Beautiful Bubbles: Benjamin Bridge Trio

3 02 2016

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

If you have a passing familiarity with the Canadian wine scene, you’re probably pretty comfortable about what’s where.  You know that the two big players are the Okanagan and Niagara.  You know where to look for dynamite Riesling, Gewurz, Gamay and Cab Franc.  You may know about the potential rise of Syrah out west, about new possibilities in the Similkameen and a focus on subregional quality in Prince Edward County and the Golden Mile Bench.

But did you know that the best sparkling wine in Canada may well be made in…Nova Scotia?

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A Nova Scotia awakening.

Despite only being in existence for just over a decade, Benjamin Bridge definitely deserves a place at Canada’s bubbly head table, and to my mind they are already the cream of the crop.  Located in the Gaspereau Valley northwest of Halifax, in north-central Nova Scotia (bordering the Bay of Fundy as opposed to the Atlantic), Benjamin Bridge is without question the most acclaimed and well-known winery east of Niagara, producing a wide range of bottlings but focusing heavily on traditional method sparkling wines.  The Gaspereau, with its (unsurprising) cool climate and maritime breezes, delivers a colder, shorter growing season promoting leaner ripening and lower yields, one remarkably similar to bubbly’s Mecca, Champagne in France.  The marginal conditions and harsh winters mandate partial reliance on hardier and earlier-ripening hybrid grapes, which are not usually known for their complexity and delicacy in the bottle, but somehow the winery makes them sing, embracing rather than hiding them and adding a unique sense of intrigue to the wines as a result.

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I had the opportunity to taste through a trio of Benjamin Bridge’s Maritime bubbles and came away even more enamoured with the winery than when I started.  This is some serious juice that answers all questions about Nova Scotia’s ability to generate globally significant wine.

2014 Benjamin Bridge Nova 7

I have had a LOT of Nova 7 in recent years.  It’s been my go-to bottle in the Moscato d’Asti style:  lightly sparkling, notably off-dry, eternally ready for patio or aperitif duty.  The Nova is a “proprietary blend of signature aromatic whites” that no end of Google searching could apparently decode, beyond revealing that it features a couple of different Muscat varieties (for aromatics and flavour) and multiple hybrids (for acid and structure).  The bubbles are gentle, the alcohol very low (8% abv), the residual sugar prominent (80 g/L) and the resulting wine eminently gulpable.

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The 2014 version of Nova 7 is an eye-catching rose-like salmon colour and immediately unleashes emphatic pink grapefruit and floral aromas, with underlying traces of chalky minerality sweetened by candied grape Rockets.  Sugar and acid run on parallel electrified rails on the palate, although this vintage seems a little softer on the latter front than past years, making the wine come across as rounder and friendlier, if less racy.  White grape juice, green apple Jolly Ranchers and pink lemonade ride tickly bubbles to a clean finish.  People who don’t like wine will still like this, and people seriously into wine will still appreciate it.  That’s about the hardest line to straddle in the business.

88 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique NV

This is the very first non-vintage sparkling release from Benjamin Bridge, after 13-odd years of making wine.  A wine designated as “non-vintage” actually means “multi-vintage” — the grapes that go into it come from many different years instead of just one.  This is rare in the still wine world but very common with bubbly, where (particularly in Champagne but also elsewhere) producers mix batches from multiple vintages together in an effort to create and maintain a consistent house style.  Of course, you can’t do that until you have multiple vintages to pull from, which is partly what made Benjamin Bridge wait a decade plus before releasing its initial effort at a non-vintage cuvee, which contains wine from vintages dating all the way back to its very first release in 2002.  Believe me, it was worth the wait.

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The NV is made in the same method as Champagne, with a secondary fermentation induced inside the bottle of a low-alcohol base wine through the addition of extra yeast and unfermented juice, leading to an alcoholic boost and the production of CO2 that gets trapped in the wine and creates the bubbles.  It is another “proprietary blend” that includes the hybrids L’Acadie, Vidal (famous for ice wine) and Seyval as well as the standard Champagne grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.  I had never heard of L’Acadie before, but it’s a crossing of lesser-known grapes Cascade and Seyve-Villard (aren’t you glad you asked?) and has been called the “Nova Scotia equivalent to Chardonnay”.  It is a cold-hardy variety whose vines can survive freezing temperatures much lower than most wine grapes, which makes it invaluable in the Gaspereau.

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This wine, which sells for $28 at the winery and does not appear to be much more elsewhere, is absolutely ridiculous for the price.  The surprising predominant flavour is black licorice/star anise, but it’s surrounded by piercing swirls of powdered candy, pear, brine, mint and toast, layered with blackcurrant, wet leaves and brown sugar on the palate, powering into a salty, woodsy finish.  In comparison to Champagne, there is more fruit and spice here and fewer yeasty, fermented notes, but equally fine, poignant bubbles, crisp and integrated acidity and incredible length.  I could drink this every day, and at that price, I could almost afford to.  I really hope somebody sells this in Alberta; believe me, I am going to find out.

92 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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Cork Rating: 6.5/10 (Better than most Champagne corks, but additional sprucing possible IMO.)

2008 Benjamin Bridge Brut

Generally speaking, vintage-dated sparklers make use of the top grapes from each harvest year to produce something that clearly reflects both the time and place of its creation.  This is actually the second youngest bottle of vintage bubbles available from Benjamin Bridge; the current release is the 2009.  It takes so long to hit the market because, after secondary fermentation is complete, the wine sits on the lees (the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation) for 4 years before they are disgorged, and then gets even more maturation time before the release.  As you might expect, this has a significant effect on flavour and complexity, rendering it a different beast entirely from its equally excellent non-vintage counterpart. 

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This bottle finally has a blend I can cite with confidence:  it’s 42% L’Acadie, 40% Serval, 10% Pinot Noir and 8% Chardonnay.  Can a wine made up of 82% hybrid grapes stand up to the pricy vintage bubbles in the world?  With ease.  Notably deeper and more golden in colour than the NV, the 2008 Brut unveils a nose that is equally yeasty and confectionary, malted chocolate, sake, angel food cake and salted caramel.  However, the true tale of the wine is its texture, almost surreal in its silky, layered creaminess.  Toffee-like flavours of butterscotch and creme brûlée are intentionally sullied by lees-induced notes of sourdough and olive oil.  This is rich, decadent, luxurious; it reminded me very much of an R.D. (Recently Disgorged) Champagne.  The next time you think you know what Nova Scotia wine tastes like, give this a shot.  A paradigm shift through and through.

92+ points

$45 to $50 CDN

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