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FOOD AND DRINK

5 MIN

A Toast to the East Coast: Touring Nova Scotia's Unique Wineries

Only by visiting the province itself can you sample most of the interesting, unique offerings of this up-and-coming wine region

Nova Scotia’s Annapolis and Gaspereau valleys get cold – way colder than the Okanagan, and with spikes that out-freeze Niagara – and so the wines here are different: different grapes, difference flavours, different styles. A wine tour here had me reaching deep into my sensory archive, past the leathers and tobaccos, the berries and stone fruits, to come up with the flavours some of these wines were throwing down – such as deli meat, to give one odd example.

A wine tour of Nova Scotia is going to be an education for even the most oenophilic tourists, and you’ll want to try as wide a range as you’re able. You could drive yourself out to the dozen or so vineyards within an easy distance of Halifax that are slowly but surely making Nova Scotia Canada’s third wine-growing region, but then you couldn’t drink …

… and you’ll want to drink. Your solution, then: There’s a bunch of tour services that will shuttle you from one vineyard to the next. I took one called Grape Escapes. The driver-slash-tour guide offers a little commentary along the way, some about wine, but mostly about the countryside, the history, a good overview. We stopped at the Grand Pré lookout with its two bright red Muskoka chairs aimed across those vast meadows the silver steeple, and those of us who had lines of Longfellow in our heads were able to recall Evangeline and her travails as we basked briefly in the place where the epic poem was set, those pleasant farms no longer wasted.

The guide will mostly leave the real wine talk to the vintners. The drive to our first stop, Domaine Grand Pré, is bucolic from the outset. It doesn’t take long to get out of Halifax and into the Annapolis Valley with its ash and jack pine and bushes of honeysuckle and holly. The valley is the site of some of the oldest European settlements in North America. The first dating from 1605, and before that, the Mi’kmaq diverged from the more westerly Algonquin peoples probably several thousand years before that – long enough to have developed quite a different language, and their own hieroglyphics. The Mi’kmaq sided with the French against the English during the Seven Years’ War. The English won, and very long story short, the French-speakers became a minority distributed among an English-speaking majority. Today, both the indigenous and Acadian (that is, French-speaking Maritime) cultures have begun to rise again, as evidenced by shops like the Annapolis Valley First Nation Gas Bar & Market, and any number of restaurants and inns using the valley’s Acadian history as their selling point.

It has taken all that time to get grapes to rise from the Nova Scotia soil, too. French settlers brought vine clippings in the 17th century, but they all died pretty quick deaths. Richard Dial started Domaine Grand Pré in 1979, then abandoned the effort. After a number of years the Stutz family resuscitated it – led by Jürg, who studied viticulture in Switzerland, a terroir that has much in common with Nova Scotia, geographically and culturally: both are located on the periphery of a larger wine culture, with climate and soil that demand out-of-the-ordinary grapes.

Domaine de Grand Pré

A tour of Grand Pré starts with a visit to the vines. The star of every Nova Scotia vineyard is l’Acadie Blanc, a grape developed in Ontario in the 1950s that has flourished in the Annapolis and Gasperau valleys: It boasts the body of a Chardonnay and the citric grassiness of a Sauvignon Blanc. But Grand Pré stands out for its enthusiasm with a range of red varietals. Some will have heard of the Alsatian Maréchal Foch, though few, I suspect, will be familiar with Léon Millot, developed by the same Colmar viticulturist, with its distinctive deli meat profile – corned beef or pastrami was what came to mind first – or the early-ripening French-American hybrid Castel and its cinnamon and cloves. The vines are young still, and the reds, were they beers, would probably be of the session variety: good flavour, not a lot of complexity, and drinkable by the bottle.

About four kilometres down Grand Pré Road is Luckett Vineyards, the big tourist attraction in the area. Pete Luckett, the British impresario behind the operation, tells a story of how he called up his pals back in Nottingham to steal the red phone box from the bottom of the street where he grew up so he could install in in his new vineyard. However it actually got there, it’s there and functioning out among the vines, where Pete invites you to call whomever you’d like in North America, free of charge.

Inside, there’s a shop with a wide range of wines, sometimes including a “buried” category, which he ages in barrels buried on his property – more for cachet than effect, one suspects. And there’s also, naturally, a Phone Box Red, which marries the Foch and Millot with the even less-well-known Lucy Khulmann and Triomphe grapes (the latter being big in the even more nascent U.K. wine industry). Pete himself is the best part of this experience, if he’s around and not too swamped by Magic Bus-loads of people. If he isn’t available, the terrace looking out over the rolling vineyard, you can make an afternoon out of large plates of simple but tasty food alongside large glasses of these hearty wines.

Courtesy Scott Munn / Nova Scotia Tourism

Can you spot the phone booth at Luckett Vineyard?

But the highlight of any one of these tours is going to have to be the méthode champenoise – that is, Champagne-style – wines from L’Acadie Vineyards. I tried it in a flight at the Obladee wine bar in Halifax (1600 Barrington St.), and though I’d been told to look out for the Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 sparkling, I found this very popular wine fruity enough to warrant its own bubblegum tie-in deal.

The L’Acadie was a revelation: Certainly better than any prosecco I’d had, and the only wine I had in the region that I’d say was worth the trip in itself, rather than as part of the experience of drinking your way through the Annapolis and Gaspereau valleys. Bruce Ewart, the winemaker who cut his teeth in the Okanagan, gives at least some of the tours. He’s a font of knowledge on the peculiarities of Nova Scotian winemaking. He’s also pretty pumped on the scene he’s fast becoming a focus of.

“I wouldn’t want to be making wine anywhere else right now,” he says. “We’re making it all up as we go along, discovering what’s possible, coming up with new techniques, new spins on old techniques, new tastes, and entirely new wines.”

Due to laws that B.C. premier Christy Clarke has called “Byzantine,” it is difficult to buy wine made in any province other than your own. This started to change this summer, when B.C., Ontario and Quebec reached an agreement to smooth the interprovincial trade, but for the moment, Nova Scotia is still out in the cold, so to try any of the newest wines being made in this still very new wine region, you’re going to have to go to Nova Scotia, and often to the vineyards themselves, to taste them. It’s worth the trip.

Bert Archer received travel support from Tourism New Brunswick and Moncton Tourism, which did not review this story before publication. 

Published Wednesday, October 5th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Len Wagg / Nova Scotia Tourism

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