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Food & Wine 10 bargain Canadian bubblies that can rival French Champagne

At the recent christening of the Royal Canadian Navy’s newest Arctic offshore patrol ship, an announcer at the Halifax ceremony made a minor technical error in his address. “Please direct your attention to the bottle of Champagne that’s perched on the top of that arm,” he instructed the dockside crowd, gazing up at a metal rod that had been rigged to hammer down against HMCS Harry DeWolf’s virgin hull. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau then performed the honours, tugging on a long rope to release the arm, causing the bottle to smash against the icebreaker and prompting a round of applause.

I knew it could not be genuine Champagne because Canadians no longer need the halo of French luxury to add sparkle to such proud patriotic moments. It was, in fact, Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2012, a highly appropriate, local choice from Nova Scotia.

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That wine offers clear proof of how far Canadian sparkling wine has come in the decades since Brights President and Baby Duck crowded the dim shelves of our Soviet-era liquor stores. Even if you fail to appreciate Benjamin Bridge’s quality and superiority to some French Champagnes, you’ve got to be impressed by something else: the price. It costs – are you ready? –$74.50 a bottle. That’s 28 cents more than the Nova Scotia price for iconic French Champagne Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Yellow Label.

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Some might see that amount as precocious and baldly opportunistic. Benjamin Bridge’s loyal customers, on the other hand, clearly believe it’s fair given the quality inside the bottle and the patient craftsmanship involving five years of maturation in bottle. The same could be said of superb British Columbia producer Bella Wines’s Westside Vineyard microcuvée vintage-date sparkling wines, two of which cost $65 and which, in my book, are worth every penny (no wonder they’re currently sold out).

Either way, that confident pricing is probably a shrewd marketing strategy because, in the wine world, sticker shock gets you noticed. Nose-bleed pricing certainly is working for British sparkling wine, where the new local industry has become the darling of patriotically obsessed British wine and food writers. The most conspicuous example is Nyetimber 1086 Rosé 2010, a British sparkling wine that garnered much attention in October for the sole reason that it set a new British record, £175 ($300) a bottle. That’s what you call rap-star-level bling. The 1086 rosé (plus a $260 companion white) followed last year’s release of another British luxury wine, Chapel Down’s Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée, at almost $170.

Fortunately, the average cost of Canadian bubblies – most of which are produced in the labour-intensive “traditional method” of Champagne in which bubbles form during a secondary fermentation in bottle – is closer to half the price of Veuve. Yet I can think of many Canadian sparkling-wine producers that deserve equal attention to most in England if not also many in France. Such as: Bella Wines, Blue Mountain, Fitzpatrick Family, Sumac Ridge and Summerhill Pyramid in British Columbia; Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham and Tawse in Niagara; Grange of Prince Edward, Hinterland, Huff Estate and Rosehall Run in Prince Edward County; Le Cep d’Argent in Quebec; and Blomidon, L’Acadie Vineyards and Lightfoot & Wolfville in Nova Scotia. And that’s an abbreviated list.

Herewith, a few patriotic choices ahead of the holidays, with enough time to order online. Most are available direct from wineries, and some in stores where indicated. All would be worthy of launching a ship – or your next party.

Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs R.D. 2010, British Columbia

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $39.90

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This is so dry it’s almost dusty, which is a compliment because it’s no easy feat to craft a balanced bubbly without resort to more sugar than you’ll find in this bottle. Linear and focused, it’s a 100-per-cent chardonnay-based sparkler, made from a special selection of grapes from around the vineyard and matured on the lees for a remarkably long 5½ years. It’s sharply chiselled and layered with flavours of green apple, bread and lemony brioche. The finish is long and comfortingly doughy. Available direct through bluemountainwinery.com, and at select private stores in the West.

Fitz Brut 2015, British Columbia

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $32.99

This is the signature cuvée of an ambitious new B.C. sparkling-wine house built by the Fitzpatrick family that also founded and formerly operated CedarCreek Estate Winery. It’s a roughly 60-40 split of chardonnay and pinot noir, though with a splash of that third, support grape also used in French Champagne, pinot meunier. Aged for 24 months on the lees, it displays excellent concentration and layering, with big notes of orchard fruit and bread. Imagine an apple sandwich – with slices of fruit on toasted bread dusted with lemon zest. Maybe add some chopped hazelnuts and a drizzle of honey, too. Available direct through fitzwine.com.

Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2012, Nova Scotia

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $74.50

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One might be tempted to check for wires dangling out from under the bottle because this is one electric, highly energetic bottle of bubbly. Hyper effervescence and sharp-edged acidity support a wine of impressive depth. There’s a pleasantly funky note on the otherwise fruity, honeyed nose. On the palate, bright lemon and grapefruit lead the way along with toast and brioche, followed by a stony-mineral quality. Available at Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. stores and direct through benjaminbridge.com.

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2013, Nova Scotia

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $44.50

Bright and juicy and doughy, with baked apple, roasted nuts, lemon and stones, this could be considered the standard-bearer for Nova Scotia’s refreshing new saline-mineral bubbly style. A blend of 71-per-cent chardonnay with 29-per-cent pinot meunier. Available in NSLC stores and direct through benjaminbridge.com.

Flat Rock Riddled 2011, Ontario

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $34.95

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A traditional-method blanc de blancs made entirely from chardonnay. One could almost be forgiven for suspecting that this was pressed from apples rather than grapes, however. The essence is uncanny, with alternating notes of McIntosh and Granny Smith against a bone-dry backdrop. Edibly creamy and delectable, with supporting nuances of peach and orange. Available in Ontario Vintages stores.

Redstone Sparkling Rosé 2016, Ontario

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95

Fetchingly pale, salmon-pink in colour, this is made entirely from pinot noir and spent 12 months on lees. It’s bone-dry, with a lovely combination of green apple and tart strawberry delivered with elegantly fine bubbles and invigorating fruit-acid tension. Perfect as a festive aperitif. A great buy. Available through redstonewines.ca.

Steller’s Jay Rosé Sparkling, British Columbia

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $26.99

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Pale salmon-pink in colour, this companion rosé to the iconic Steller’s Jay white bubbly is relatively sweet if still technically dry, with a flavour of strawberry jam so pronounced that you might be tempted to spread it on morning toast. It’s made from an unusual combination of 70-per-cent gamay and 30-per-cent merlot and comes across also with a hint of herbs. A crowd-friendly style, to be sure. Available in B.C. Liquor Stores and direct through stellersjaywines.com.

Rosehall Run Indigo 2017, Ontario

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $24.95

Imagine prosecco made not with the Italian glera grape but with such aromatic varieties as muscat ottonel, chardonnay musqué, riesling and gewurztraminer. This is refermented in large tanks, according to the charmat style common to prosecco, versus the méthode traditionnelle of Champagne. Tart, musky and offbeat, it vaguely tastes like a ginger-ale-based “sangria,” with pieces of pear, apple, white table grape and preserved lemon floating in the pitcher. Available through rosehallrun.com.

Château des Charmes Brut Sparkling Wine, Ontario

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $25.95

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Traditional method, made from chardonnay and pinot noir. Very frothy effervescence subsides in the mouth to reveal a pleasantly chalky texture and crisp-dry profile. The flavour is like bread dough studded with apples and candied citrus. Available in small quantities in select Ontario Vintages stores and direct through fromtheboscfamily.com.

8th Generation Integrity 2017, British Columbia

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $21

Here’s a curiosity. It’s made neither in the bottle-refermented Champagne manner nor the tank-refermented charmat method. Instead, 8th Generation captures the carbon dioxide expelled by yeast during the primary fermentation, stores it and reinjects it into the wine later. So, there’s no aging on the lees (a.k.a. sur lie). The goal was to create a very fruit-forward wine with soft bubbles. Mission accomplished. It’s subtly sweet but technically dry, much like most proseccos, with flavours of ripe pear, lemon and apple. Rounded and well-balanced. A pleasing party wine or excellent aperitif. Available at private B.C. liquor stores and B.C. VQA stores, Save-On-Foods groceries and direct through 8thgeneration.com.

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