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Exploring the Oldest Wine Region in Canada (Spoiler: It Isn’t in Ontario or B.C.)

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Grapes have been growing on Canada’s East Coast since the early 1600s, but the wine here, one aromatic white in particular, has been one of the country’s best‑kept secrets – until now.

“There’s no better way to understand a wine than to visit where it’s made,” says Gina Haverstock, winemaker for Gaspereau Vineyards in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. We were standing on a hilltop, looking down over a half‑mile of vines, their grapes showing bright and plump through the bushy leaves.

It’s a trait of good wine that it is more than something to drink. Like a trick mirror, a quality wine is an aggregation of many things, imparting not only its own flavour, but that of the landscape from which it comes: the soil, the air and perhaps even the ethos of a place. In a glass of Torrontés, you’ll taste the cold wind of Argentina's Calchaquí Valley, and in a muscadet, the sunshine of France’s Loire Valley. Canada’s East Coast has its own version of this in Tidal Bay, a deliciously subtle aromatic white, in which there is the salt‑touched sweetness of a Nova Scotian shoreline.

October 5, 2021
assorted bottles of tidal bay wine
   Photo: Nova Scotia Wine

Tidal Bay’s ascent has been a long time coming. Though Nova Scotia is considered to be Canada’s oldest wine country or region – grapes have been planted here since the early 1600s – the industry was stagnant for generations, and attention was drawn west, to the vineyards of Ontario and B.C. The Annapolis Valley is the epicenter of this – as it’s home to most of the vineyards and wineries, but there are grapes grown around the province: on the South Shore, in Bear River and on the Northumberland Shore.

Nova Scotia continues to be associated with sparkling wines (its terroir and cool climate bears similarities to the French region of Champagne), however, beginning in 2012, an appetite developed among the province’s winemakers to establish a unique appellation for the area, and produce a distinctly Nova Scotian wine. Today, fourteen wineries produce their own version of a tangy white called Tidal Bay.

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Annapolis Valley Minas Basin and Cape Blomidon
   Photo: Scott Munn

“Tidal Bay is a great way for a winemaker to express their idiosyncrasies within a set range,” says Haverstock. That set range is the strict standard by which Tidal Bays are produced, a stylization that includes a specific alcohol content (between 9 and 11% percent) and the requirement to use grapes grown in Nova Scotia. But with more than 20 grape varietals to choose from (pulling strongly on L’Acadie Blanc, Seyval, and Vidal), no two Tidal Bay wines are alike, either between wineries or from year to year.

Of course, Nova Scotia’s temperamental weather plays a significant role in each year’s selection of Tidal Bays – a hint of salt from the rolling seaborn fog that fills the Annapolis Valley and aromas of green apple, peach and lime as a result of a short, cool growing season.

Lightfoot and Wolfville vineyards
   Photo: Wines of Nova Scotia

Light and tangy, Tidal Bays are designed to pair alongside local seafood – a smorgasbord of lobster, crab, scallops and oysters. Clustered around the Minas Basin, no Annapolis Valley vineyard is more than 20 kilometres from the ocean. According to Rachel Lightfoot, of Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, the constant sea breeze helps suppress the ravages of fungus, widely reducing the need for fungicides and other chemicals.

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Nova Scotian wine isn’t yet readily available across the country, or widely known around the world, but the area is quickly establishing itself as a source of high‑quality wines in an intimate, almost exclusive, environment. At Domaine du Grand Pré, winemaker Jurg Stutz describes his desire to “bring the people in, rather than sending the wine out.”

tour of Domaine du Grand Pre
   Photo: Patrick Rojo

It’s a philosophy that can be applied across all of wine country here. The majority of Nova Scotian wineries are small, with between 35 and 50 hectares of vines. At Domaine du Grand Pré, Stutz says he produces around 10,000 cases per year, a small number compared to industrial‑scale wineries that pump out half a million cases annually.

And the plan of “bringing people in” is working. The Good Trail Cheer, a suggested road trip of the best wineries, breweries and distilleries Nova Scotia has to offer, has helped boost post‑Covid tourism in the province, with several operators offering wine tours in the valley. Only an hours’ drive from Halifax, the Valley is a cradleland of agriculture while, the shores of Minas Basin are filled with visitable cheesemakers, breweries and orchards.

Though there is a variety of style among Nova Scotian wineries – some vineyards pushing the envelope, while others prefer traditionalism – Tidal Bay has become something of a group project. Simon Rafuse, winemaker at Blomidon Estate Winery, says: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Related: A Summer Road Trip to Eastern Canada

The best Nova Scotia wineries

Wine tasting at Blomidon Estate Winery
   Photo: Dean Casavechia

Blomidon Estate Winery — Located on North Mountain, tastings are held looking south over the mud flats of the Minas Basin. Known for its traditional method sparkling wines (think Champagne), Blomidon also has a range of reds, whites and rosé. Come here for: Blanc de Blancs sparkling, winner of a Decanter World Wine Awards silver medal.

Luckett Vineyards
   Photo: Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Luckett Vineyards — This winery and restaurant boasts excellent views over the Gaspereau Valley towards North Mountain and a bookable private cellar featuring an impressive Portuguese tile mosaic. Come here for: Phone Box Red.

Tasting room at Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards
   Photo: Nova Scotia Wine

Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards — This biodynamic winery keeps herds of Highland cattle and pigs that root around the property and maintain a symbiotic relationship between the soil and the grapes. Though it is the Annapolis Valley’s newest winery, its barn‑cum‑cathedral ambience gives this estate an old‑fashioned feel. Come here for: Ancienne Chardonnay.

Domaine du Grand Pre vineyard tour
   Photo: Patrick Rojo

Domaine du Grand Pré — As the only Annapolis winery with on‑site accommodation, Grand Pré, Nova Scotia’s oldest winery, makes for a wonderful stopover for multi‑day wine tours. Le Caveau restaurant, overseen by Chef Jason Lynch, was named one of the 20 best winery restaurants in the world in 2011. Come here for: Vintner’s Reserve Millot.

a toast at Gaspereau Vineyards
   Photo: Dean Casavechia

Gaspereau Vineyards — Tucked into a bend of the Gaspereau River, this winery, with vines sidled alongside its humble red barns, almost disappears into the surrounding farms. Alsatian grapes make for supple, premium wines. Come here for: Riesling or Muscat.

L’Acadie Vineyards
   Photo: Len Wagg

L’Acadie Vineyards — Enjoy a range or organic wines at this more intimate setting winery (the tastings are by appointment only). A pioneer in Nova Scotian sparkling wine, L’Acadie received a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence in 2021. Come here for: Prestige Brut Estate sparkling