Nova Scotian wine reveals its source, and its competitive edge, in a climatically-changing world
In the midst of a national wine event that is less about wine and more about its stewards, the competitors, judges, volunteers and fans of Canada's Best Sommelier Competition, held in Halifax this week, were offered the rare opportunity to judge Nova Scotian wine against the best in the world.
"After some consideration and deliberation we decided that it was important, given the calibre of competitors, judges and media in attendance, that we had a real opportunity to showcase Nova Scotia's potential for sparkling wine production," said Mark DeWolf, Halifax sommelier, instructor with the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers-Atlantic Chapter (CAPS-AC), and organizer of the Master Class.
The two-hour "Master Class" was hosted by Peter Gamble, internationally recognized wine maker, taster, judge and consultant for wineries in their start-up phase, and Jean-Benoit Delauriers, winemaker for Benjamin Bridge Vineyards in Wolfville, whose sparkling wines have been attracting international critical acclaim. Gamble was lead consultant in the establishment of Benjamin Bridge.
At each seat, in three Champagne flutes, a few ounces of blond wine bubbled. All three glasses, we were told, were from the 2004 vintage, and all three were made up of roughly the same varietals, dominated by about 55% pinot noir. The big difference between the wine in front of us was where each came from: some was from Nova Scotia and some from Champagne, but it was unknown which was which. The aroma in the room was unmistakably toasty, a classic characteristic of traditional method sparkling wine.
Traditional method (or methode classique) sparkling wine is different from other methods of making bubbly in that fermented grape juice is bottled and a second fermentation is allowed to take place inside the sealed bottle. This allows the wine longer contact with yeast cells, creating that toasty, yeasty, altogether sexy aroma, and for carbonation to occur in the bottle. (Basic chemical equation for making wine: Yeast + sugar from the grape juice = alcohol + CO2.) For these reasons and others, including the long and meticulous process of coaxing dead yeast cells out of a bottle without losing the carbonation of the wine (called "riddling"), traditional method sparkling wine is labour intensive, and therefore can be very expensive.
"The growing season in Nova Scotia is extremely similar to that of Champagne" where the world's best sparkling wine is made, said Gamble, showing the climatic comparisons between Nova Scotia and Champagne on a chart provided by Peter Goneau, a student with CAPS-AC. "This is one of the few places on earth that will produce grapes ripening at 18 brix [a measure of sugar content], with the proper acid and pH levels. This is rare."
Gamble gestured to the glasses in front of us. "If we're doing what we should--letting the earth speak--this should be a study of terroir."
Terroir refers to the environmental conditions--climate, geography and geology--that, if allowed by a winemaker, are revealed in the drinker's experience of the wine. Because terroir is unique (no two grapevines can occupy the same space at the same time), and because the sensations of breathing and tasting are so personal, wine lovers can be irrationally passionate about terroir, much in the same way any one of us can be irrationally passionate about Grandma's scalloped potatoes. In other words, wine is an expression of place.
So is there no place--or taste--like home?
I sniffed and sipped each of the three glasses, and connected immediately to the first two, where cold mountain streams and crisp acidity reminiscent of spring rhubarb burst through the yeast and creamy mouthfeel of bubbles. A May swim at Carter's Beach. Glass number three was warmer, more mellow, less complex. Chilling on a Mediterranean boardwalk--so easy, so pleasant.
There is a movement in the global wine world, said Gamble, toward appreciating bright, clean wines. This is good for Nova Scotia, where high acid content in grapes--due primarily to low median temperatures--provides clean structures from which winemakers can build balanced wine. High acid also allows for aging; the high acid in the pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grown in Champagne is part of the reason the region's celebrated wine ages so well.
But Champagne--that place that fiercely defends its name (no other place may produce sparkling wine by the name "Champagne"), whose methode champenoise is gruelling, and where the winemaking culture is predominantly non-vintage (most of the time, no date is marked on bottles because wine from X chateau is always exactly the same, year to year to year)--is changing. This is not due to the shift in the global wine palate that Gamble mentioned. This is because the place itself--the terroir--is changing.
Global warming is being felt--and tasted--in the caves of Champagne. To accommodate the need to keep acid levels in the grapes high, legal vineyard yields have been raised. (There is an inverse relationship between the amount of fruit a vine produces, and the acid content of that fruit.) Malolactic fermentation--a traditional treatment of Champagne that neutralizes unpalateable acid, and also adds a creamy texture to wine--is also being used less in Champagne, because grapes are being harvested with a level of acid that doesn't need as much treatment to create a balanced wine. This reduction in "malo" is resulting in a more citric, brighter style of Champagne.
Deslaurier doesn't use malolactic fermentation in his sparklers.
"If we're going for a correct embodiment of a sense of place, then malo de-natures the wine, takes it in a direction that moves away from what is unique and indigenous to us," he said. "For me, there must be a clear link between what's going on in the vineyard and the bottle of wine."
DeWolf's goal of showcasing Nova Scotia's strengths for some of the best wine minds (and eyes, noses and mouths) in the country was met with enthusiastic engagement by the class participants.
"I wanted to attend the class to gain a deeper understanding of traditional method, as I talk a lot about the process already on my tours," said Susan Downey, who is working toward her sommelier certification and who operates Grape Escapes, a Nova Scotia winery tour company. "I loved the surprised sound of the crowd when the results were revealed as Nova Scotia's sparklers stood up to the best in the world. This growth and development gives me a sincere warming feeling in my heart...and on my palate," she laughed.
The Master Class was indeed a warm-up, to an afternoon of intense competition as Canada's best sommeliers performed in front of a panel of judges the extreme-sport version of wine stewardship. The three finalists--Elyse Lambert and Veronique Rivest from Quebec and Will Predhomme from Ontario--demonstrated a confidence in their senses and connection to the language of sensation that was thrilling to behold. In the end, Quebec's Rivest was named the new Canadian champion, earning her the right to represent Canada in Japan at the World's Best Sommelier Competition. The three finalists will represent Canada at the Best Sommelier in The Americas Competition in Brazil. For a better sense of what the competition was like, check out Atlantic Canada wine writer Craig Pinhey's article in The Coast, "Tough Competition."
The Master Class wines, revealed: Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve Late Disgorged (Nova Scotia, Canada; $89.50), Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve (Nova Scotia, Canada; $89.50), and Cristal (Champagne, France; $215).
Moira lives and bikes in Halifax, and operates Unwined, a wine workshop and tasting party service in town.