Winery takes root on shores of Bras d’Or

Glass Act: August 8, 2015

First, they made their own whisky.

More recently, beer.

Now, Cape Bretoners have all the reasons they need to declare independence from the rest of the province: wine. Eileanan Breagha Vineyards is making Cape Breton’s first commercial wine, available for sale at Marble Mountain winery.

Being a Caper myself, I know just how hard it is to drag friends away from the familiar pint of rum/case of beer summer standbys.

The Island, with its cooler-than-the-mainland climate, might be perceived as lying on a difficult edge of an already challenging grape-growing region, but heads are starting to turn.

Cape Breton holds a few cards that are turning out to be ripe for wine possibilities.

First, the land. With its (relatively) extreme geography, Cape Breton’s sloped terrain offers good drainage (crucial to successful grape growing), and the proximity of many of the slopes to large bodies of water is helpful in moderating vineyard temperatures.

Visitors to Eileanan Breagha will immediately notice another key advantage the land offers to a Cape Breton winery: the view. From the vineyard, your eyes settle on the sparkling Bras d’Or and dance upon the group of islands in the lake. (They used to be cattle pasture — no need for fences!)

From there, it becomes clear why the place is named “beautiful islands.” It is truly the most stunning vineyard vista in the province. I’m sorry, Mr. Luckett, your winery may have to relinquish this title.

Second, the winery has on its side the Cape Breton people. Eileanan Breagha (pronounced AY-len-an BREE-ah; don’t worry, it’s spelled out on each bottle) is Gaelic, in tribute to the Scottish heritage of the owner’s family and Cape Breton’s vibrant Celtic culture.

Eileanan Breagha’s primary target market (for now) is the Island, and in turn the winery is finding itself the target of support by Islanders.

This makes sense: a deep concern for the chronic loss of young people to a more economically promising life off-Island has given rise in recent years to awareness among Cape Bretoners of the need to support local initiatives, particularly industries that add value to the natural riches of the land.

Eileanan Breagha’s presence in Marble Mountain has already created a buzz that is felt all over the island. A month after launching it, the winery’s Founders Club is full, with 100 members pre-purchasing cases. Restaurants all over the Island have ordered Eileanan Breagha wine for their lists. And nearly every person I ran into on a trip home last week, before they asked the requisite “Where are you at these days?” (Capers like to keep tabs on each other) asked instead, “How’s the wine up on the mountain turned out?”

I thought I’d share the answer to that question with you.

But first, full disclosure: Ken MacLellan, who owns Eileanan Breagha Vineyards, is a good Margaree boy and an old friend from high school. Last year, he asked if I would be interested in living and working on his new vineyard in Marble Mountain. A full-time job? In Cape Breton? No Islander turns that down, so I spent last summer and fall learning about (and trying, sometimes in vain, to tame) grape vines and the fruit they bear.

This means the wine from Eileanan Breagha is too close to home (it even says so on the bottle: “a little island in every glass”) for me to give it an objective review.

Objectivity aside, let’s talk about that cold bottle.

Cayuga, like many grapes grown in Nova Scotia, is a hybrid species, meaning it is a variety created to withstand a challenging climate. Originally designed for the Finger Lakes region of New York, Cayuga is celebrated there for its versatility, producing fruity, off-dry or sweet white wines that can take some oak aging, and sparkling wines.

John Pratt, who established the Marble Mountain vineyard 20 years ago, planted the Cayuga that made this year’s wine in 1995, and last year the vines were still producing a high yield of grapes. Eileanan Breagha is, as far as I know, the only winery in Nova Scotia to produce estate-grown (grown on-site) single-varietal (not blended with any other grapes) Cayuga.

I opened a bottle for some friends who graciously shared their reactions.

After they got over the news that Cape Breton is producing wine at all, they admitted surprise that Cape Breton is producing such good wine. A bit acidic at first, that sensation goes away by the second sip, when slight sweetness (“But it’s not sweet”) balances the acidity, making it light and easy (“If you want to know whether I’ll drink more, the answer is yes”).

MacLellan told me that he plans to let the Cayuga hang longer on the vine this year, helping it ripen more and, in turn, lowering the wine’s acidity.

The wine, at 12.9 per cent alcohol, is a bit on the boozy side for Nova Scotia whites (“I’ve only had not even a glass but I’m feelin’ it”), but I have a sneaking suspicion Cape Bretoners will forgive that.

And at $16.50 (the same price as a pint of Captain Morgan White), Eileanan Breagha seems to understand its market well.

This column was originally published by The Chronicle Herald.

5685 Bloomfield St, Halifax, NS B3K 1T