Benjamin Bridge is a force of nature | Drink | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Benjamin Bridge is a force of nature

Curious, creative and inspired by its eccentric geography, Benjamin Bridge’s timeless taste and innovative spirit are elevating Nova Scotia wine culture.

click to enlarge Benjamin Bridge is a force of nature
Alexa Cude
Chris Campbell, Scott Savoy and Jean-Benoit Deslauriers

The tide is high in the Bay of Fundy. The highest in the world. The power of those tides is as if half the planet’s horses were kelpies caught in a thunderous, watery gallop through the channel. The tides are strong enough to create bores that surge against the current and can change the direction of a river’s flow.

The Gaspereau River runs into Minas Basin, weaving first through a valley of the same name, lush farmland that was settled by the Mi’kmaq and Acadians. It’s there, in the folds of the Gaspereau Valley where it funnels down toward the basin, where Benjamin Bridge sits surrounded by grapes.

There is some poetry in Benjamin Bridge’s ties to the Bay, to the strength of those tides. The winery is certainly no bore, but the creativity at Benjamin Bridge is itself a force of nature, with a power of vision perhaps, if we are lucky, strong enough to direct the flow of Nova Scotian wine culture.

“We’re an emerging wine region, but we’re really on the cusp of what’s possible,” says Scott Savoy, Benjamin Bridge’s head viticulturist, as he walks into the vineyard, a dog padding through the vines not far behind him. “It’s about figuring out what the terroir can handle.”

On a sunny day the lines of vines seem to glint in the sunlight, like strings of emeralds draped on the curve of a shoulder, following the field into a thick band of trees that huddle along the valley. On rainy days, thick fog billows into the trees like smoke and the colour darkens to a bloodstone green, wetness hanging heavily in the air and on the leaves. Right about now, as autumn’s cool reach stretches further into the valley, everything will start to change, transforming the lush green of the valley into a patchwork of ambers, golds and tawny reds, into the colours of wine.

Benjamin Bridge’s aromatic, lightly sparkling Nova 7 is currently its signature wine. It is a singular wine, sweet and approachable like Moscato d’Asti and wildly popular. But, even on its 10th anniversary, it only hints at the possibilities found in the 50 acres of grapes on the estate.

“We’re an emerging wine region, but we’re really on the cusp of what’s possible.” —Scott Savoy

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If Nova Scotia has a wine that is a true soul mate, it is traditional-method sparkling. It is the perfect match to our climate, the connection that presents the highest potential for excellence. As it stands, the signature Nova Scotia wine is Tidal Bay. That appellation uses specific Nova Scotia grapes—primarily L’Acadie, Vidal, Seyval and Geisenheim—with the specific blend left to each winery. They must meet some criteria for flavour and minerality and they all tend to be floral and aromatic.

It is a nice communal effort, even a fundamental fit for the region, but Tidal Bay, in some aspects, is like a colouring book: There is an outline of Nova Scotia and winemakers colour it in how they see fit with their choice of pale yellow.

And while that colour is on Benjamin Bridge’s palette and it can do that job and do it well, where this winery gets truly interesting is those instances where Savoy and Jean-Benoit Deslauriers start looking at not just the colours available to them, but the textures, and the ways that they can redraw how the wine world sees Nova Scotia.

click to enlarge Benjamin Bridge is a force of nature
Alexa Cude
Jean-Benoit Deslauriers

Deslauriers is the head winemaker at Benjamin Bridge. “There’s no question that traditional method sparkling is a program-defining style,” he says. “If you look back at the winery’s history, that decision to align our pursuits with the match between traditional sparkling and the climate that we have is the genesis of Benjamin Bridge.”

The climate of the Gaspereau Valley is directly tied to the Bay of Fundy’s tides, which have a moderating effect on the climate creating a structural compatibility with producing traditional-method—or méthode classique—sparkling wine. Traditional-method sparkling wine goes through two fermentations. The first, to make the still wine, is in tanks or casks. The second fermentation is in the bottles and takes years.

Deslauriers uses the words “unique,” “fascinating” and “eccentric” a lot as he describes how the geography of the basin intersects with winemaking. He says things are “interesting,” not in the backhanded way you say something that challenges and confuses you is interesting, but in the way something that actually interests you is interesting. Deslauriers himself is interesting precisely because of this mental acquisitiveness. And that sense of curiosity extends to everybody on staff at Benjamin Bridge and 318 people who are members of the winery’s BB Club, a subscription program that sends out small lot wines that showcases the experimental and introspective playfulness of the winery.

click to enlarge Benjamin Bridge is a force of nature
Alexa Cude
Scott Savoy, Chris Campbell, Jean-Benoit Deslauriers
The Cabernet Franc Rose, which has been on the market since 2013, is an example of a wine that found its path to retail through a debut in the BB Club. The learning curve for the grower in a new winemaking process and for the winery in figuring out how the terroir could express itself resulted in a wine that Keltie MacNeill, who manages the BB Club, says “blew up amongst our members.” This feedback loop from members is now an integral part of prototyping wines and a great outlet to develop wines that are introspective, and perhaps even challenging, without wandering into self-indulgence.

“We do have to keep in mind the deliciousness of wine,” says MacNeill. “Ultimately it has to come down to drinkability and being delicious. I think that’s where the Pét-Nat walks that perfect line.” Benjamin Bridge released a limited run of a Pétillant Naturel—a fizzy, cloudy, naturally sparkling wine—in its summer outing for the club. “For the majority of our club, probably 75 percent of people, it’s way out of left field, but it’s super high on the deliciousness scale.”

“We’re just trying to find a clear path to the best, looking to make the best with the best. That’s the bottom line.” —Chris Campbell

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Also high on that scale is Benjamin Bridge NV. If Tidal Bay is the face of Nova Scotia wine, NV is the brain. The heart. Maybe it’s the blood that runs, bubbling and sparkling, through its veins. Benjamin Bridge has kept an inventory of reserved wines going all the way back to 2002, and this non-vintage wine uses those reserves. It is, as Deslauriers calls it, a “unique proposition.”

It has been two years since the original launch of NV, but Benjamin Bridge is now getting into a position where it will likely be a national offering, like Nova 7. NV is a blend that relies on heavy hitting Nova Scotia grapes like L’Acadie, Vidal and Seyval in combination with classic Champagne grapes like Pinot Noir. The wine is an almost ecstatic expression of the land, bright and mineral. “Electric,” says Deslauriers.

When Gerry McConnell and Dara Gordon founded the winery, the intent was always to grow in the organic method, always to make sparkling wine. Traditional-method wines rely on vinifera, the European grapes that are the base of Old World wines, rather than the hybrids that are essentially built to grow here. It has been important to Savoy to be able to weave the European vinifera that Benjamin Bridge relies on—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and other historic grapes—into Nova Scotia’s landscape in a way that remains in sync with the surroundings, that encourages a diverse and dynamic ecosystem. His reverence for everything from dandelions and bees, to loam, sand and cobble is literally the foundation for the wine.

“We have to embrace what we’re given,” says Savoy. “And we’re given grapes that display minerality, bright acidity, salinity. Those words come up almost every time we try one of the wines that we make and I feel like we know we’re true to an expression of terroir when we hit those hallmarks. If those hallmarks aren’t in there, we’re like, ‘Did we lose something along the way?’”

The biodynamic nature of Benjamin Bridge, the fact that it has been operating to organic standards since the winery was founded in 1999, makes its attraction to natural wines feel natural itself. The transition to the wild fermentation now used to make Nova 7,
the rural method of fermentation used in the Pét-Nat and dabbling in the production of orange wine in Georgian clay amphorae lined with beeswax, may feel extreme or seem trendy, but really it all goes back to natural inclination.

“Natural wine has been around for thousands of years,” says Chris Campbell, who helps manage harvest, cellar and production operations. “When you think about it, all the wine bars in New York or whatever are actually late to the party.”

“I don’t think that any of us here is looking to be a part of a movement,” says Deslauriers. “Fundamentally, organic farming is the most pivotal element within natural wine and there’s just always been that compatibility here.”

click to enlarge Benjamin Bridge is a force of nature
Alexa Cude
Keltie MacNeill

“We’re just trying to find a clear path to the best, looking to make the best with the best. That’s the bottom line,” says Campbell. And being the best has nothing to do with a marketing strategy, tourism or a trend.

“Trends always end,” says MacNeill. Even the highest tides eventually turn. “That’s the way cresting waves always go: If it’s going to crest it’s going hit the shore at some point. So it should be about things that are timeless: The things that carry on are the things that speak to your soul. If something speaks to your soul as winemakers or grape growers they are going to speak to other people too.”

“It’s like art,” Deslauriers says. “At the end of the day you’ve got to do what you really love.”

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