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Top Atlantic Canadian red wines

Atlantic Canadian white wines often steal the spotlight but there are plenty of bold regional reds.

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The reputation of Atlantic Canadian wine has risen in recent years. Most of the talk has been about our bubblies and crisp, aromatic white wines, including the Tidal Bay blends.

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But we should not forget that red wine has always been an important part of the region’s wine scene. It was a red wine from the original Grand Pré winery, when it was owned by Roger Dial, which was voted the “best wine of Canada” in a blind competition to supply Canadian embassies around the world. That red was a 1983 Cuvée D’Amur, made from a curious Russian cross called Michurinetz, which vintners still grow in small amounts in Nova Scotia.

One of the biggest challenges…is shaking the old mindset that wine should only be made from five or six varieties of grapes.

Since then, red wines from Atlantic Canada have won medals in specific categories, such as “red hybrid blend” or “Marechal Foch.” But they have never seriously competed against the top reds made from the more famous international Vitis vinifera grape varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

Mike Mainguy points out that we cannot grow such grapes because of our climate. “While our loamy clay and very stony estate soils are well suited for grape growing, our biggest challenges are a short growing season and a cold winter,” says Mainguy, winemaker at Nova Scotia’s Luckett Vineyards and a graduate of the Niagara College winery and viticulture program. “Getting classic red vinifera to the level of ripeness that they deserve for non-sparkling wine is an incredible challenge in our environment, which is why French-American hybrids prosper so well out here.”

It’s best to stop dreaming of Atlantic Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, at least until global warming really hits. But that does not mean there are no quality Atlantic Canadian reds. Non-vinifera grapes do not result in bad wines.

While red vinifera plantings are increasing (mainly Pinot Noir for sparkling wine, with some Gamay at Matos Winery in Prince Edward Island and in Bear River, N.S.; plus some Cabernet Franc in the Annapolis Valley), the most popular red grapes are French American hybrids like Marechal Foch, Leon Millot, Lucie Kuhlmann and Baco Noir. Under good vineyard management and with a skilled winemaker’s hand, these make good reds.

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“Some people have pre-conceived issues with hybrids,” says Mainguy, “but I think good winemaking is good winemaking. One of the biggest challenges for Nova Scotia reds is shaking the old mindset that wine should only be made from five or six varieties of grapes. It’s a big world out there—why blindly limit yourself? I would much rather drink a well-made wine from hybrid grapes than a poorly made wine from vinifera.”

In New Brunswick, the trend in red is toward Minnesota varieties. Developed at the University of Minnesota, these grapes were made famous by the legendary grape breeder Elmer Swenson, including Sabrevois, Frontenac and Marquette, among others.

“From a grower’s perspective, the Minnesota varieties bud a bit later in the spring,” says Sonia Carpenter, winemaker at New Brunswick’s Motts Landing Vineyard and a graduate of Eastern Bay of Technology/Tairawhiti campus in New Zealand. “The vines produce fruit with their primary buds, so you get better quality fruit and a higher yield.”

Although there are still quite a few Marechal Foch and other French- American vines in New Brunswick, Carpenter is not keen on them. “French-American hybrids generally bud early, and some years, risk losing the primaries,” she says. “Then your fruit is produced on the secondaries, which to me make those green herbaceous characteristics much more prominent.”

Other wineries in New Brunswick are growing Minnesota varieties, including the recently opened Dunham’s Run on the Kingston Peninsula near Saint John, Richibucto River Estates (between Moncton and Mirimichi), Gillis of Belleisle, Ferme Bourgeois in Memramcook, and a forthcoming Moncton-area winery owned by Pump House Brewery.

Minnesota varieties are increasing in Nova Scotia as well, particularly Marquette. Based on early results, it may be the best red for our terroir in terms of producing an elegant red similar to Pinot Noir without any herbaceous notes. And a recent barrel tasting of a new wine at Jost in Malagash, N.S. has also raised some eyebrows.

Over in P.E.I., Rossignol Estate has been doing well with its reds made from French-American grapes, always winning medals at North American competitions. Meanwhile, Matos is apparently the only Atlantic Canadian winery that grows only Vitis vinifera: Chardonnay for white; and Gamay for red. Matos has done well, winning medals at the Canadian Wine Awards for Gamay two years in a row.

One technique gaining popularity is to leave some residual sugar in red wines to balance our cool-climate acidity and make a commercially friendly wine. It certainly worked for Jost this year, as their off-dry Four Skins red blend won “favourite red wine” at the Atlantic Canada Wine Awards.

It’s not the only Atlantic Canadian red with residual sugar. “The hybrids I use for our red blends and single varietals…they have a little bit of residual sugar left on them in order to balance the acidity,” says Mainguy, whose Phone Box Red has been popular with consumers and in competition.

Apassimento—the drying of grapes—is another technique various wineries have been using, including L’Acadie Vineyards, Gillis of Belleisle and Luckett. It achieves more natural sugars, acids and phenolic compounds from the raisined grapes. “This adds so much to the finished wine,” says Mainguy, “adding a sensation of fruit concentration and complexity that really benefits the aroma, body and finish of the wine.”

While famous international red grapes will likely never be a force in Atlantic Canada’s grape-growing industry, our wineries are doing a great job fashioning highly drinkable reds from grapes that thrive here. Try one today and maybe you’ll see red in a good way.

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