Fresh & Wild: Kim Gertler Interviews Jean-Benoit DesLauriers of Benjamin Bridge

The tale of Benjamin Bridge is one of the success stories in Canada’s young history as a winemaking country. It took years of careful planning, experimentation, international expertise and a significant financial investment but it’s an investment that has paid off. Glowing reviews for the wines have come from across Canada and beyond. Sales have continued to grow, year upon year. This past month, Benjamin Bridge even got a listing on the wine list at Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurant.

Head winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers (JBD) came to Benjamin Bridge after helming winemaking projects in Santa Barbara, California and Colchagua Valley, Chile. CAPS Ontario’s Kim Gertler (KG) spoke to him recently about the region and the wines.

KG: I finally got to taste your wines in Vancouver where at a panel of sparkling wines from all across Canada, Led by Jamie Goode, your wine scored first with 92 out of 100 points. I guess you’re getting used to these amazing accolades from – everyone from Steven Spurrier, Jamie, Tony Aspler, Beppi Crosiarol, David Lawrason – are heaping praise on your wines. Does it surprise you?

JBD: Well I think it’s certainly a testament to something at play here – it has everything to do with our growing environment – there is something that is very unique here in the Bay of Fundy itself. It you look at the Bay of Fundy within the natural world – it is a force to be reckoned with. It has the highest tides and strongest tides on the face of the earth and so there is a tremendous amount of water movement and activity – it’s a tremendous force. There is more water going through the Bay of Fundy on a daily basis than all the fresh water rivers of the world combined.

The water goes up and down about 18 metres a day and so all that movement, all of that tidal activity translates into the Bay of Fundy acting as an air pump. And we’re in the little valley that goes straight into the bay at the very end and so we get all of that air movement and it translates into a growing environment and a growing reality that is unlike any other wine region on the face of the earth and I believe that it’s perfectly suited for producing traditional method sparkling wine.

Well because of all that air movement, the fruit is going to ripen in a very unlikely way. It provides us an opportunity to stretch the growing season without losing acidity and without resulting in a premature increase in sugar content. And that’s really the key because traditional method sparkling involves a secondary fermentation that will add about a degree and a half of alcohol to the finished product. So if you want to land in the territory of you know, around 12 % alcohol with your finished product – then your base wines have to be dry and about 10.5% alcohol and so the sugar content of the fruit has to be quite modest. So when you are in a warmer climate – and you can take global warming into consideration in that equation, say like in Sonoma County, well sometimes you’re going to be forced to pick by default as early as the middle of July – because that’s how early the fruit will reach the sugar content that is required for sparkling. So, because of this unbelievable moderating effect of the Bay of Fundy – and that cool air coming in with that tide going up and down the valley – acting basically as an air pump and therefore our valley is transformed into a corridor of moderation – that allows the sugar content to stay in check throughout an extended period of time. Never really spiking up and allowing for the most unlikely combination of low sugar content and high phenolic maturity. We pick on average the last week of October or the first week of November — that’s potentially almost up to 2 and a half months of additional hang time (compared to Sonoma).

KG: That’s such a beautiful description of cool weather ripening – almost in slow motion – as you describe it…It’s been described as a high risk and high reward region and obviously it has some unique parameters – what are the biggest challenges – I think you’ve just described your greatest advantage – but what’s your biggest challenge in the region?

JBD: I’ll start by dispelling somewhat of a stereotypical myth…and that is that Nova Scotia is very cold in the winter. That would be true for certain areas but where we are – and again – due to the dynamic of moderation and the proximity to the Bay of Fundy our winters are quite moderate. Because usually the dynamic of moderation is going to eliminate or shave off the extremes on both sides so that – as opposed to a very continental model that would have very cold temperatures in the winter and very warm temperatures in the summer – those extremes are kind of eliminated and so our winters are actually much milder than Prince Edward County and milder than Niagara.

But speaking of that principal of being on the edge, there is no question that, like in many instances in life, you know, the higher the risk – you know, the higher the potential reward. I mean we are all very familiar with models, where, if the growing equation is a walk in the park, the potential for greatness isn’t always there. But when you reach ripeness at the eleventh hour, when you scratch and claw your way to the finish line and you know, barely get there, that’s usually where, great wines emerge.When you have to work hard to get to optimal ripeness and when you get there at the last minute.

KG: We’ll get to how those conditions express themselves in flavours on the palate in a minute but let’s talk a little bit about your background and the background of Benjamin Bridge. I believe you started making wines in 2008 but Benjamin Bridge has been around a little bit before that. Can you tell us how you ended up there and also tell us a bit about the history of BB and their unique program of blazing new turf and new terroir?

JBD: Absolutely. Benjamin Bridge was started and founded in 1999, so almost 18 years ago. It was at that time that the owners Gerry McConnell and his late wife, Dara Gordon reached out to Peter Gamble – quite a renaissance man in the Canadian Wine Industry – and so Peter joined the project at the very beginning and it was he that connected the dots and had the insight that traditional method sparkling could be a great fit with the climatic reality here in the Gaspereau Valley. So once that was determined as a potential goal, what they did is they reached out to Tom Stephenson in the UK and asked for a shortlist of some of the best Champagne winemakers, or traditional method sparkling wine makers that would potentially consider consulting for Benjamin Bridge and on top of that list was a man by the name of Raphael Brisbois. Raphael joined the project in 2001. He was a former Chef de Cave at Piper-Hiedeseck and he was in Sonoma County heading the Piper-Sonoma project there at the time. So Raphael came in 2001 and the first traditional method sparklings were made in 2002 and so those were kind of the early days of Benjamin Bridge.

KG: So tell us when you came into the picture – and I believe you came from a much warmer region.

JBD: So Peter and Raphael hired me at the time – to come and work fulltime on the ground – that would have been in early 2008 – so it’s going on ten years now. So I was hired in February of 2008. I’ve been in Nova Scotia for nine and a half years. I was originally from Quebec and like most people – and that’s interesting to mention – you know sometimes, because now there is a bit of a buzz, among those who are initiated, about Nova Scotia wines but I think it’s important to say that just about everyone, including Nova Scotians themselves, at one point in time, were surprised to hear that there was such a thing as an emerging wine region in Nova Scotia. One would say “Nova Scotia wines – who would have known? That’s a very natural response – like – you were talking about Vancouver – it was amazing to be there (the 2017 Vancouver International Wine Festival) because we could sense the capital in curiosity that had built up – because of almost – the unlikeliness of the situation.

KG: Yes you could feel it in the air out there – you guys were the big story from Canada – the featured country this year – and well-deserved. But was there an “aha moment” for BB – the making of these amazing wines in an unlikely terroir didn’t happen overnight – and I will add – with unlikely grapes in some cases. When did you guys know – yes these wines are going to “rock the world.”

JBD: I think there was a tasting that occurred at Canoe Restaurant in Toronto in 2012 and many of the writers you mentioned were there – Tony Aspler was there, John Szabo, The usual suspects were in attendance – and so the Canadian wine press was well represented. Will Predhomme, was the sommelier at Canoe at the time, and was instrumental in making it happen, as well. So on that day two of our wines were tasted blind in the company of reference wines from Champagne…we had a Cristal…the best possible vintages of Cristal we could find at the time…we also had a David Léclapart L’Apôtre Blanc de Blanc 2005 wine which was the highest rated grower champagne by Richard Juhlin. We selected overachievers to include in the blind tasting with the Benjamin Bridge – at the time relatively unknown – Brut Reserve 2004 and then Blanc De Noirs 2004. The wines were poured blind…(after the tasting) our wines were identified as the grande marques Champagne and the grower champagne – and the other two were identified as the Nova Scotia wines..there was with an overwhelming vote of preference for the two Benjamin Bridge products. I don’t remember from the top of my mind what the percentage was but I think the Brut Reserve 04 (was chosen by) 84% of the crowd as their favourite and the Blanc de Noir was second. Interestingly they were also identified as Champagne … and that was the part where something clicked – you know – okay – clearly this was not a diplomatic effort (by the attendees) to try to celebrate something that is different. This is something (in the wines) that completely fooled the audience.

KG: The best palates in the country.

JBD: Exactly – and I say that with all due respect. We would never take pride in any way suggesting a blind tasting that would have these great minds within the Canadian wine industry not be able to identify a wine correctly. That’s not the point at all, It was more an illustration of the fact that, when you do it blind like this, there’s the element of the unknown. Like, it could have been that they would have identified the two Nova Scotian wines and then formulated some very favourable remarks.But that wasn’t the case. They were actually identified as Champagne…and that was the defining moment where we thought ‘okay this might be a good ride!’

KG: Amazing! Now I am not that familiar with all of your wines. Is it safe to say that there was something other than the traditional champagne grapes in those wines?

JBD: Well, yeah that’s true! The Brut 2004 had a small, small percentage of vidal and there were quite a few traditional method sparklings that we made using, or experimenting with hybrid varieties. However, since 2001, 100% of the Brut Reserve and the Rose and some of the special cuvees that we make are all made from 100% Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, so it is true that in the formative years of Benjamin Bridge there were some – actually very successful explorations involving hybrid varieties. I cannot say that would define the program right now because we made a very significant investment in planting classic Champagne varieties and right now – pinot noir and chardonnay are our most planted vines.

KG: So is it the Nova 7 then that still has some of the hybrids?

JBD: Oh yes, definitely. Nova 7 is a huge part of our history. It is such a foundational wine for the wine industry here in Nova Scotia and it became quite a phenomenon. It reached the status of the highest selling wine product here in Nova Scotia. All countries, categories, and price points combined. This is normally not the territory of a local artisanal product. It’s usually the territory of Yellowtail, Fuzion and other – you know the Apothic Reds of this world…but you know – the Nova 7 became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon here in Nova Scotia and is now available in every province across Canada and internationally, as well. So that’s been a defining wine for us and something that we’re really proud of. Like, this year, for example, the Nova 7 is 100% wild fermented. So, we’re always, working on ways to bring the product closer to the vineyard, making sure that it stays absolutely relevant – especially, within today’s landscape and with our sensibilities. You know, we are 100% certified organic at Benjamin Bridge. We’ve been growing organic since day one.

KG: Before we get into your winemaking techniques, I’m just curious – how did you arrive at the long list of interesting hybrids – often when people are embarking to make “international” style or caliber wines – they don’t, generally, involve winter hardy hybrids. How did those choices evolve? How were they chosen? Were they traditionally from the region and what role do they play now in your bag of tricks?

JBD: So, if you look in our estate vineyard we haven’t been planting a whole lot of hybrids in recent years. Most of our new plantings have been vinifera and we have original plantings of vinifera as well. Nova 7 had been relying, in part, on our partnership with a lot of local growers and the capital of grapes available in Nova Scotia at this time, certainly involves a strong percentage of hybrids so that is the context in 2017. So Nova 7 basically – is a product that is relying first and foremost on freshness and is also extremely aromatic. So as you kind of design or imagine the blend, there’s going to be two families of product that will have a very specific contribution. So, there will be the aromatic contributors, which are going to be grapes that are going to contribute a lot of terpenes and esters that will translate into a very floral, fragrant and perfumed profile. So – very dramatic aromatics – those would be the aromatic contributors and there’s going to be the varieties that maybe do not have those dramatic floral qualities, but that can provide all the electricity – the brightness and the freshness, that really defines the product. So really the blend is going to be the aromatic contributors and then the grapes that will contribute freshness, acidity and brightness.

KG: So let’s talk about being a winemaker in the Gaspereau Valley and what’s different about making wine there. What’s critical about your job in the region and how do you approach classic sparkling or champagne techniques?

JBD: I would say that generally speaking, if you come to Nova Scotia and you start tasting wines at all the tasting rooms of all the different wineries, it’s very likely that you will notice a common denominator between most of the product and that’s the fact that the vast majority of wines will rely on a foundation of freshness. So if you were tasked with the mission of finding a flabby wine in Nova Scotia – that would be difficult. Even the reds, even dessert wines they have lots of residual sugar – they still always have – that electricity, that energy and – you know – that brightness that defines our growing environment. So, provided that that’s the case, that acidity and brightness is always a common denominator and is always almost there – well, it’s always there. Provided that that’s the case, that’s the premise – then, a traditional method sparkling wine, at the highest level – is a wine that is meant to combine freshness and richness. Like it doesn’t present one with a stylistic crossroad – where you have to choose between one or the other. Or, it’s not a dynamic where one is possible – at the expense of the other. A great Champagne has an elevated level of freshness and richness and it merges the two. And so that’s really the key, I think, behind a great sparkling.

KG: Can you describe what you mean by richness?

JBD: So by richness I mean, substance, maybe like a softness, structure – think like for example, like some wines have acidity but that would be light and crisp, they would not have a tremendous amount of substance …but a great Champagne can have a tremendous amount of weight – it can be weightless in a way because the acidity is going to be there to brighten the product but at the same time there can be a lot of substance – it’s a wine that’s very rich and very dense. I think that that’s the magic behind the great whites – the great Chablis of this world are exactly the same way – like there is something very bright, you know, very crisp but at the same time those are not wines that are deprived of structure and weight. So if you look at that common denominator that we have – that foundation of freshness is always there – I think it’s important to realize that it’s never going to be in jeopardy. So, therefore, if you’re trying to strike the perfect balance or if you are trying to reach the perfect state of balance between freshness and richness the odds are you are going to have to act in the best interest in the richness of the wine and do things so that there will be richness to match – that the freshness will be there but that the substance, the weight, and the richness – sometimes you do have to take decisions in order to that that is also going to be there at an elevated level because that is not always there. If you go to all the tasting rooms – again – you are going to find freshness across the board – but I don’t think you’re going to find weight and richness across the board. A lot of the times the wines are going to be light and crisp. So that’s the thing, if you are trying to make a traditional method sparkling, that will make a very powerful statement in the world of wine, you need that level of richness in the wine. There are some steps that can be taken in the vineyard, such as reducing the yield and therefore increasing the amount of concentration and dry extract. Maybe density can play a role. Maybe malolactic fermentation can play a role, maybe aging in barrels and maybe your use of lees, right and the turbidity of the wines, when they’re fermenting – so there’s a lot of things that you can look at to act in the interests of the richness in the wines so that ultimately the finished product ends up being a perfect merger of those two poles – the perfect balance of freshness and richness.

KG: So let’s look at the wines – can you pick three of your wines – the most available nationally – and describe – how they might age – how they work with food or reflect the regional character? Whatever you’d like to say about them.

JBD: Well start with the non-vintage – the NV. We only started making non-vintage wines two years ago because like with most Champagne houses in order to make a true non-vintage, we needed to be able to rely on a reserve of vintage wines. That’s really key because that is how in a non-vintage program you offset some of the variations between the vintages and always ensure that the product will land within the territory of the house style. So that’s a very important product for us because we now have a big non-vintage program that relies on 15 years of production of traditional method sparkling wine and the reserve wines that we include – they go all the way back to 2002 and so you have an amazing amount of autolytic complexities – some smokiness, some toastiness and some richness and substance that comes from that. Also, because we’ve made that investment to build that inventory of reserve wines over the last 15 years, we’re now in the position to make a significant amount of that non-vintage wine – as a result of all the patience – and the investment that was made. So it’s an absolutely unique wine within the landscape of Nova Scotia sparkling because we can absolutely produce an amount of NV now that is substantial enough to support all the hype for Nova Scotia sparkling that is happening nationally and internationally and that’s a very unique trait that is not replicated by other wines in the province.

KG: And that’s probably a great value, too.

JBD: It is a great value. I am not sure if there will be more variations within the NV but you can expect something just shy of 30 dollars. Locally, here in Nova Scotia, it’s offered at 28 dollars. So for a wine that has these wines going all the way back to 2002 that’s a pretty interesting proposition.

KG: And with what food would you enjoy it?

JBD: Well traditional method sparkling wines are so versatile but I would say because those wines are influenced by the Bay of Fundy so much, what would be a very organic pairing would probably be seafood that would be indigenous to that environment and to the bay – and there are quite a bit of scallops as well as lobster – so to me scallops and lobster would be the most natural pairing – because they are the bounty of the surrounding waters.

KG: Okay wine number two

JBD: Wine number two is Nova 7. Nova 7 is now made as a wild fermented product without the use of any commercial yeast and is not chapitalized (no sugar added). Everything in Nova 7 is coming from the field so there are no ingredients added to induce, stimulate or modify or change in any way the primary fermentation – that’s a very unlikely proposition – it’s a huge leap of faith. Especially in relation to the style because Nova 7’s a very aromatic product that has some Moscato-esque ‘upsides’ aromatically. That’s normally the territory of special yeast strains that will take you – especially, precisely in that aromatic territory – and so to take the leap of faith – you know – to ‘go wild’ on an aromatic wine that has a very distinct profile is, I think is in fact a testament that we can now fully stand behind the terroir narratives for that wine and that we are doing things that are very ambitious – to do everything in our power to ensure that it is that very authentic embodiment of that absolutely unique growing environment that we have got here and so I think there’s a lot of purity behind this year’s wine and that freshness that defines our growing environment. That stamp – that signature trait and it’s there more than ever.

KG: And it’s lightly frizzante right? It kind of reminds me of the wines of Cinqueterre. How would you describe the sparkling aspect?

JBD: Absolutely. Well, it’s very interesting actually – in that natural transition of Nova 7, one of the things that we’ve been doing, is we’ve been transitioning to fermentation at crazy low temperatures because there is a chemical principle that ensures that the C02 – so, the effervescence or the little spritz that’s created as a natural byproduct of the fermentation is going to stay in solution if the wine is cold enough. So if the wine is too warm during the fermentation, that C02 will escape. But if the wine is cold enough, a vast portion of that C02 is going to remain in solution and so that’s how we’re able to preserve a very fine effervescence from that primary fermentation. So that adds a little prolonged upside to the wine.and it’s absolutely unique, there are no other wines like Nova 7 on the face of the earth. If you try a Moscato – it’s not going to have that super energetic refreshing upside. It’s going to be a bit more ‘sugar-centric.’which really Nova isn’t. Even though there is some residual sugar that is definitely not the impression that it makes on the palate

KG: It sends you back for another sip …and another sip…and it’s great with what food?

JBD: Well because it’s so aromatic and it has that touch of residual sugar, I am thinking very spicy and aromatic food – you know like Thai and Indian food that could potentially overwhelm a still wine that would be either be very delicate or maybe a little bit neutral. Nova 7 is perfect because it will match the aromatic intensity of a lot of exotic fare – so Thai, Indian are probably the best.

KG: And wine number three?

JBD: Something only available here in Nova Scotia – I am going to go with a new addition to our portfolio, which is the ‘Pet Nat,’ or Pétillant-naturel . So we’re certified organic at Benjamin Bridge and a Pétillant-naturel is a sparkling wine that is not the result of – let’s say, base wines that were fermented to dryness and then introduced in the bottle with a yeast culture and sugar, ultimately with the intention to induce a secondary fermentation that is distinct from the primary. A true Pétillant-naturel , like most wines in the natural wine category, they need to start with organic viticulture. So the fruit needs to be organic – for me that’s a very important part of the equation – and then nothing is added to the product and by that I don’t just mean an indigenous fermentation – but there’s no S02 added – so it’s a sulfite free wine – well, perhaps not sulfite free, but there are no sulfites added by any stretch of the imagination. So, no sulphur, no yeast , no nutrients, so it goes through a wild indigenous primary, or alcoholic fermentation and then right at the time when the amount of residual sugar left to ferment in the primary fermentation is equal to an amount of c02 that would give you the desired effervescence that you would want – then what you do is you put that wine in the bottle, with the natural sugars from the field –the natural sugars from the fruit – and that yeast population that was indigenous or wild to start with. A ‘pet nat’ is the continuation of the wild, primary fermentation in the bottle, as opposed to an induced secondary fermentation using a selected yeast strain and sugar that is not coming from the fruit. So it is the natural way of making a sparkling wine using entirely elements that are coming from the field or from the vineyard, so no addition of any third party products of any kind.

KG: Just to be clear – when you talk about the sugar and the yeast here – you are not adding anything here…

JBD: Exactly – so let’s say you’ve got a bottle of wine that is fermenting during harvest, it’s in the winery – it was fermented wild – nothing was added to induce or stimulate that or to perform that fermentation, instead of letting that vat ferment to dryness, when it reaches a level of sugar content that would equate to the desired level of effervescence in a bottle. You just put that wild ferment in a bottle – you cap it and then you let the indigenous primary fermentation finish in the bottle and give you the effervescence that you want and so that is a ‘pet nat’. So, at the end of the day, you’ve never used sugars that were not from the fruit itself, it is organic fruit to start with. No sulphur was added at any point in time, as well as no yeast, nutrients or any fermentation aids of any kind.

KG: And the best food to have with that wine is…?

JBD: Ours is a rather aromatic Pétillant-naturel that has very engaging notes: fuzzy peach, ripe pear and so I would think that something like a prosciutto melon appetizer would be ideal or tapas or even just as an aperitif.

KG: As this interview is for CAPS, can you talk a bit about how you work with sommeliers. You’ve already described the crucial role that Will Predhomme had – I’m curious what you think of sommeliers – are they important? Is their role changing – or should be changing…your thoughts?

JBD: First of all I think that sommeliers have a lot to do with the rise in popularity of the wine industry and not just on the account of being – you know – interacting with consumers at their place of work – but you know – as passionate human beings that are like ambassadors of wine – through and through – you know – like inside out and one common denominator between all of the sommeliers that I have met is a flame burning within. It’s a true passion for the product that’s a common denominator with every sommelier that I’ve interacted with and that is clearly something that cannot be matched or replicated – so I think that sommeliers as a demographic are probably to be credited with the wine industry being what it is today. You know, like I think that they play a huge part in promoting wine as a way of life.

KG: It makes sense then to ask you about sparkling wine. In Vancouver there was a lot of buzz about sparkling wine being Canada’s next great category or niche…your comments on that?

JBD: Oh well, it’s great. Canada is so great and so diverse that sometimes it almost feels like multiple countries. I’m not one to suggest that there are ‘solitudes’ – not one bit actually but at the same time there is so much distance that whenever – you – take Canadian wines and feel a sense of pride in something that comes from so far away – it does kind of defeat those borders and all of that distance and that’s a thing of beauty. If you’re from British Columbia – to feel a connection to a product that comes from Nova Scotia is easier said than done because of the distance. But while, you are in the UK – you can live pretty much anywhere in the UK and you can feel a greater connection to a UK sparkling. But I like when sommeliers and others kind of break barriers and really feel that, let’s say a wine from Nova Scotia is well – not necessarily a local product but clearly something that they can consider as part of the national landscape.

KG: So when you arrived there in 2008 – I have to ask you – did you have any idea that there would be this kind of excitement over your wines and Nova Scotia in general?

JBD: Absolutely not and that’s why I don’t think that anyone should feel shy that they were surprised to hear that there’s an emerging wine region here in Nova Scotia because we were all there at some point but the point is – when did we realize that there was something happening and something promising – but no I did not grasp or have any sense of what would come of that project and where it would take us.

KG: A quick note or two on what’s exciting to you in terms of emerging trends or new directions. Is there anything on the horizon that excites you that we should be looking out for?

JBD: Yeah, a couple of things. I think large formats…I think we’re going to see a lot more magnums in the future. I think that the natural wine movement is going to evolve and some things will remain. There are a lot of evolutions. There’s a lot of sustainability within the natural wine movement…I think organic viticulture is one of them…it’s very unlikely that organic growers are going to go back to conventional growing. So, even if there is an element within that movement that could be trend oriented or closer to a trend.. I think that there are also elements that are very sustainable such as that willingness to create a pure natural product and to respect the environment that’s around us. So large formats and then wines that are healthier and purer. I think there’s no going back from that. You see it in food as well…. you know people that start paying attention to the quality and the source of their ingredients are very unlikely to go back to not paying attention to those things So I think the difference between a trend and an evolution is really key and in the natural wine movement we see a lot of things that are not going to go anywhere and I think the idea of wines that will make us feel better and are sustainable on so many fronts including from an environmental standpoint – I think that those things are there to stay.

KG: Thank you very much for your time and your wines – it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. I look forward to speaking with you again and to sampling your future vintages

JBD: Great – well the pleasure was all mine.