Despite the relative successes of the "Free My Grapes" movement – a consumers' rights organization that was spearheaded by frustrated wine fan Shirley-Ann George a little over five years ago and works to remove barriers to inter-provincial wine trade – we still can't find much Okanagan wine in Ontario (George's particular grievance) nor expressions from Niagara in British Columbia. But you can find Nova Scotia's Benjamin Bridge everywhere, even in the Yukon. The fresh, rosy-golden, peachy sparkler, called Nova 7, is more or less the headliner for Benjamin Bridge and one of the few Canadian labels you might find anywhere from sea to shining sea.
Why? Well, to hear the winemaker tell it, it's just that good; it has practically addictive "drinkability." Nova is no one-hit wonder, either. Benjamin Bridge's other expressions, particularly the Brut Sparkling (a little less fruity and, arguably, more elegant), are featured on restaurant wine lists across the country, including those at the famous Hawksworth in Vancouver, Calgary's Bar Von der Fels and Byblos in Toronto.
"There is a natural selection within the wine industry," says Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, head winemaker at Benjamin Bridge, adding that he has spent very little time campaigning provincial liquor retailers. "Our responsibility is to make the most transparent wines in terms of sharing the story of the growing environment surrounding the Bay of Fundy. And we feel that if we succeed at that, the rest will come naturally."
And it has. The enthusiasm for the operation's wines is palpable, but as Deslauriers points out, it's bigger than just his bottles or one winery. He's working in a remarkable micro-climate and there are other wineries telling the same story he is. In response, wine lovers are eagerly listening and wine from the Annapolis Valley is trendy, possibly on the cusp of becoming Canada's next big thing.
"It's a little bit punny, but people here often say that the rising tide lifts small boats," says Jenner Cormier, an award-winning Halifax bartender who recently returned to his hometown after three years in Toronto, where he was part of the opening team at Bar Raval. "For us to begin to be considered as a place that's producing really good wine is huge for us."
When Cormier left his home for Ontario three-plus years ago, Nova Scotia wines were mainly known for being passable seafood-friendly whites from an underdeveloped region. Upon his return, he was delighted to discover black cabs, pinot noirs and sparkling wines, many of which he describes as "unbelievably complex." Halifax bars such as Little Oak, the city's new wine destination, as well as the well-established locavore hotpot, Lot Six, are plucking the best of the best from wineries like Luckett, Avondale Sky and L'Acadie and offering as many as a half-dozen local options on their wine lists.
The explosion of new labels and expressions in the region is the result of a critical mass of people recently having an epiphany about the unique promise of greatness in the Bay of Fundy's micro-climate. Many, like Deslauriers, relocated from elsewhere to learn about the terroir. And more are on the way. France's Pascal Agrapart, an international star in wine circles who is known for his terroir Champagnes, is about to work with Benjamin Bridge on a new project as a consulting partner. He'll join the many winemakers in the region who realized that the cool climate and extra-long growing season allow grapes to develop phenolic maturity. Deslauriers says he can wait until early November to harvest grapes that have the same level of sugar and unspoiled acidity as the California grapes that have to be harvested in July.
"Because of that constant influx of cool air coming off the Bay of Fundy during the growing season, we can tap into that abnormal amount of hang time," he explains. "And that's a real distinctive advantage with a traditional-method sparkling wine, since there's no substitute for time."
He adds: "That's the gift of the Bay of Fundy."