On a sun-dappled patio surrounded by orderly rows of grapevines, Swiss banker-turned-winery owner Hanspeter Stutz raises a glass of honey-golden wine. "We have one of the hottest spots in the valley," he says of his 12-hectare vineyard.
That's valley as in Annapolis, not Napa or Barossa or Okanagan. This is Nova Scotia, once a footnote among grape-growing regions, a terroir that produces crisp, cool-climate whites, decadent icewines and Champagne-style sparklings that are attracting international attention.
Three decades after a pioneering grape grower first planted hardy vines on what is now the site of Mr. Stutz's vineyard, the province boasts more than a dozen wineries, 200 hectares of vineyard, a handful of signature grapes and a growing list of award-winning vintages. Hybrid grapes – whites, such as apple-noted L'Acadie Blanc, and floral New York Muscat, stout Marechal Foch and Leo Millot on the red side – thrive in Nova Scotia's cool climate, and growers have had some success with chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir. The development of a Nova Scotia appellation, Tidal Bay, is further evidence of the industry's maturity. First bottled last year and officially launched in May, Tidal Bay is a crisp white blended from local grapes to reflect the terroir. This year, 11 wineries are offering their version of a wine that pairs perfectly with the region's seafood specialties.
To taste the terroir for yourself, start in the university town of Wolfville, the gateway to the Annapolis Valley and its sheltered neighbour, the Gaspereau, just an hour's drive from Halifax. Victorian mansions transformed into bed and breakfasts, top-notch restaurants (Acton's, Tempest and Blomidon Inn all feature local wines on their lists) and a main street strip of shops and cafés make it a great base for exploring the heart of Nova Scotia wine country.
Our tour starts where it all began, at Mr. Stutz's nearby Domaine de Grand Pré (11611 Highway 1; grandprewines.ns.ca). The vineyard covers a knoll overlooking the Bay of Fundy in a village famous for the 1755 deportation of the region's French-speaking Acadians. It's a family affair – his son, Jurg, is the winemaker, and daughter Beatrice runs the renowned on-site restaurant, Le Caveau.
Mr. Stutz discovered the neglected vineyard during a business trip to Canada in the 1990s and transformed it into a showpiece with immaculate landscaping, cobbled walkways, sun-yellow buildings and a tasting bar of gleaming stainless steel and polished stone. The same professionalism and care goes into the wine and he has a long list of national and regional awards to prove it.
The white wine he offers this day is Domaine de Grand Pré's Tidal Bay, a luscious blend of five local grapes and a gold medal winner at the 2012 All Canadian Wine Championships. It's delicious.
From here, it's a short drive over a ridge to the scenic Gaspereau River Valley and the hillside acreage of Luckett Vineyards (1293 Grand Pré Rd.; luckettvineyards.com). It's the new kid on the block, but owner Pete Luckett brings retail savvy and brand recognition: His Halifax-area boutique food shops have made him a household name in the province.
He bought this farm property a dozen years ago for a lifestyle change, then planted vines and had "remarkable results," he says in his Cockney accent. "The next thing, I've got a flippin' winery."
He opened for business last summer, offering tastings and lunch in a Sonoma-style building that offers a spectacular view of the ocean and the red cliffs of Cape Blomidon. He'll break ground this year on a second building, to house an expanded restaurant and wine shop, with plans to add accommodations.
A red London phone booth sits in the middle of new plantings, a nod to Mr. Luckett's heritage. Visitors can use it to call toll-free anywhere in North America and, Mr. Luckett hopes, to tell their friends about the view and his impressive lineup of good wines.
A few kilometres upriver, L'Acadie Vineyards (310 Slayter Rd.; lacadievineyards.ca) winemaker-owner Bruce Ewert has drawn international attention to Nova Scotia's sparkling wines. His 2007 Prestige Brut was the only North American entry to be honoured last fall in a competition held in France, bringing home a silver medal.
The province's first certified-organic winery, L'Acadie is home to a wine shop and tasting room that's open from May to mid-October. Visitors looking for a home base can book one of three on-site cottages, which come complete with a complimentary bottle of wine.
It's a short hop up the valley to Gaspereau Vineyards (2239 White Rock Rd.; gaspereauwine.com), which offers tastings from May to December in a red barn that blends into its pastoral setting. Opened in 2004 by the owners of another pioneering Nova Scotia winery, Jost Vineyards, it's as good a place as any to sample the apple-citrus bite of L'Acadie Blanc.
A hybrid developed in Ontario in the 1950s and a building block of Tidal Bay blends, the hardy L'Acadie is perfectly suited to the province's short growing season and has become "the quintessential Nova Scotia grape," says Gaspereau's winemaker, Gina Haverstock.
"You can grow chardonnay almost anywhere in the world," she says before hiking up the hillside to check the progress of this year's vintages, "but not very many places can you come and try L'Acadie."
Or a glass of Tidal Bay.
IF YOU GO
It's a quick trip from Wolfville to the village of Canning and Blomidon Estate Winery, billed as "Canada's tidal winery" – the vineyard borders the Bay of Fundy – and known for its Chardonnay and Baco Noir vintages. 10138 Highway 221; blomidonwine.com
Benjamin Bridge Vineyards is also in the Gaspereau Valley and produces acclaimed sparkling wines – critics, including The Globe's Beppi Crosariol, compare them to fine French Champagnes. But there is no tasting room or retail store. Private tastings can be arranged by appointment. 1842 White Rock Rd.; 902-542-1560; benjaminbridge.com
Avondale Sky Winery opened last fall and boasts a tasting room housed in a restored 1840s church near Windsor. 80 Avondale Cross Rd., Newport Landing; avondalesky.com
Farther afield, Jost Vineyards overlooks the Northumberland Strait in Malagash, about two hours' drive north of Halifax. Opened in the mid-eighties, Jost has brought German-style winemaking – and scores of national and international awards – to the province. 48 Vintage Lane; jostwine.com
Grape Escapes will offer package and custom tours of all Nova Scotia wineries from Halifax, beginning in May. 902-446-9463; novascotiawinetours.com
Six days a week, from May to October, Go North Tours offers van tours of the Annapolis and Gaspereau valley vineyards, with pickup at downtown Halifax hotels. 902-352-2552; gonorthtours.com