On a warm, sunny day this October, Avondale Sky winemaker Ben Swetnam watched his team harvesting golden green clusters of geisenheim 318 grapes and knew he made the right decision.
Three weeks earlier, before those white wine grapes were ripe and ready for picking, the vineyard was pelted by heavy rains, part of a storm system bearing down on Nova Scotia thanks to Hurricane Lee. The skins of some of the waterlogged grapes split, posing an immediate risk to the yield and quality of the crop. If the conditions stayed wet and humid, the grapes would rot, but the long-range weather forecast suggested sunny days ahead.
“Rather than picking the grapes under-ripe and rotten, we decided to wait and see,” says Swetnam, who has been making the wine at Avondale Sky since 2008.
That patience was rewarded, resulting in grapes that will dominate – with citrus and tropical notes – the 2023 Tidal Bay release, Avondale Sky’s bestselling wine. The downside is there isn’t much of it.
The geisenheim 318 vines near the winery in Newport Landing usually deliver two-and-a-half to three tonnes of grapes an acre. This year’s yield, with selective picking of the healthy berries, was one tonne. It is yet another reason why Nova Scotia wineries are making less wine than usual this year.
“Volume wise, this is going to be a light year for us and others,” he says. “Most wineries are looking at 40 to 50 per cent of their normal production, but the quality is going to be there.” (Nova Scotia’s 19 grape wineries typically produce more than 211,000 cases or just below 1.9 million litres of wine a year.)
The deluge of rain from Hurricane Lee in September, weeks before the start of harvest, felt like Mother Nature piling on, after an already difficult February, when the province faced polar vortex conditions – experiencing an almost 30-degree swing in temperature in 12 hours.
On cold nights without any wind, wineries can use large fans or fires to prevent frost damage in their vineyards. In this instance, subzero temperatures combined with wind speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour meant there was no recourse to protect vines. (Some grape growers in the province are reportedly considering geotextiles, fabrics that are used to cover grapevines to protect against winter injury.)
All of Nova Scotia’s vineyards were affected and the early reports were bleak. A post on the United Kingdom-based internationalwinechallenge.com summed up their dire situation: “2023 is a write-off.” Vinifera vines, such as chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir, were the hardest hit. The delicate buds were damaged by the cold snap, meaning the vine wouldn’t produce a crop this year. In drastic cases, the vines themselves were killed and need to be replaced. (It takes three years before a grapevine produces healthy, quality grapes.)
There was also initial concern about the viability of hybrid vines, varieties made by breeding vinifera with labrusca or riparia grapes, which represent the largest number of the 63 wine grape varieties cultivated in Nova Scotia. But those varieties, such as l’Acadie blanc, seyval blanc and traminette, proved their resiliency and managed to produce grapes for processing this year.
Lacking the name recognition of chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, they are varieties only the geekiest of grape nuts know. That’s why the development of Tidal Bay, a Nova Scotia appellation that features white wine blends, was so important.
Rather than each winery creating its own generic wines, they could promote a common style based on the mouth-watering character of the province’s white wines. “It’s like, this is a taste of Nova Scotia in a glass,” veteran winemaker Gina Haverstock, who oversees winemaking at Jost, Gaspereau and Mercator Vineyards, told Curated Food & Drink Magazine.
Tidal Bay was created to be an appellation system in the classic sense, like Chianti or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It dictates which grape varieties are permitted, production standards (such as no oak and a maximum of 11 per cent alcohol) and requires the finished wines to be approved by an independent tasting panel prior to release.
These standards came from a committee of winemakers, sommeliers and experts and are strictly enforced throughout the winemaking process, from growing to bottling. The guidelines insist that Tidal Bay wines reflect “the classic Nova Scotian style: lively fresh green fruit, dynamic acidity, and characteristic minerality.”
“Nova Scotia wines have a strong character, with crisp, bright acidity and delineated aromatics. … Tidal Bay was a way to capture that and market it with some cachet,” says Peter Gamble, the consultant who helped the Nova Scotia industry develop the Tidal Bay appellation system in 2009.
Six Nova Scotia wineries released Tidal Bay wines from the initial 2010 vintage. That number has grown to 14 wines, which celebrate their release with an annual event, 12 Tides of Nova Scotia, in Halifax every June. With 20 different permitted grape varieties, each winery takes a different approach but they all end up with refreshing white wines that are made to be enjoyed young.
Tidal Bay is attracting attention outside of the province as well. It is one of the wines Lightfoot & Wolfville is selling in the U.K. More interest at home and abroad is likely to follow as sommeliers and wine buyers continue to embrace wines made with low alcohols. There is also increasing support in emerging regions and quality wines made from hybrid grapes.
“I think we’re going to see renewed interest in the hybrid wines we make,” says Mike Mainguy, winemaker at Luckett, located in the Gaspereau Valley. As the Nova Scotia industry has grown, wineries and growers have increased plantings of vinifera varieties, but those tender varieties are more site-specific compared with a workhorse variety such as l’Acadie, which has grown to represent one-third of the plantings in Nova Scotia’s vineyards.
Wineries that need to replant vineyards after this year’s cold snap will have a decision to make, he says, about which varieties they plant: the more delicate vinifera versus hardier hybrid. “How much are they going to keep investing in risk?” The most recent vine census from Grape Growers Association of Nova Scotia shows an industry ratio of 35 per cent vinifera varieties to 65 per cent hybrids.
Luckett is the province’s third-largest wine producer, following the Devonian Coast wine group of Jost, Gaspereau and Mercator Vineyards, and Benjamin Bridge. Each year, Mainguy and his team make a portfolio of white, red, rosé and sparkling wines from two family-owned vineyards, comprised of 30 acres at the winery and another 22-acre parcel called the Avonport Vineyard. They also purchase fruit from independent growers.
In a normal year, Luckett processes 75 to 80 per cent hybrid grapes, with 15 to 20 per cent vinifera varieties, notably chardonnay, ortega and pinot noir. There wasn’t any crop harvested from those vinifera vines this year, while the hybrid varieties only yielded roughly half the average production.
“We could focus on the negative, but that doesn’t help anything,” says Mainguy. “This is what we got this year, so let’s try and make it the best we can.”
Tidal Bay requirements
To earn the Tidal Bay designation, all wines must follow a strict set of technical standards, which are enforced throughout the winemaking process from growing to bottling and more.
- 100 per cent Nova Scotia-grown grapes
- A blend of white varieties, at least 51 per cent L’Acadie blanc, seyval blanc, vidal, geisenheim 318-57 and an optional-but-no-more-than 49-per-cent mix of varieties that include riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris, chasselas, ortega, siegfried, osceola muscat, frontenac gris, frontenac blanc, petit milo, cayuga
- A maximum of 11 per cent alcohol
- Taste dry
- Be vinified in stainless steel (no oak)
- Pass a blind tasting by an independent wine panel
Source: Wine Growers Nova Scotia
Avondale Sky Tidal Bay 2022 (Canada), $20.86
For the 2022 vintage, Avondale Sky used a blend of l’Acadie blanc, vidal blanc, geisenheim 318, frontenac gris, osceola muscat and ortega, each fermented individually. The resulting style offers depth of flavour as well as refreshment, with peach, citrus and apple fruit accented by some honey and white grape notes. Drink now. Available direct, avondalesky.com, $24.29 in Nova Scotia.
Benjamin Bridge Tidal Bay 2022 (Canada), $20.45
Made with l’Acadie, seyval blanc, riesling and geisenheim, this zesty white wine strikes a nice balance between lime zest, ripe apple and honeyed notes. The finish is refreshing with a lingering flinty flavour. Drink now to 2025. Available direct, benjaminbridge.com, various prices in Alberta, $23.95 in Ontario (limited availability), $24.95 in Manitoba (Kenaston Wine Market), $24.29 in New Brunswick, $23.99 in Nova Scotia, $23.99 in Prince Edward Island.
Lightfoot & Wolfville Tidal Bay 2022 (Canada), $20.87
Organically grown l’Acadie, chardonnay, riesling, geisenheim and siegerrebe are featured in this fresh and fruity white wine. The flavour is marked by green apple and pear flavours that carry through to a lingering finish with saline and stony notes. An exciting style. Drink now to 2026. Available direct, lightfootandwolfville.com, $25.55 in Nova Scotia, $25.99 in Newfoundland.