Nova Scotia's 310 hectares of grapes and 20 wineries make us a small player on the Canadian wine stage.
Ontario, Canada's heavy hitter, grows 6,800 hectares and operates 164 VQA wineries, and even cold-climate Quebec doubles our number of hectares at 800 and more than sextuples our wineries with 138.
However, at the Vancouver International Wine Fair (VIWF) last month, host province British Columbia welcomed her little East Coast sister with wide open arms.
The camaraderie of spirit between B.C. wine folk and Team N.S. could be chalked up to a common coastal attitude. It could be that Nova Scotia's first strong presence at the international fair made it our debut of sorts and B.C. played the gracious party host. It could be, too, that the parallels in our provincial wine industries were a delight for us to discover.
Coastal growing areas of B.C. — Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Fraser Valley — share many similarities with Nova Scotia. In these cool maritime regions, vineyards are moderated by the Pacific Ocean, escaping the temperature extremes of inland regions, but struggling with pressure from mildews due to coastal humidity. We get that stuff, too.
A re-emergence of hybrid grape varieties in the region, such as Sauvignette and Petit Milo, draw another parallel to Nova Scotia; we are firmly rooted in winter-hardy, disease-resistant hybrid grapes like l'Acadie Blanc and Geisenheim.
Further varietal similarities include B.C.'s success with aromatic white wines. Where B.C. focuses on Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, Nova Scotia produces Muscat, Riesling and, of course, Tidal Bay, our semi-aromatic appellation wine.
Aromatic grapes do well at northern (and in the southern hemisphere, southern) latitudes because long hours of sunlight during the growing season give vines more exposure to sun, ripening sugars and the organic compounds that release aromas.
B.C.'s northerly vineyards, at 48-51 degrees latitude, stay sunlit two hours longer in summer than the Napa Valley in California. Nova Scotia, 44-46 degrees latitude enjoys similarly long days of sun.
Arguably the most important climatic factor for delicious aromatic whites is access to cool to keep high levels of acidity. If acidity drops too far, the resulting wine tastes flat and imbalanced.
Nova Scotia has no problem staying cool while ripening grapes. B.C.'s hot Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys cool down at night from Arctic air filtering down the Rockies. (In fact, this can be a problem, killing buds and vines if temperatures drop below -20C, which they often do.)
That's what we have in common. Perhaps more intriguing are the dramatic ways that British Columbia's wine diverges from Nova Scotia's.
First, the British Columbia wine scene is more developed than Nova Scotia's. At 4,100 hectares and 260 wineries, and research into vitis vinifera (globally recognized, European) grape varieties that dates back to the 1970s, B.C. enjoys a well-versed wine-drinking public eager for local wine.
"People are exploring pairings, and asking kinky details about wine from winemakers," said Nikki Callaway, winemaker at Quail's Gate Winery and panel speaker at a VIWF master class titled There's No Place Like B.C. "We're at the top of our game."
Then there's the matter of B.C.'s deserts. The mighty Okanagan Valley and neighbouring Similkameen Valley together produce 90 per cent of wine in British Columbia. The dryness of these regions keeps disease at bay, which makes organic viticulture easier, and the heat allows B.C. viticulturists to grow grapes that would likely never ripen in Nova Scotia, particularly reds like Merlot, Syrah (or Shiraz) and Cabernet Sauvignon. The heat of a summer day in the Okanagan ripens the skins of these grapes, melting their tannins into velvety chewiness, adding body, structure and longevity to wine.
In many ways, B.C. has the best of all worlds: hot days that all-the-way ripen grapes and cool nights that maintain their acidity, and long sunlit days that develop aroma compounds. What you get in a bottle of B.C. wine is rich, intense and lively.
Check this out yourself; the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. has a few excellent offerings.
Quail's Gate Chasselas ($20) is an aromatic white, "juicy and soft," says Rayell Swan, retail specialist for the NSLC. Chasselas was first planted at Quail's Gate in 1961, a mistaken vine order at the time but today one of the winery's best sellers.
Osoyoos Larose VQA 2008 Le Grand Vin ($45) is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Silky and intense with fabulous black pepper aromas, this wine has "some serious longevity," says Swan.
"More fun options are Sandhill's Sangiovese or Barbera ($30 each)," says Swan. "Both see oak influence and it is well integrated."
Sandhill is a pioneer in B.C. of single vineyard wines. "A strong testament to the diversity and willingness to experiment" in BC.
Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from comparing notes with B.C. is the region's experience finding its identity.
"You can hire experts and consultants from California and Bordeaux," said Rhys Pender, keynote speaker for the B.C. master class.
"But until you grow the grapes there, you don't know," especially in so unique a viticultural region as the Okanagan or Similkameen Valley. "All the experts were wrong, because they are from elsewhere."
B.C. winemakers now have more than two decades' experience with established plantings. Their wine is tied firmly to its growing site, showing off richness and freshness that avoids too much booze and too much wood.
In fact, this was a pursuit heard from winemakers across Canada: letting nature take the lead, seeking, as Nikki Callaway put it, "precision, not perfection," and asking, "What can soils give us?"