In search of Nova Scotia red wines

Glass Act: September 19, 2014

Nova Scotia can’t make good red wine.

I hear this statement often. I’ve probably said it a few times myself. But if we prefer to be interested in, rather than opinionated about, wine, the topic deserves exploration.

If you’ve been around the Nova Scotia wine scene, you’ll recognize names like Marechal Foch and Lucie Kuhlmann, something called L’Acadie Blanc, which seems to be around a lot, more recently Marquette, and so on.

They sound like the names of French and German explorers, but these are Nova Scotia’s grape varieties, and they differ in some fundamental ways from more recognized varieties like Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

The familiar grapes like Merlot are European varieties, of the species vitis vinifera. Nova Scotia’s grapes are hybrids of species, developed for their resistance to disease and suitability to Nova Scotia’s climate. They are hardy in cold winters and they ripen in our short growing season of minimal overall warmth.

These grapes impact red wine more than white. This is because red wine’s character is all about skin. To ripen properly, red grapes need to develop tannins, aromas and other enzymes that give red wine its full and satisfying mouthfeel; these are found in the skin.

Hybrid grapes have thick skin. Their tannins, that aspect of red wine that leaves a velvety, drying sensation in the mouth, do not develop like vinifera grapes. They tend to be bitter rather than buffing, so Nova Scotia winemakers avoid letting tannins show in their wine. The resulting lack of tannic structure can make the wine feel “watery.”

Hybrids are also highly acidic, which is celebrated in white wine but a challenge in making red, where it can be felt as a sourness if it’s too strong or not balanced by sugar.

Hybrid aromatics are strangely difficult to articulate, but with the help of some friends I came up with a list of things common to hybrid red wines: berries, dark fruit, woodsy and wild aromas, pickled vegetables and charcoal.

Everything I’ve said so far is a generalization. Nova Scotian grape growers are planting more vinifera grapes every year, and wine makers are crafting beautiful wines from European varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

And our hybrid reds are becoming better balanced as winemakers blend varieties for aromatic complexity and introduce oak aging for lights tannic structure.

Still, prudence calls for a test of these generalizations.

For a hybrid red, I chose Blomidon Estate Winery 2013 Baco Noir ($20 at the winery, Bishop’s Cellar and NSLCs)

Baco Noir is a hybrid of a the French vinifera variety Folle blanche and some random vitis riparia — North American — variety. In the ’80s, it was the target of a program designed to increase prices of Canadian wine by decreasing the volume produced. Grape growers were paid to destroy Baco Noir vines.

Today, Baco is alive and well in Nova Scotia (you gotta get one of Blomidon’s “I ♥ Baco” T-shirts), but it has been my least favourite Nova Scotia hybrid, exhibiting a sour cherry aroma that I don’t dig in reds.

The 2013 vintage is different. I tasted it among friends, and they insisted that it was blueberry or maybe blackberry instead of cherry, all fruit and no pickle. Charcoal was there, as though a stand-in texture for the absence of tannin.

For a vinifera red, I chose Bender 2011 Pinot Noir ($25 at Premier Wine & Spirits, Cristall Wine Merchants and Harvest Wines & Spirits).

This Pinot is from Pfalz, a warm, dry region in southern Germany. At 13.5 per cent alcohol, Bender’s Pinot Noir is riding the wave of dry, fuller-bodied wines in recent demand in the German market.

This one’s a bit young, soft tannin, balanced acid and sustained warmth promise good structure, but right now it’s a bare-bones red wine — a cherry twizzler teenager whose body has yet to fill out.

Overall, the Baco is all up front, with lots of fruit, preferred by my friends (even the Germans at the table). The Pinot covered all the mouthfeel bases more successfully. Which wine is better? Depends what you like.

How do our winemakers feel about working with hybrids?

“The local industry has experienced huge growth on hybrids, and now we are able to play with vinifera,” says Blomidon’s vintner Simon Rafuse. But Nova Scotia’s increasingly variable climate means vinifera will always be a risk.

“The extra structure provided by tannin makes vinifera appealing to work with,” he says, but only insofar as it is a different medium for a winemaker — not necessarily a better one.

Halifax wine educator Larry Graham likes the contributions Nova Scotia makes to the wine world with its hybrid varieties.

“What is interesting to me is tasting wine that is unique,” he says. “Does the world really need more Chardonnay?”

Perhaps the biggest mistake in Nova Scotian red wine lies with us, the drinkers. We should not expect our grapes to do what they are biologically incapable of, which is a traditional style of red wine.

They can do other things. Many wineries make rose from their red grapes. Blomidon makes BMD, a sparkling red. L’Acadie Vineyards dries out grapes before pressing them to extract concentrated juice, creating Passito and Alchemy, two fuller-bodied reds. Luckett is burying reds to add structure. I like to simply pop Nova Scotian reds in the fridge and serve them chilled.

In some circles, hybrid red wine will always be inferior. In those situations, I’m taking my cue from the grapes themselves and growing a thick skin.

This column was originally published by The Chronicle Herald.

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