Like any good adventure, our foray into Nova Scotia wine country started without much of a plan.
One September morning, two stops into local farmers' markets, the coolers were overflowing with crisp apples, buttermilk biscuits and farm-fresh carrots when inspiration hit. As a farmer wrapped up organic sausage rounds in Tatamagouche, I remembered the free U-Barbecue on the patio of Jost Vineyards, 10 minutes away on the Malagash Peninsula.
A free barbecue to use? On a licensed patio? By a vineyard?
I don't know why my husband doubted me. Yes, yes, and yes.
We followed the arrows on a series of large wine barrels leading the way along a country road that meandered past ocean to vineyard, into a little slice of Nova Scotia wine country, and a chance to peek into an industry starting to gain international recognition for its products.
The place was bustling. People wandered the vineyard on a guided tour. Others ambled along the lanes on the property. Cars pulled in from New Jersey and Halifax, while maybe a dozen folk browsed the walls of wine and crafts inside the large on-site retail store.
As we unloaded picnic coolers, the kids ran for the swings and slide, then headed for a stroll into the vineyard. My husband fired up the barbie, and I wandered into the store, emerging with a bottle of house red and local Fox Hill cheese to bring to the lunch in the fresh fall air.
"There's a lot of interest in wine culture in general… and what better place to learn than in your own backyard?" says sommelier Sean Buckland of Valley Wine Tours, a company that pairs guided Nova Scotia winery tours with an epicurean adventure, when we later talk.
"Right now is a really exciting time in the Nova Scotia wine industry."
Nova Scotia is considered an up-and-coming wine destination for good reason. "You don't have to go to California. The wines are excellent wines," says Buckland. "They have come a long way, are very distinct and we are really starting to turn a lot of heads for the crisp, refreshing styles, like L'Acadie Blanc, and our ice wines, as well as our sparkling wines. The region is beginning to become known, which has helped the industry explode."
Across the province, from Malagash to Bear River, visitors can taste, tour, and meet and talk with winemakers. Most of Nova Scotia's wineries are family-run businesses, where the owners are living their craft. "The people in the industry are in it for the love of wine. They are very passionate," says Buckland.
The industry also tends to encompass local food, and the natural relationship between the two.
Christine White, communications and events manager with The Winery Association of Nova Scotia, says one of the big things the province has going for it is how well the food and wine pair together. "It comes from the same land and the tastes complement each other. We really are the complete package."
Though Nova Scotia has a long tradition of growing grapes dating back to the 1600s, it wasn't until 1980 that the seeds of the current industry were planted. Since then, Nova Scotia wineries have differentiated themselves into five distinct regions (areas you won't find anywhere else in the world), suitable for grape growing and giving distinctive and beautiful wines.
Currently, Nova Scotia has 10 operating wineries and 396 acres of grapes planted. By 2020 the hope is to have 20 wineries and thousands of acres of vines planted, White says,
Each offers its own charm and breathtaking views. At Domaine de Grand Pré, for instance there's a high quality on-site restaurant by the cobblestone courtyard, a European patio, vines growing over top, out in the sun, and the spectacular Minas Basin in the background.
Visitors can plan excursions to the LaHave River Valley in the South Shore, home to Lunenburg County Winery, and Petite Riviere Vineyards; to Bear River, near Digby to Bear River Vineyard; to the Malagash Peninsula home to Jost Vineyards, the largest producer of wine in the province; to Marble Mountain in Cape Breton overlooking the stunning Bras d'Or Lakes; and to the Annapolis Valley, now home to five wineries-Sainte-Famille Wines, Domaine de Grand Pré, L'Acadie Vineyards, Gaspereau Vineyards and Blomidon Estate.
Three more wineries are expected to join the ranks within the next three years. The Muir Murray Estate is expected to open in 2009 in Wolfville; followed by Benjamin Bridge, which will specialize in sparkling wines in the Gaspereau Valley in 2010-11, and well-known Nova Scotia grocer Pete Luckett is expected to open a winery, also in the Gaspereau Valley in 2011.
2008 was a banner year with the opening of the first organic winery in L'Acadie Vineyards; Jost's 25th anniversary; and in May, 19 awards from the All-Canadian wine championship in Toronto. Gaspereau Vineyards winemaker Gina Haverstock took home seven of these.
The industry has come a long way since Roger Dial opened the province's first commercial winery in Grand Pré in 1980. He was a pioneer, Buckland says, in encouraging others to work with Mother Nature and in finding grape varieties that were winter hearty, disease resistant and ripened early. In short-grapes that worked here.
One of the reasons Nova Scotia can grow grapes is that all five regions are on bodies of water. Warm air generated from the water rises, pushes up to the vineyards and helps to moderate the temperature in winter. Snow cover also helps insulate the vines. In summer, that warm air helps to ripen the grapes when the sun goes down.
The formation of The Winery Association of Nova Scotia in 2002, a group of licensed wineries that collectively market their wines, gave another boost. The association created a quality standard program that helped put Nova Scotia on the map. Two key festivals, the Fall Wine Festival, and February's Ice Wine Festival, also help create buzz and showcase the products.