As I read online articles and tweets, I see people discussing their local Pinot Noir harvests or how amazing the Cabernet Sauvignon is looking this year and, quite frankly, I get jealous. Not jealous that someone has the job they do; rather, I get jealous because I find myself a fine-wine lover/appreciator/sommelier in a geographical area with mostly French‐American hybrids—an area where most Vitis vinifera won’t ripen properly so we have to look to other grapes.

After working as a sommelier in one of Halifax’s oldest and best-known hotels, I’ve had plenty of experience speaking with tourists about Nova Scotia’s wines.  As you may expect, they always want to sample the local fare.  However, unless they too are from an area that grows hybrids, I am met with a very confused look when presenting the wines.  I explain to them the grapes we grow—l’acadie blanc, marechal foch, leon millot—and describe the style of wine they make.  On more than one occasion I’ve been met with, “Oh, just give me the Merlot.”  I sure don’t want to get into the fact that I said millot, not merlot, and I hand over the wine.  Often they enjoy it and I am met with a comment such as, “I thought it was too cold to grow grapes in Nova Scotia.”.

Now, we don’t grow only hybrids in Nova Scotia; in fact there are more Vitis vinifera planted every day.  I have tasted some mind-blowing Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay, as well as some very good reds such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. The best part is that the quality keeps getting better.

Nova Scotian wines are receiving more acclaim than ever.  L’Acadie Vineyards’ Prestige Brut is fresh off a gold medal win at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards, and the recently released Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique sparkling wines have been praised by many, including Tom Stevenson, one of the world’s foremost experts in sparkling wines who called them “seriously good with the rare twin-ability to show well when young and promise even more for the future.”

This brings me to my point: do we, as a wine region just on the cusp of more attention in the wine world stick to the virtually unrecognized hybrids we can ripen in our sometimes-harsh climate, or do we push the envelope and try to produce the better-known, higher-regarded wines made from Vitis vinifera grapes?

Such is the conundrum faced by Nova Scotia’s wineries and, in particular, the crop of young, talented winemakers like Jean-Benoit DesLauriers of Benjamin Bridge, Gina Haverstock of Gaspereau Vineyards and Ben Swetnam of  Avondale Sky Winery, who have come here after working and studying in some of the best terroirs known to human kind. After working with Grenache in California, Riesling in Germany and Pinot Gris in Alsace and New Zealand, how can one switch to Lucie Kuhlmann and Leon Millot in Nova Scotia?

I asked Simon Rafuse, winemaker at Blomidon Winery in Canning, Nova Scotia, what he thought about the whole debate.  Rafuse has a Master of Science degree from the University of Kent, United Kingdom and a Master of Viticulture and Oenology from Montpellier SupAgro, France. His work experience includes time at Chateau de Lancyre (Languedoc-Roussillon, France), Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (Alsace, France) and most recently William Hill Winery (Central Otago, New Zealand). “In Nova Scotia, French-American hybrid varietals make up the vast majority of our grape production.  Our climate doesn’t really allow us to rely solely on Vitis vinifera, as winterkill, frosts, cool summers and even hurricanes can reduce yields to the point of absurdity.  However, they can, and should, play a part in a winery’s production.  Because of our reasonably warm autumns (we have the ocean to thank for that), we get excellent phenolic development without a dramatic increase in sugars or a decrease in acidity.  Basically, this means we can get great flavours from vinifera and still have that bracing acidity that makes our wines unique, whether for still wines or sparkling.”

When I started to write this article it had an anti-hybrid theme. I just can’t go “gaga” over them, especially the reds.  However, I decided to consider the broader context.  Nova Scotia is not a wine-drinking region, historically.  Our per capita wine consumption has been estimated by Statistics Canada at 9.8L/per person.  Compare that to 54L/per person in France and 50L/per person in Italy and you can see what I mean.  Wine is a relatively new thing for us.  If you look at sales trends from the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation over the last 20 years, you see that Nova Scotians prefer rye, rum and beer—all things that are generally sweet and fairly acidic.  So, naturally, I can see why the local wineries want to use hybrids.  Wines made from hybrids tend to be very acidic and, in order to combat that acid, they take advantage of residual sugar for balance.  Someone just getting into wine—someone who formerly drank “rum and coke”—would likely enjoy a Marechal Foch or a Baco Noir.

I believe things happen for a reason.  My science background reminds me about natural selection.   If we are in a land too cold to grow certain red grapes from vinifera species, then so be it.  Would I love to be in a region that grows the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignon?  Of course.   However, the local wineries need to make a product to support both the growing industry and their respective businesses while we wait to see how our vinifera will do.

Think of it like this: I can’t throw a Frisbee for the life of me, but it is my dream to throw one well enough to compete world wide.  Do I work only on my Frisbee skills and hope I become very good in a short period of time and that it pays off immediately?  No, that’s far too big a risk.  Instead, I practice Frisbee while also writing.  Now, although the writing part isn’t as glamorous as the life of a Frisbee star, it pays the bills and makes some people happy.  Eventually, my ability to throw a Frisbee will improve, and I will have a good amount of money in the bank to support me in my quest.  That’s when I make my move and get noticed on the world scene.  The same thing will happen with Nova Scotia’s vinifera wines. I guarantee it.

Regions like Nova Scotia, Michigan and New York can grow quality vinifera grapes, they just need to select the right ones and use them appropriately according to their climate.  The sparkling wines being made from vinifera in Nova Scotia are exceptional, and, I am sure, soon will be some of the best made in North America. The Rieslings (and Pinot Noir!) in New York can be world-class.  So what if these regions grow a lot of hybrids?  If it supports the local industry and palates of local wine drinkers while giving the wineries more time and money to play with vinifera grapes, I am fine with it.

And here I was thinking that the automakers and environment are the only ones benefitting from hybrids.  So, if you are fortunate enough to come and visit us in Nova Scotia, make sure you bring your palate and an open mind, and yes, we check for both at the border.  While here, visit one of our 11 wineries within an hour’s drive of our beautiful capital city, Halifax and treat yourself to Benjamin Bridge’s Méthode Classique sparkling wines or their Moscato-esque Nova 7, Gaspereau Vineyard’s Riesling, L’Acadie Vineyards’ Prestige Brut and Domaine de Grand Pré’s Icewines.  However, don’t stop there. Come for the whole taste of Nova Scotia.

Jonathan Wilson graduated from the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers in 2009 and was the recipient of the Kent Clarke Award for top graduating student. He possesses a Level 3 Advanced Certificate in Wines & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in London, and is currently working on his Level 4 Diploma in hopes of someday becoming a Master of Wine. He also possesses a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jonathan lives to write, speak and teach about wine as can be witnessed through his work with his business, Labeled Wine Consulting. He is also the resident sommelier at Nectar Social House in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Great wine, social media, and branding are not just strategies he utilizes in his business, they are his passions.

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  • Craig Pinhey

    An interesting piece, Jonathan. My only beef with it is that it makes the assumption that there should be a difference in quality between different grape species. I don’t think there is a scientific case for that. You should talk to Paul Troop, a grape grower on Salt Spring Island. He never uses the term hybrid. All grapes are mutations, crosses, etc. evolved (or created) from other grapes. Vinifera grapes are not more pure or genetically superior. Bad Pinot Noir is as bad as bad Foch, and sometimes worse. If you taste a good NS L’Acadie, NY Muscat or Millot, there is nothing that tips them off as being a different species from Pinot Grigio, Muscat Ottonel or Merlot. Look at L’Acadie sparklers, incl. the Foch rose. No one could guess these were from “inferior” species. I try not to use vinifera or hybrid in writing or speaking anymore.

  • Jonathan Wilson

    Hey Craig, great points. Although, I still think there should be a differentiation because we are talking about different species, the same way I think we should know when someone is using a different grape clone, cross, etc. I use the term hybrid because that is the scientific term the for species and how it was created. I think where the differentiation between the two species comes in for me is not in the “bad” wines, but in the “good” ones. Maybe it’s just my personal taste preference, but even when blind tasting, I don’t seem to like the “good” Fochs, Bacos, etc. and I know I’m not alone. The whites I love, but it is more so the reds, and of course there are exceptions. Quality winemakers using quality techniques in quality areas find a way to make great wine regardless of the grape.

    Let me ask you this: Would the hybrid varietals like L’Acadie Blanc exist if they were not created by someone in a “lab”? To me, that doesn’t seem as pure as say, Pinot Noir. Sure, the Pinot we know today has mutated more times than we can count, but it is still genetically traceable as the same unadulterated grape put on this earth many, many years ago.

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  • Craig Pinhey

    I don’t know the answer to that question. We need a grape breeder to do that. But I think that if the grapes exist in the same vineyard area then the opportunity for spontaneous crosses (I prefer the term cross – forget hybrid, they are all crosses, just that some are inter-species) is there (Cab Sauv came from Franc and Sauv Blanc).

    I’m not a biologist, but I wonder of the parallel is looking at other foods we eat. Is the difference between Baco Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon (both are grapes) similar to the difference between two types of cows, or is it more like comparing a pig to a cow. I think the former.

    It depends on the grapes in the cross, too. I don’t compare labrusca based crosses to the Minnestoa varieties.

    As for vinifera being the superior species, well, I guess it is in the areas where they are prevalent, which is mainly climate related. Cab Sauv is DEFINITELY not superior to Baco in Ontario, in my opinion, in all but the most exceptional years. So what about Gamay? It’s superior to Cab Sauv in Ontario too, most years, but is it better than Baco? I’m not sure on that. I’ve also had amurensis reds in the US (Michigan, New York) that blow away many “superior” grape wines. In blind tastings, I can’t believe you don’t like a good Baco like Reserve Henry of P. Has to be double blind (you don’t even know it is there). I think that the red blends being made in NS, using oak treatment, and letting them age a bit (using some older vintage wine, maybe, in the blend) are resulting in better balanced reds. I think much of the problem with greenness, acid and weediness in the past was due to unripe Foch. The really good wines don’t need sugar to balance acid. They are already balanced. Have you ever had a properly aged Jost Foch? No way you’d say it had any of the characterisitcs people often attribute to that grape.

  • Remy Charest

    Craig, you make a good point about the fact that hybrids in a proper place can make better wines that vinifera in the wrong one – I’m sure Foch in Quebec produces better stuff than sangiovese would. However, I haven’t seen one hybrid wine that reached as high as the best vinifera yet, and because of certain characters that are different in hybrids, I remain skeptical that you could really get a hybrid grand cru somewhere.

    This is not to invalidate the fact that I’ve tasted very pleasant, even very solid wines made from hybrids, and that I think they have a justifiable place in the wine world and on the market. But I have yet to have one – in the reds, in particular – that would really blow me away.

    The difference between vinifera and French-American/labrusca crossings is greater than crosses between vinifera. If crossing between viniferas are types of cows, than hybrids are like a crossing between a cow and a buffalo – maybe viable and truly interesting in many respects, but really not just another cross.

  • Craig Pinhey

    I have had some fantastic aged Foch from Jost that would shock many wine experts in a true blind judging. I don’t think most people do TRUE blind judging, mixing in these crosses with vinifera. I mean when tasters have no idea they are even in the flight. I have rarely done it myself. When you know it’s there, it changes how you taste.

    I think there are some really bizarre, spicy, odd, grapey, vegetal tasting VINIFERA grapes in Italy, Portugal and other old world regions that have a lot in common with some of our local favourites.

    Quite often the experts are delighted by these odd, quirky finds. But if you had told them up front: “Try this hybrid!” then they would have already hated it before taking a sniff.

    I also think that more time is needed before we truly judge these grapes and how they taste on our terroir. How long has France been making Cab and Pinot?

  • http://www, anthony

    Hello Craig, Remy.
    I thought I would add a few comments I hear from all the time from the growers in this country.

    First of all, regardless of pedigree, if a vine is not suited correctly to the area, it will not produce outstanding wines. It really has nothing to do with hybrid versus purity.
    It is, however, entirely based on sustainability. Show me a hybrid grower, and I will show you a starving farmer. Sure, maybe a few are making money, but the majority cannot cross the chasm growing and marketing a wine from Marechal Foch! (not to pick on Foch).

    the fundemental problem hybrid growers have is trying to connect with an audience (and this includes wine writers, critics, sommeliers, connaiseurs) that is well rounded in European varieties. And not European varieties from Georgia, Sarajevo, Poland, Austria, Greece, Germany, etc..but Italy and France.

    Try entering a foch in an international wine competition against a Burgundy PN and see what happens to your reputation or credibilty.

    The farmers already know that certain hybrids outperform certain vinifera, there is no need for further convincing there. It is with the Rest of the world.
    Sure you can come up with clever names (like BIN33) to market and sell your wines, but trying selling a varietal Foch or Sabrevois in Ontario or Quebec.

    There are other reasons that I won’t get into right now why we want to grow vinifera instead of hybrids, but I think the main issue is marketability!
    I am sure Jost would love to export his wines to Europe, maybe even France. But I think the law prohibits any import of hybrid wines into those countries unless the variety is on their approved list. Last time I checked, it was not!

    A grape is just a grape. At the end of the day, it is really up to marketing, sales, and general population trends