine Atlas of Canada, says Benjamin Bridge is on the right track. “What can do really well in the region is sparkling wines, because you don’t need the grape to be fully ripe,” he says. “You need that good acidity.”

Though Benjamin Bridge is one of the first wineries in Nova Scotia to invest millions into growing premium grapes — owner McConnell is also CEO of gold and diamond miner Etruscan Resources Inc. — many other wineries are now adding old-world varieties to their vineyards. Nova Scotia vintners cite the warmer weather for their successful crops: it’s been 13 years since they’ve seen the kind of winter damage that hit Ontario vines the past three years when temperatures plummeted too low, the death knell for tender varieties. The number of frost-free growing days in the region has steadily increased, and the current growing season has been warm enough to hurt its small ice-wine yield.

With a climate like this, McConnell feels he won’t be the industry’s last big investor. “When we first got involved in this, I believed climate change was coming and that the temperatures would increase in Nova Scotia, and therefore if we got in on the ground floor, things would only improve as the years went on,” he says. “We’re starting to see that.” It’s a trend being spotted in winegrowing regions around the world. A 2006 study by the University of Melbourne predicts a temperature increase of up to 1.7°C in most Australian wine regions by 2030, diminishing wine quality; U.S. researchers recently concluded that increasing temperatures will hurt grapes in regions like Napa and Sonoma, shifting premium growing north by the late 21st century.

McConnell, who’s already been able to grow the more tender Sauvignon Blanc grape at Benjamin Bridge, knows he won’t see a profit for at least 10 years, but sees the winery as an investment for his children and grandchildren due to Nova Scotia’s changing climate. “I think the value of the land from a grape-growing point of view is going to increase dramatically over the mid-term and long term,” he says.

Under current policy, Nova Scotia’s wineries, aside from Andrew Peller Ltd., sell most of their product on site, with a 5% markup going to the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp., leaving little supply for store shelves. It’s more profitable than selling through the NSLC, which often charges markup in excess of 100%. “One of our biggest problems is being able to get enough product from them to offer our customers,” says NSLC corporate secretary Greg Beaulieu. Locally produced wine makes up 11% of the Nova Scotia market; as production increases, NSLC markups and exporting will become more of an issue.

Acceptance outside of the province will be another challenge. Consumers accustomed to buying Merlot may avoid bottles named after Nova Scotian grapes such as New York Muscat and Leon Millot. Moreover, though the Winery Association of Nova Scotia released its own strict set of standards last spring to designate wines produced from 100% locally grown grapes, the French hybrids common in the province are not yet recognized by the Vintners Quality Alliance, the standard by which Ontario and B.C. wines are measured and that customers are familiar with. The province also lacks an appellation system to define the terroir (location, soil, topography and climate) of its winegrowing regions, characteristics the VQA likes to monitor. It’s part of the reason Andrew Peller Ltd. doesn’t use local grapes at its Nova Scotia winery.

The beginnings of a viticultural research scene similar to that of Ontario and B.C. has the Nova Scotia industry catching up. The Grape Growers Association of Nova Scotia has been involved with terroir research at Acadia University, which is the first step toward creating a provincial appellation system; the association has also helped initiate and fund a test wine program for new grape varieties in conjunction with the National Research Council, the winery association and the province. Developed at an Agriculture Canada research centre in Kentville, N.S., in the 1980s and 1990s, the grapes languished untested until now, and the results could yield the next big grape for the province. The test wines were made by Bruce Ewert, a B.C. winemaker who moved east in 2004 to open a winery producing l’Acadie sparkling whites. “They’re specifically tailored to the climate of Nova Scotia,” he says of the new grapes. “That’s the uniqueness of Nova Scotia, that we have grape varieties growing here that other regions don’t have.” McConnell agrees. “I predict in 5, 10, 20 years it’s going to be recognized there are very distinctive, special flavours that are unique to Nova Scotia, and that’s the future branding of our wines.”