It’s late October and I’m walking the vineyard with viticulturalist Scott Savoy who gestures below our feet into the genius loci where multiple layers of loam and sandy loam are mixed with river stones. In the vested interest of micro-climate orientation he points out the modest mountain ridges to the north and south, the stretch of valley to the east and west, to the big Bay of Fundy beyond and back down to the earth. He notes the fault line running diagonally away from the crush pad and tasting room, through the vineyard and down the slope to the river below. Today the namesake belongs to the winery but Benjamin Bridge is first and foremost a place. We all want to know about its history because there is something very special here. In this valley the apples are different and the vines grow berries smaller and unique. It’s a place that pulls on the heartstrings of innate curiosity.
Related – Consider the Gaspereau Valley
It comes from the name of the bridge that crosses the Gaspereau Valley and pays tribute to the Benjamin family who dammed up the river to become the first industrialists here. The name is a historical one, not one of fashion, trends, aggrandizement or narcissism. The ownership and the management of Benjamin Bridge Vineyards are fully cognizant of their place within a King’s County pantheon, of the past and for the future. Who among them wouldn’t pay a king’s ransom to protect it? They fully recognize how the tenets of farming, progression, life, struggle and ethos came before them and will continue long after they are gone. Just in case their work in making sparkling wines headed up by chief winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers is not legacy defining enough they recently supplied a bottle of Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Brut Reserve 2012 to christen the first Irving Shipyard built Arctic patrol vessel. Sophie Trudeau used the bottle to christen the Harry DeWolf during an October ceremony on the Halifax waterfront. An interesting and poignant aside, this gesture.
The 2018 Nova Scotia harvest will live in infamy and perhaps not for the reasons everyone involved will want to remember. Frosts, rain, grape growing pressures and more frosts reduced quantities so drastically that emergency fruit was transported across two provincial borders from Ontario, a fact not lost as a notion that is pathetically-monopoly ironic. Annapolis Valley Vineyards were looking at losses of at least 50 per cent following a late Sunday frost overnight and into the morning of June 4th. Temperatures plummeted from the high 20s just two days earlier to minus three degrees celsius. There were some miraculous exceptions to the rule, like Avonport’s Oak Knoll Isle but damage ran from 20 to 100 per cent. Frost that settled in the lowest sections of valley vineyards were hardest hit.
All that happened to Nova Scotia’s wine industry plus more in, outs and twists than a Coen brothers comedy-drama and yet the greatest things happened anyway. The community of growers and producers banded together, traded grapes, shared experience and pulled each other through. This is a place where everyone understands that making wine is not about one vintage, individual accomplishments or accolades. Turning grape water into wine is a life-long partnership with the land, with the weather, the Bay of Fundy and each other. Success is wrought with challenges, adversity and responses to the contretemps of the day. Such tremendous odds give credence to Nietzsche saying “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” leading to an alignment with a maritime band of brothers and sisters. The year 2018 is the vintage during which the Nova Scotia wine producers in and around the Annapolis Valley were forced into a situation of needing one another and to become les retrouvailles, the reunited.
At the fore of this happenstance is Benjamin Bridge Vineyards, both in terms of being the helped and the helper. The Gaspereau Valley sparkling wine specialist is the unquestioned leader of their cottage wine industry and for so many reasons. Decisions made more than a decade ago to invest everything into this stretch of land south of the Bay carved through two micro-climate catalyst ridges for the purpose of creating the newest and most important innovative sparkling wine on the planet is nothing short of historical. The speed bumps may be serious but mark my words (and by many who have stated this before me), Nova Scotia is second only to Champagne for making the kind of sparkling wine we should and will want to drink. No disrespect intended to Franciacorta, Alta Lange, Prosecco, Crèmant de Loire, Bourgogne, Jura or d’Alsace. No ill will meant towards Sonoma County, Ontario, British Columbia, Tasmania, England or Roberston’s Méthod Cap Classique. I love you all but Nova Scotia can raise grapes for traditional method sparkling wine in ways and with results that blow everything else out of the proverbial water.
Case in point, time and again, with variations on the theme, measurable and of a ceiling reckonable through infinite possibility. In this part of Canada vinifera varietals like chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier can linger well in the autumn months, reach brix levels ideal for sparkling wine and still maintain acidities at levels all other regions can only dream of. The effect of the Bay of Fundy creates a unique environment, plain, simple and complex. Imagine adding up the flow of all the rivers in the world and asking that accumulation to submit to the power of one body of water’s tides that lower and rise as much as 17 metres every day. The Bay is like an air pump that moderates climate. Frosts be damned the picking in the Gaspereau of grapes just ripe enough for making wine is the latest anywhere. In Franciacorta for example picking of chardonnay happens in early August, just to keep natural acidity. In California it’s July and in the dead of night. We have begun to taste Nova Scotia bubbles at eight, nine and ten years on their lees. The results are astonishing with a combination of texture and acidity never seen before. As I said, the ceiling is boundless.
The charge at Benjamin Bridge is led by founder Gerry McConnell who purchased the property with his late wife Dara Gordon in the Gaspereau Valley in 1999. McConnell worked with Canadian oenological consultant Peter Gamble and Sparkling Wine Consultant/Champagne specialist Raphaël Brisbois to establish vineyards, a protocol and a long-term strategy for making world-class bubbles. Within three years of launching the project they knew it would work.
The unfortunate passing of Raphaël Brisbois left a huge hole in the hearts and the ethos of the BB project but great timing, fortune and intellect came to the company in the extraordinary ethic and cerebral meanderings of head winemaker Deslauriers. Originally from Québec, J-B joined in 2008 and for 10 years has explored, extrapolated and elevated the game. No combination of diversity and focus is more apparent than it is now at Benjamin Bridge.
The team on the ground and in the cellars is led by Head Viticulturist Scott Savoy and Chris Campbell who aides, abets and manages the trilogy of harvest, cellar and production operations. Alex Morozov is Assistant Winemaker to Deslauriers. Gerry’s twin daughters Devon and Ashley McConnell-Gordon have run the daily operations of the winery since early 2010, Keltie MacNeill manages the BB Club and Gillian Mainguy is the face of the place. Some of you may remember Gillian at Wines of Nova Scotia but now she is marketing, public relations and tireless world traveller on behalf the BB brand.
In the third week of October I spent 48 hours with the gang at Benjamin Bridge. Crushing, talking, pressing, tasting, pumping, discussing, racking, ruminating, walking and speculating. There is a foundation of land, people and spirit you can’t know until you come here to really know.
The base is the matter and what matters comes from the great base
The discussion with Gerry and Jean-Benoit is now woven into the fabric of relationship with Pascal Agrapart who has been making wines at Champagne Agrapart & Fils since 1983. BB is keen on keeping a lineage with Champgane, a connection, to pursue more richness, texture and wines structurally rounder and fuller. Says Deslauriers, “we’re looking for the growers taking a Burgundian approach to winemaking, in the vineyard first. Pascal’s wines have always had that compelling textural quality.” Has anyone in Canada ever taken a grower’s approach to sparkling wine is the question. Here in Nova Scotia these are the wines with a stamp, of an equation in confluence from estate plus local vineyards and growing environments. The wines are not in jeopardy by adding this richness. “We still recognize the parcels we have selected through the wines we have made. There is still an inherent Benjamin-ness to the wines, ” adds Chris Campbell. I tasted the following wines off the record, some unfinished and others still who are the children of experimentation but even more so as matters of conceptual links to the reasons why Benjamin Bridge even exists at all.
Part estate and part Kingsport chardonnay fruit, with effervescence not the thing but it should tell a story. Already showing off its richness, density and concentration, even herein the “entry level,” the first full vintage for and from Pascal’s influence and tutelage. Cool stuff in here, decoupement particulare, this taking of different parcels for micro-vinifications.
Brut Reserve 2016
Of chardonnay and pinot noir, from the oldest estate blocks. There is so much more complexity, legit and from the word go. The terpenes are exceptional ones, and that is something they can be, built on acidity. Even without bubbles you can fully relate to it as the wine it knows it is. Grapefruit and tangerine, dry and sumptuous. The base is the matter and what matters comes from the great base. Perspective comes at you in solicitation of your emotions and opinions in many ways. You don’t always need CO2 to make contact with sparkling wines.
Blanc de Noirs 2016
Now into pinot noir this new perspective makes you want to admit that it may be that chardonnay and pinot noir come together with a higher ceiling as a sum of their parts. Here it’s the antithetical aromatics of lemon rosewater and an amaro-herbal-red currant thing. Also oranges with spirit and a linger that reminds of the best athlete, with the greatest potential, but not the flashy star who scores early and often.
The secondary fermentation is only a few weeks old and it’s a very primary notation, with the bubble still on the way up. The rise is lime as a slow crawl along a coaster’s upward track, welling with tension and a coursing flow of anticipation. By way of comparison there is a tonic phenolic uprising either not noted or now having dissipated from the 2016.
Brut Reserve 2017
Once again the youth and the young phenols of very early fermentation but also a course led by the most unusual of vintages, cold and wet all summer long followed by 30-plus degrees in September and October. That’s 30-plus higher than right now in 2018. The contact here is unlike ’16, almost agitating and certainly unsettled. It would prefer not to be bothered at this time.
A non-vintage ’16, tirage in ’17. Could be vintage-dated but isn’t and won’t be. Higher acidity and more of the tonic phenolic-ness that the young ‘17s are showing. So I conclude that the NV is less structured and as an acumen-accumulated base wine it’s like a Blanc de Noirs or a reserve when younger. The translation states they are not only on to something and a real pattern is forming but they really know what they are doing, in separating micro cuvées and the outstanding wheat from the excellent chaff.
While I tasted these unfinished wines and other tank samples I also assessed 10 new wines from the portfolio. Here are my notes. The prices are all Nova Scotia retail from the winery.
Disgorged June of 2018, now four plus months in bottle. Right from the beginning it is energy, spirit and tension. It’s mostly chardonnay but suggests richness marked by toast and flint. Quite a smokiness, not from oak, but an autolytic one. A true wine of secondary fermentation, naked and smouldering. Richness comes naturally, in second term existential notability, followed by density and length. The linger turns to mineral and salinity and you really want more right away, to layer upon what’s still left lingering behind. This is the Benjamin Bridge project incarnate, defined, teachable house style. The words of Jean-Benoit Deslauriers echo in your head, “with the possibility of absolute transcendency.” Eventually. Drink 2018-2028. Tasted October 2018 benjaminbridge liffordgram @Benjamin_Bridge @LiffordON @benjaminbridgevineyards @liffordwineandspirits
Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Brut Reserve 2012, Nova Scotia, Canada (275396, $74.95, WineAlign)
Now into a real vinous notion, with extra concentration that reminds you how Reserve wines have to be perfectly exceptional as still wine. The bubbles bring an added dimension but they are not the be all, end all. The richness here is taken to another level, still of course with a toasty edge but it’s the 2002 blocks of estate chardonnay and pinot noir (then 10 years old) that deal in this endearing fruit and enduring length. The sip expands and increases, with knowledge that it is that fruit, very apple orchard but a variety not fully known that drives this wealth. It’s also knife-edged and able to keep this youthful tension cut and fissured through the mouth. Not a sprinter but a climber able to amble and scramble up to heights for a decade plus. Drink 2018-2029. Tasted October 2018
The following two wines were tasted in 2017 and a few months earlier at #i4c 2018, Ontario’s Cool Climate Chardonnay Conference in Niagara.
Tasted from a bottle disgorged in May 2017, there alights a plugged-in, three-pronged, dazed, charged and enchanted energy about the Bridge’s ’13 Blanc de Blancs. The history of go it alone pure chardonnay is a relatively short one for the estate so this quickly makes up for lost time or rather with haste sets the timer and heads out at first light. “Like sittin’ on pins and needles, things fall apart, it’s scientific.” Wild, of talking heads temper and yeasts, done up in demi-muids, with a wilder secondary fermentative push riding on the coattails of the primary fermentation. Everything in this wine is a productive child of the vineyard, of no third party sugars or consultations. “How do you do that without making a Pétillant Naturel,” I wonder aloud. It’s a second ferment, non-contiguous is the reason, even if the former is both influencer and mentor to the latter. It certainly falls under the category of “micro-cuvée. Like its cousin and predecessor (Blanc de Noirs 2011), this ’13 BdeB is mired intensely inward within its own specificity and is not so much a sparkling wine with competitive soul. It is a pure representative of chardonnay grown in Nova Scotia for one purpose. So let’s talk about true stories and wild, wild life. “You get on board anytime you like.” Drink 2018-2024. Tasted July 2017
The vintage 2012 marks the beginning of the Benjamin Bridge oak program, here with some purchased fruit from friends and neighbours Lightfoot & Wolfville. This January 2018 disgorged bottle spent 66 months on its very, very fine lees and represents the inaugural departure away from reductive chardonnay in traditional method housing. Its acidity is striking, ripping and amazingly shot straight up to light and ignite the olfactory nerve. That is seems another six months to a year will only lead to textural and mouthfeel home improvements tells us there is seemingly no ceiling for how long on lees these south Fundy shore valley sparkling wines can go. The research is still one in progress but this much we know. The house of Nova Scotia is built on acidity. It’s a commodity much of the rest of the wine-growing planet will want to pay anything to use. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted July 2018
Now back to October 2018.
With time rieslings change drastically, much more so than traditional method sparkling, completely disconnected from their youth. So where is this going? Energy, tension, Nova Scotia. This is a Bay of Fundy riesling, ocean-wise, saline, poignant, direct. There are herbs and fennel but already this onset of glück and proverbial riesling stamp. Lemon-lime, tart angling, green to ripe apricot. Mostly fruit from grower John Warner, it’s not too edgy, a dry, albeit 15 g/L RS style. The Mosel frame is obvious and the ceiling for potential great but this strikes me as being three to four years away from really moving into another gear. Drink 2020-2027. Tasted October 2018
There is something I can’t simply put a nose or a finger on. It’s floral but also aerified, stratified, stratospheric, atmospheric. It’s sugary honeyed and very beeswaxy but not in a sticky way. The balance is a roundabout one where you have to travel the entire circumference in order to tie the whole room together. Something umami meets intangible allows you to imagine where 2016 will travel but it’s just an inkling coupled with a hunch. The wax is lit or rather unlit, snuffed, smouldering and beautiful. So worth this five years forward visit. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted October 2018
The 2013 was the inaugural release and so here the fifth marks the man, the myth, the legend. Should sauvignon blanc be a Nova Scotia something, grown here is this tiny stretch of narrow valley? The answer is no but taste the impossible results and then try to say it with a straight face. A man who loves Sancerre and has the vision to stick with this project through unsurmountable odds and adversity deserves to drink his very own, very excellent sauvignon blanc. This 2017 strings forward a great moment of continuity although in less tropical, more saline and increased tension ways. There is an infiltration by tonic, lemon and lime and yet still explosively aromatic with citrus peel that connects the two vintages by way of this unequivocal substance and emotion. Let’s wait on this buffering streamer. Drink 2020-2027. Tasted October 2018
The difference between this and the previous vintage is turbidity, having it and not. It’s a negotiable varietal that doesn’t really prepare for winter and it’s not a match made in heaven with the climate. That said the adversity makes for wines of great interest. Not driven by rational motivation but by passion and love, from 0.75 tonnes of yield per acre. Explosive from the concentration delivered to each privileged berry. Dry extract is through the roof. The passion fruit on this ’16 is uncanny, almost tropical in fact it really is and yet in the end there is a revival of salt, tonic and lime. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted October 2018
Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 Sparkling 2017, Charmat Method, Nova Scotia, Canada (256289, $24.95, WineAlign)
You’ll be pleased to know that Nova 7 is a child of wild ferment and made in 15,000 cases. It’s not tied to any real natural winemaking processes, but considering all that is in the balance it was decided not to add any sulphur in the winemaking process, only before bottling. Hard line indeed. No messing with the aromatic spectrum, not the terpenes nor the esters or anything else, so that the wine has developed its full aromatic possibility. Just the greatest lithe hint of effervescence, the crushable one, better than mega purple sweet confections for people who want to drink flavour. Peach, strawberry and juicy fruit for the people, for everyman, woman and non gender specific imbiber, for people in the sticks who don’t, won’t and can’t drink grower’s Champagne. Aromatic backbone is New York Muscat, plus ortega, seyval blanc, l’acadie, vidal, riesling, chardonnay (and no perle). “It’s all a lot of oyster and no pearlA, perfect for this long December. And no need to swirl, so you get a kick from the natural CO2. Drink 2018-2020. Tasted October 2018
“We knew in this season we wouldn’t have enough for a full-on commercial Rosé,” tells Jean-Benoit Deslauriers. This was harvested same day, red or pink, November 10th, whole cluster pressed for a few hours and then after débourbage transferred into concrete egg. There is remained for nearly six months and in March it was highly turbid at ferments’ end. No fining, no filtration, never a sulphur addition with thanks to natural acidities that protect. It’s a perfectly lovely oxidative note with creaminess brought by the egg, never to be stripped away. It emulates the Kingsport vineyard and the varietal. Orange skin, salinity and integrated variability, with good tonic bitters. Even a bit of firmness of tannin that says its come into its own now and will be a cerebral bit of fun for two or three more years. This is Rosé very much meant to be. There were in and around 200 cases made, this essentially estate exclusive, with a few exceptions. Drink 2018-2021. Tasted October 2018
Still from the Kingsport farm fruit, a whole cluster ferment, no messing with stems, fully oxygenated, no carbonic maceration, 30-40 per cent whole bunch. Total output is “a barrel and a bit.” An infused aromatic ferment, green spice and a char of tobacco, utter intensity, compelling and a phenolic reality. “A myth buster incarnate,” says JB, ripened beyond the sensory borders, miles away from other territories, with generosity and juicy ripe legs. From a warm vintage, nine months in neutral oak plus nine in the bottle. Then a decant and oh how the florals open up, furthered, blooming and intoxicating. More than just a fun little experiment so please wake up and smell the Gaspereau Valley. So lively, a wee salty and all energy. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted October 2018
And one final tank sample.
Cabernet Franc 2017
A good portion of, as in 100 per cent whole berry, whole cluster fruit ferment. Heavily oxygenated, non-carbonic, from four barrels, to be bottled in December and then released next fall, so nine plus nine. There’s the floral rising from the glass, so pronounced. Strawberry, mint, cherry and liquorice, amaro, spice and tobacco. Green and pyrazine are looked for and not found. It’s the sand layer under the strat of mixed recent glacial run off rocks that mitigate the bubbling water beneath the soil and give this a tannic structure unheard of in Nova Scotia reds, Also remembering the urgency at the hands of the whole cluster ferment. There are 900L available. Grab ’em by the growlers.
Good to go!