Wines of the Month
When most people decide to take a summer vacation in Nova Scotia, wine probably isn't the first thing on their mind. And who can blame them? The land of Evangeline doesn't exactly have the same notoriety in wine circles as, say, Napa Valley or Bordeaux. In fact, it barely rates a mention in most wine reference books, with some (such as Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine) skipping over this Maritime province completely. No, Nova Scotia is much more famous (and deservedly so) for its dramatic scenery, rocky seacoasts, pastoral vistas, powerful tides, fascinating history and mild summer temperatures. Even those travelers who let their stomachs guide them on their journey are more likely to be drawn by Digby scallops, lobster, rappie pie and the abundant fresh strawberries (a local passion culminating in summertime strawberry suppers held in even the tiniest of towns) than by vinous pursuits.
I'd like to tell you that I was different -- that I planned a long weekend visit to sample the fruit of the local vines -- but I'd be lying. When I booked my airline tickets to Halifax, I didn't even know that anyone was trying to make wine here. And when I first found out about the wineries, I was a bit skeptical. After all, they were located near the 45th parallel, more than 100 miles farther north than Ontario's Niagara Peninsula, so I assumed that the environment would be a bit harsh for viticulture. I couldn't imagine what kind of wines would come out of this part of the world, and I didn't plan to go out of my way to find out.
However, when I disembarked from the plane at the Halifax airport, instead of the promised partly cloudy 78 degrees (F), I was treated to 60 degrees (F) with dark overcast skies that seemingly threatened rain at any minute. I decided that I should change my plans (not to mention my clothes) for a day outside, and try to think of something else to do. Desperately searching the shelves in the airport tourist information booth, I happened upon an interesting-looking brochure for Jost Vineyards, a winery is located in Malagash, NS, just across the Northumberland Strait from Prince Edward Island, making it the northernmost of the three best-known producers of premium grape wines in Nova Scotia (the others, Grand Pré and Sainte-Famille, are located about 60 miles south, near the Minas Basin, in Wolfville and Falmouth, respectively). Most importantly, it was close enough to visit, but far enough to keep me occupied for the day. After a quick change into warmer clothes, I was on my way.
While I was a little upset by the apparent "false advertising" of the day's weather forecast, the prospect of visiting a winery did a lot to cheer me up, and besides, my luck was about to change. On the drive up to the winery, I had my first exposure to the province's drastically changing weather. In the space of a few minutes, the skies changed from gloom to sun -- just in time to highlight the beautiful hills on the road from Truro to Malagash -- and the temperature jumped ten degrees. Finding the winery was no problem, either, since Nova Scotia marks the best routes to their vineyards with helpful grape cluster signs. I'll admit to being a bit concerned when the signs pointed off the main highway onto small, twisty back roads, but every time I wondered if I had missed a turn, another grape cluster sign would appear. Soon I was turning off the Sunrise Trail onto a small road, and then onto a smaller driveway, next to rows and rows of neatly trellised grapevines. I had arrived.
Not surprisingly, Jost Vineyards isn't a huge operation. A medium-sized wooden building houses both the winemaking facilities and a store selling their wines (of course), along with other Nova Scotian products, wine-related items and Jost Vineyards souvenirs. Picnic tables are available (and even a grill-it-yourself barbecue). Didn't bring any food? No problem. Just visit the convenient deli case inside the store. It's all rather informal and friendly, not like the harried pace of the big Napa vineyards.
Fittingly, the winery tour begins among the vines. Jost Vineyards was started by Hans Wilhelm Jost, a German immigrant, in 1983, and his son, Hans Christian Jost, is the current manager, sharing the winemaking duties with Dave Beardsall. As the story goes, he missed the wine of his homeland (he came from a family with a 300-year winemaking tradition) and despite the climate, decided to try making wine in his new country. Although many people thought he was crazy, he had chosen his site well. Located on a very gentle rolling slope, close to the Northumberland Strait, the winery's home vineyard is in a particularly mild microclimate. The Northumberland Strait is famous for its shallow, warm waters (supposedly the warmest on the East Coast north of the Carolinas), which help to moderate the sometimes harsh weather. This part of Nova Scotia is known as the "Sunshine Coast," and is a popular beach resort for residents of the province. Even so, the climate is still difficult, and the winery has faced some major challenges. One of the most serious was a very bad winter several years ago, which claimed many of their vines. As a result, most of the vines near the winery are only about eight years old, even though the winery is twice that age.
The small vineyards at the winery aren't the only source of grapes for Jost. They have vineyards farther south, in the Annapolis Valley (where Grand Pré and Sainte-Famille are located), and also purchase grapes from farmers in that region. In addition, Jost buys grapes from a more surprising (at least to me) location -- Cape Breton Island, which is much better known for its spectacular national park than its viticultural potential. Even though I think of Cape Breton as being very far north, the southernmost parts of the Island are approximately level with the Sunshine Coast, and apparently the island has some relatively favorable microclimates for grapes. In addition, some wines are made, at least in part, from grapes grown outside of Nova Scotia; the winery's price list clearly marks which wines fall into this category.
The tour continues through the store and downstairs to the winemaking facilities. The fermentation room has large neutral tanks (stainless steel and fibreglass); the Jost philosophy seems to be to let the grapes speak for themselves, without strong wood influences, so you don't see oak fermenters. There are a couple of old wooden fermentation tanks, but they are just for show, and are no longer used -- besides they were made from a "neutral" wood, not oak. Due to the mild summers, there is no need for air conditioning; in exceptionally hot years, large fans are all that is necessary to keep temperature under control. Most of the aging takes place in neutral tanks, but they are also starting to use a small number of oak barriques for a few of the red wines.
After a visit to the bottling line, the tour concludes in the store, where patrons have a chance to taste the winery's wares. In a refreshing contrast to many West Coast wineries, samples of nearly all of the wines are free, and basically unlimited (a small charge applies for tasting Icewines). The surprisingly wide array of wines (more than 40 when I visited) run the range from low-priced generics and bag-in-a-box, through premium white and red wines, to the luxurious Icewines. There are also a small number of fruit wines available. As is the case in many northern wine regions, the winery focuses on hybrid grape varieties that aren't exactly houshold names, such as L'Acadie, Seyval Blanc, Vidal and Marechal Foch. Jost also produces wines from some lesser-known European grapes, such as Michurinetz (a Russian variety), Dornfelder and Geisenheim (both are German crosses). The more familiar varieties aren't completely left out though, as Jost produces Nova Scotia-grown Muscat, along with Riesling, Cabernet Franc and a L'Acadie/Chardonnay blend.
Now, if you're anything like me, you're probably thinking, "Fine, so they can make wine up north... But is it any good?" I was wondering the same thing. Even after reading about all of the awards Jost wines had taken home at wine competions (1 double gold, 8 golds, 12 silvers and 15 bronzes, just in the past two years), and after watching the tour guide do a little victory dance celebrating their recent "best overall wine" award at the All-Canada Wine Competion (for their not-yet-released 1999 Vidal Icewine), I'll admit to some lingering skepticism. However, one thing was clear: these people were serious about wine, and deserved a fair evaluation. So, with an open mind (and empty glass), I moved on to the tasting bar. Since these wines were not tasted in my normal setting, and only small tastes were poured, so I'll just give you my impressions (without ratings) rather than a full tasting note. All prices were current at the winery at the time of the tasting, and are listed in Canadian dollars.
Oak Aged L'Acadie Blanc '97 -- A dose of smoke along with apple and pear fruit. The oak is definitely present, but not intrusive. Could be a little more concentrated, but a good wine for the price (CDN$12.85).
Eagle Tree Muscat '99 -- Typical floral Muscat nose. Soft on the palate, with somewhat diffuse orange flavors and a slight bitter note on the finish. Smells better than it tastes. (CDN$9.88)
Riesling Gold Label '98 -- Unusual floral components in the nose. Off dry. Pretty peach flavors, though perhaps not as concentrated as I'd like, and surprisingly little acid. Not made from 100% Nova Scotia grapes, unlike the rest of the wines tasted here. (CDN$8.79)
Limited Edition DeChaunac '99 -- An interesting red, reminiscent of the Rhône, with violet notes in the nose and leather, meat and game to go along with the plum fruit. A good choice for summer barbecue or for winter roasts, this wine offers excellent value and is drinking very well now. (CDN$13.79)
Reserve Marechal Foch '97 -- Plum and cherry aromas and flavors, along with a slight hint of pine. Finishes tart, with medium tannins. (CDN$19.95)
Geisenheim Icewine '98 -- I had never tasted a Geisenheim wine before, nor had I even heard of the grape, so I didn't know what to expect. What I got was a nose of candied fruit and lychee, with good peach and lychee flavors. Very sweet and lush, and quite similar in aroma and flavor to a Vidal Icewine. There isn't much acidity, though, so I'd drink this quickly. A good value in Canadian Icewine. (CDN$29.85/375ml)
Vidal Icewine '98 -- Complex aromas of peach, lychee and spice. Generous, lush apricot and lychee flavors. Very sweet, with a long finish. Plenty of acidity shows up on the end to keep the wine lively. My favorite wine of the day, but it was a close contest. Made in a lighter style than many Ontario Icewines, this bottle is an excellent value in Canadian Icewine, and makes me even more eager to try the '99. (CDN$39.88/375ml)
Muscat Icewine '98 -- Not much of the typical Muscat floral component to the nose, though there is some. However, this wine has plenty of orange and lychee aromas to compensate. More orange and lychee assert themselves in the mouth, along with a perfumed floral orange-blossom and honeysuckle note. Finishes with good peach and orange flavors. My second favorite of the day. (CDN$49.85/375ml)
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to taste through all forty wines (I still had a long drive ahead, after all...), but I think I was successful in tasting a representative sample. While not all of the bottlings were made in my favorite styles, I could easily see that they offered very good quality at reasonable prices and showcased the winery's dedication to producing superior wines. And the Muscat and Vidal Icewines were excellent by any standard. What gets my strongest recommendation besides the Icewines? My favorites among the dry wines were the L'Acadie and DeChaunac.
Needless to say, after a great tour of the vineyard and winery, and a very interesting wine tasting, I knew my luck had changed. Sure enough, by the time I was done, the sky was clear, the weather was warm, and I was actually grateful for the cold and clouds that spurred me to make this fascinating detour.
So how can you buy these wines? Unless you're planning a trip to Nova Scotia, it won't be easy. Jost Vineyards' wines are only distributed within the province, and some are only available at the winery. Jost will ship wherever legal, though, so if you are lucky enough to live in the right place, you might not have to visit. On the other hand, while I wouldn't suggest booking a trip to Nova Scotia just to visit the wineries (there aren't enough of them), the beauty and history of the province are well worth the travel -- so maybe the people who do need to visit are actually the lucky ones.
The "Wines of the Month" column couldn't end without rating some wines of the month, could it? So, just in case last month's Syrahs weren't sufficient for your end-of-summer cookouts, here are a couple more suggestions that should warm you up as the weather cools.
Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel Richard Sauret Vineyard Paso Robles
'97 -- A well-respected producer, Rosenblum is one of the famous
"R's" of Zinfandel (along with Ridge, Ravenswood, Renwood and, on
some lists, Rafanelli). Opens up with a big raspberry and spice nose,
though it seems a little simple. Offers plenty of lush berry fruit
flavors -- raspberries and blackberries -- with a little oak. Long
berry-filled finish with some spicy oak notes and little tannin. Not
a complex Zin, but a flavorful mouthful that shows some finesse. Good
now, but I wouldn't hold it much longer.
Quinta d'Abrigada Allenquer '95 -- Impressive
Periquita-based wine from Estremadura in Portugal. Very young and
tight, with tobacco, plum and leather aromas. With some time and air,
more plum and eucalyptus reveal themselves. Tobacco, plum, black
cherry and leather flavors. Seems tightly wound, but there's plenty
of concentrated flavor here. Finishes with plum, tobacco, leather and
a big tannic grip. Actually improved in the bottle overnight.
As always, your comments are welcome.
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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.