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Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, head winemaker at Benjamin Bridge Vineyards, surveys the barrel room at the vineyard in Wolfville, N.S. on Aug. 2.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

If you want to understand how rapidly things are changing in the heart of Nova Scotia’s wine-growing Annapolis Valley, just take a stroll through John McLarty’s south-facing slope.

This green hillside with its back to the Bay of Fundy gets notably more heat than the rest of his north-facing vineyards at Planters Ridge Winery. Noticing this anomaly eight years ago, McLarty had a wild idea – he’d plant viognier grapes here, a variety typically associated with southern France’s humid Rhone Valley, not Canada’s temperate East Coast.

Sure enough, the grapes – never before grown commercially in Nova Scotia, and once thought to be ill-suited for this coastal climate – thrived. The winemaker’s gamble paid off, and he’s begun producing sought-after releases of this southern wine, albeit on a small scale of just 50 cases a year.

For this Ontario-raised former accountant, it’s proof of how climate change is altering all the rules for winemakers in the Annapolis Valley. As the region warms, it’s broadening the possibilities in local vineyards, he said.

“I knew it was going to be an experiment, but it’s worked out really well. They’re surviving way better than I anticipated, and they’re looking better every year,” he said.

Historical climate data from the province of Nova Scotia show the Annapolis Valley had just six days, on average, above 30 C every summer in the 1980s. That happens twice as often now and is projected to occur more than 32 times a summer within five decades.

The average summertime temperature in this scenic valley, once more widely known for growing apples instead of grapes, was 17.9 C in the 1980s. Today it’s above 19 C and projected to grow beyond 20.2 C in the 2050s. Winters are milder, here, too – nearly a full degree and a half warmer on average than they were in the 1980s.

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Deslauriers assesses grapes at the vineyard.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

Few people have been following this warming trend more than Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, the senior winemaker at Benjamin Bridge, an award-winning winery tucked into the hills outside of Wolfville. He says if you measure “heat units,” a temperature-based index often used by farmers and agricultural researchers, the Annapolis Valley is now comparable to France’s Champagne region, in terms of wine-growing conditions.

The warming valley is creating both challenges and opportunities for the wineries that are helping raise the profile of Nova Scotia’s unique terroir.

“Twenty-five years ago, I can assure you no one would have planted viognier here,” he said. “We wouldn’t have even thought of that.”

No one is celebrating the effects of climate change, Deslauriers stressed. Winemakers around the world are battling the negative effects of a warming planet, from wineries in California that are sometimes forced to harvest prematurely in July instead of September, to French vineyards relying on anti-frost candles to protect delicate grape buds appearing sooner in the spring.

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Deslauriers said grapes at the vineyard are ripening at a much faster rate than he has seen in the past.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

Winemaking is a precarious business at the best of times. A late frost in 2018 cost McLarty and most other winemakers in the valley 80 per cent of their grapes. Winter storms are more intense, and early fall hurricane season can wreak havoc on vineyards at a critical time of year, he said. Post-tropical storm Fiona, which roared across Atlantic Canada in September, shed some leaves from vines here, but vineyards were luckily spared more significant fruit damage.

In Nova Scotia, a region traditionally associated with sweeter, sparkling wines, climate change is upending the industry’s growing season. More summer heat is causing grapes grown here to produce higher levels of sugar in a shorter time frame, which forces winemakers to bottle earlier than they normally would – rewriting the rules for fermentation.

Many grapes used to make sparkling wine are finishing in October now instead of November, and that shortened growing timeline can cause challenges for winemakers trying to get a precise maturity from their wines.

“That means you have to harvest for sparkling wine significantly sooner. It used to be you had to wait until Nov. 1 to reach the finish line. Then that became Oct. 15. Then it became Oct. 5,” Deslauriers said.

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”In a cooler climate, there’s always been a correlation between a longer growing season and sparkling wine. But if you have to pick earlier in the season, all you have is grapes with sugar but without complexity. That can be problematic.”

Winemakers in Nova Scotia are also learning to adapt to hotter summers, which open up new avenues for grape growing in the region. It’s meant a shift toward softer, drier wines that they wouldn’t have imagined making even a decade ago. And it’s allowing experimentation with styles that would have seemed unrealistic just a few decades ago – such as Wolfville & Lightfoot, another local winery that’s growing chenin blanc, a white-wine grape variety more typically associated with South Africa and France’s Loire Valley.

“We’re also seeing a transition of climatic parameters to wines that are softer and not requiring that additional sugar anymore,” Deslauriers said.

There will always be some trial and error for winemakers as the climate warms in the Annapolis Valley, he said. But McLarty, surveying his rows of vines full of plump fruit, says wineries here have no choice but to adapt and try new things.

“I think you have to be a little bit of a risk-taker to own a vineyard in a cold climate,” he said.