Saturday, July 19, 2008

NS's First Sparkling Wine: Benjamin Bridge

A couple of winers
Owners of Gaspereau-area vineyard take on challenge of making great wine in N.S.

Winery owners Dara Gordon and Gerry McConnell at the launch of their Gaspereau sparkling wine, Nova, at Mosaic restaurant on Thursday in Halifax. (TED PRITCHARD / Staff)

Wine making and gold mining have more in common from a Nova Scotia perspective than you might think, says Gerry McConnell, co-owner of Benjamin Bridge vineyards in the Gaspereau Valley.

"People say you can’t build a mining company from Halifax, and you can’t make world-class wines in Nova Scotia," Mr. McConnell, president and CEO of Halifax-based Etruscan Resources Inc., said in an interview Wednesday. "I enjoy those challenges."

As if to prove the point, Etruscan announced Wednesday that it has reached commercial production at its Youga gold mine in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

And on Thursday, Benjamin Bridge, which has been in development since 2000, released its first limited-edition wine, Nova 7, at Mosaic restaurant in Halifax.

Mr. McConnell, a lawyer who left his Halifax legal practice to go into the mining business 20 years ago, and his wife, Dara Gordon, have lived in the Gaspereau Valley for a dozen years.

A lawyer and former head of the Nova Scotia Gaming Corp., Ms. Gordon is a member of the federal-provincial panel that has reportedly recommended that the province receive $850 million in federal compensation for giving up its claim to a Crown share of offshore energy projects.

Mr. McConnell said the couple were taken with the beauty of the Gaspereau area and saw its potential for growing grapes, as had industry veterans like Hans Christian Jost, who established a winery there.

"I enjoy drinking wine and often thought how wonderful it would be to own a vineyard," said Mr. McConnell, who realized that dream after the couple bought an old farm near Wolfville in 1999.

Wine consultant Peter Gamble, former executive director of Ontario’s Vintners Quality Assurance program, determined that the site’s soil and climate were best suited to the production of sparkling wines, fermented in the bottle in the French style.

"That’s the course we’ve been on," Mr. McConnell said, adding that their efforts have been aided by Mr. Jost, who helped them plant their first vines, and by sparkling wine expert Raphael Brisbois, a native of France’s Champagne region.

Noted U.S. winery architect Larry Ferrar designed a gravity flow system for Benjamin Bridge and MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Ltd. of Halifax have been commissioned to design a LEED certified winery complex that is scheduled to break ground in 2009. (LEED, a green designation, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)

"Our philosophy is to make the smallest imprint on the environment," said Mr. McConnell, who estimated that "north of $1.5 million" has been invested in the vineyard, which takes its name from a family that settled the area in the 1700s.

While the sparkling wines, which take six to eight years to mature, won’t be available to the public for another two or three years, they have been acclaimed by notable wine critics like Tony Aspler, who sampled them and other Benjamin Bridge wines during a recent visit to Nova Scotia, where he gave the keynote address at the 3rd Atlantic Canada Wine Symposium in Wolfville.

"He said they were spectacular," said Mr. McConnell, whose vineyard also produces Sauvignon Blanc (a favourite of his wife), Marechal Foch, ice wine and Nova 7, styled after the Moscato d’Asti wines of northern Italy, which Mr. Aspler complimented for its balanced peach and orange flavours.

"It has a hint of sweetness, effervescence and brilliant acidity," said Mr. McConnell, noting that Nova 7 pairs well with Nova Scotia’s Willy Krauch smoked salmon.

Nova 7, which is priced at $22.95 a bottle, is available at the Port of Wines and Bishop’s Cellar stores in Halifax and at Cristall and Luckett Wine Merchants in Bedford.


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