The Benjamin Bridge
A small Nova Scotia winery has redefined the term chutzpah. Benjamin Bridge Vineyards in the Gaspereau Valley put up two of its sparkling wines against Roederer Cristal 2004 and a grower’s champagne, David Léclapart L’Apôtre Blanc de Blanc 2005, in a blind tasting. Eighteen sommeliers and wine writers participated in the event held at Canoe Restaurant in Toronto in August.
Before I reveal the outcome, the story of Benjamin Bridge is worth telling. In 1999 Gerry McConnell and his late wife Dara Gordon purchased a 60-acre farm on the Gaspereau River. The following year they contracted winery consultant Peter Gamble to advise them on creating a vineyard and winery. Gamble’s brief was to make world-class wines, and if that didn’t seem possible after three years of research and winemaking, to abort the operation.
Given the Gaspereau Valley’s terroir and climate, Gamble recommended the production of aromatic whites and classic sparkling wine. To oversee the sparkling wine operation, he reached out to one of Champagne’s leading experts, Raphaël Brisbois, Piper Heidsieck’s chef de cave who had created the Omar Khayyam sparkling wine in India and consulted to California’s Iron Horse Winery and Blue Mountain Vineyards in British Columbia. “Our target,” said Gamble to McConnell, “is prestige cuvée sparkling.”
In 2006, while I was researching The Wine Atlas of Canada, I visited Benjamin Bridge and I tasted not only the very first sparkling wines Gamble and Brisbois produced — the 2002 Brut and the 2002 Blanc de Noirs — but also the 2004 vintage. That year was the coolest grape-growing season on record over the past 20 years, yet Brisbois was happy with the fruit, which confirmed for him that Nova Scotia could grow grapes similar in quality to the Champagne grapes he’d worked with in his native France. This 2004 vintage was destined to become the winery’s inaugural release and the wines we tasted blind in August — Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2004 and the same wine given an extra two years on the lees and designated as Late Disgorged. This LD wine had spent an extraordinary seven years on its lees.
Interestingly, the grape blend in these wines would make a traditional champenois shudder — 57 per cent Pinot Noir, 22 per cent Chardonnay, 15 per cent Vidal, and 6 per cent of the local Nova Scotia variety, L’Acadie. (Since 2009 Benjamin Bridge’s sparkling wines en tirage have been 100-per-cent vinifera.)
So there we were with four glasses of bubbly in front of us, two Champagnes and two Benjamin Bridge sparklers. Their colour didn’t give anything away, nor did the activity of the mousse, nor the size of the bubbles. It would be all in the taste to determine which were the champagnes and which were the Nova Scotia bubblies. My notes read:
Wine #1: Bready, leesy nose; rich, green nut flavour; crisply dry, good length, mature apple flavour on the finish. Very champagne-like. 91 points.
Wine #2: Leesy, bready nose with lemony, floral and honey notes; very elegant, light and crisp on the palate. Delicious. Probably Cristal. 93 points.
Wine #3: Earthy, apple and lemon flavours, mature notes, with a touch of sweetness in mid-palate. Late Disgorged. 90 points.
Wine #4: Minerally, crisply dry, green apple, lemony, very fresh and lingering. BB. 91.
When the dust settled the majority of the tasters placed Wine #2 as their favourite wine. The serving order was:
David Léclapart L’Apôtre Blanc de Blanc 2005 ($138)
Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2004 ($74)
Roederer Cristal 2004 ($289)
Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2004 Late Disgorged ($89.50)
And what does this prove? a) Nova Scotia has the climate and soil to make world-class sparkling; b) it pays to hire experts and c) ultimately, I’m a cheap date. My preference was for the least expensive bubbly.