Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bruce Ewert and Bruce Nicholson two that got away from BC

Photo: Nova Scotia sparkling wine producer Bruce Ewert

Bruce Ewert and Bruce Nicholson, former leading Okanagan winemakers who moved away, returned last week to the Vancouver International Wine Festival to show off the wines they now make in Nova Scotia.

Ewert now operates L’Acadie Vineyards with his wife, Pauline Scott. They established the vineyard in the Gaspereau Valley in 2004. The winery opened in 2008, releasing the first traditionally-produced sparkling wine in Nova Scotia. L’Acadie now produces 2,000 cases a year, with a target of 5,000 cases. At the festival, Ewert poured three of his sparkling wines. All of them were premium quality.

Nicholson is the chief winemaker at Inniskillin Wines in Niagara, the winery that established Canada’s international reputation with its Icewines. Two of these were on display at the festival, along with three table wines, a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay and a Riesling. Excellent Riesling wines are made in Ontario and this is one of the best.

In recent years, the Okanagan’s rising reputation as a wine region has attracted numerous winemakers from elsewhere in Canada – winemakers who usually stay. Nicholson and Ewert left for family reasons, not for lack of opportunity to make great wines here. In fact, when Nicholson was chief winemaker at Jackson-Triggs Okanagan, the winery won many awards internationally.

Ewert was born in 1963 in Prince George, the son of a pipeline technical executive. He grew up in California and Vancouver where he took an engineering degree with a food technology bent at the University of British Columbia. Soon after he graduated in 1986, he joined Andrés Wines as a quality control supervisor at the Port Moody winery (which closed in 2005). In 1988, he was transferred to Andrés' Winona winery in Ontario as an assistant winemaker. Within eighteen months Ewert had become the winemaker at the company's Truro winery in Nova Scotia. After two years there, he moved back to Port Moody.

This trip around Andrés gave him experience with large vintages -- the Winona plant was processing 5,000 tonnes of grapes a year -- and with making wine in Truro with raw materials mostly from California, Spain and Argentina. He left Andrés in 1994 for a winemaking sabbatical to Australia, returning to British Columbia in mid-1995. He became a consulting winemaker for sister wineries Sumac Ridge and Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now See Ya Later Ranch).

In 2002, he moved to Summerhill Pyramid Winery where he got to hone his skills with sparking wine. In 2004, he returned to Nova Scotia – his wife is from Nova Scotia – to launch L’Acadie Vineyards.

“Eighty percent of our production is sparkling wine,” Ewert says. “That is what we set out to do.”

He has also consulted with several other Nova Scotia wineries, helping them produce traditional method sparkling wine. “I don’t want Nova Scotia to be known for carbonated wine,” he says.

His portfolio leads off with Prestige Brut Estate 2010 ($51.99). This is made a grape called L’Acadie, a white developed on Ontario that grows well in Nova Scotia. This wine has bready aromas from its time on the lees, with citrus notes on the palate and with a crisp finish. The vineyard is within sight of the Bay of Fundy and the ocean seems to have lent a slightly salty note to the finish. 92.

Vintage Cuvée 2014 ($34.99) is a sparkling wine made with L’Acadie and Chardonnay. The wine spent two years on the lees. The fine bubbles give it a creamy texture; there is a flavour of green apple on the crisp and fresh palate. 91.

Vintage Cuvée Rosé 2013 ($34.99) is a salmon pink sparkling wine made with L’Acadie, Chardonnay and Maréchal Foch (the variety that gives the wine its colour). There are flavours of apple and cranberry on the palate and the finish is dry. “We make it the way I would like sparkling wine,” Ewert says.

Photo: Niagara's Bruce Nicholson

Bruce Nicholson, who was born in 1958 in Niagara Falls, is chemical engineer who began making wine at home. He was so attracted to winemaking that he offered to work without salary at Inniskillin just to get his foot in the door of a winery. There were not many jobs in Canadian winemaking in the mid-1980s.

Before Inniskillin replied, Nicholson was hired in 1986 for the laboratory of the Chateau-Gai winery in Niagara Falls. The next year he was transferred to Casabello, Chateau-Gai's sister winery in Penticton, BC, as an assistant to winemaker Tom Seaver. Nicholson succeeded him when Seaver was transferred to Ontario in 1989.

Casabello had opened in 1966 and for many years was a fixture on Penticton’s Main Street. It closed in 1994 and was dismantled, with the tanks and other equipment moved to what was then the Brights winery near Oliver. It was part of the consolidation that led to the establishment of Jackson-Triggs Vintners.

Nicholson also moved to the Oliver winery and became the senior winemaker there in 1996. It was a great opportunity to a young winemaker. Jackson-Triggs was the cornerstone to Vincor which became Canada’s largest wine group before it was taken over in 2006 by Constellation Brands. With strong financial backing, Vincor developed about 800 acres of vineyard in the south Okanagan and added modern equipment to a dramatically expanded winery.

Because of the new vineyards, Nicholson had more grape varieties to work with than most winemakers get to see. He made the Okanagan’s first Viognier. In 2013, as if closing the loop, he made Canada’s first botrytis-affected Viognier at Inniskillin in Ontario. This exceedingly rare dessert wine won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence in Ontario.

He won numerous awards at Jackson-Triggs, including at least one Lieutenant-Governor’s Award in BC. He had a sure hand with Icewine, taking top awards both in Canada and at international events in London and in Bordeaux. “More [awards] have come out of this building than anywhere else in Canada,” Nicholson once told me.

Nicholson is a winemaker who pushes himself in the pursuit of perfection. “Somebody asked me what my goal is,” he told me. “When I go into competitions, I want that wine to stand out and I want it better the next year. I keep setting the bar higher for myself. And if the Wine Spectator gives me 100 on every wine, I’m going to look for 105. It may not be realistic but I am going to do that.”

He left the Okanagan in 2006 when the top winemaking job opened up at Inniskillin. It was a great opportunity in highly regarded winery making 200,000 cases a year, including Icewine. The other attraction: it allowed him to move back to the Niagara Peninsula to be near his parents and siblings. His mother, who died two years ago, had frequently expressed a desire to see him return to Ontario.

“I never appreciated Pinot Noir until I returned to Ontario,” he says. “I have never regretted going back. It made me a better winemaker.”

At the wine festival, Nicholson was pouring two Icewines, a Vidal and a Riesling,  neither of which I tasted in the crush of available wines. He started me on an Inniskillin Riesling Reserve 2014 ($N/A). The wine has intense aromas and flavours of lemon and lime with good weight on the palate and a spine of minerality. It finish dry. It is a good example of Ontario Riesling at its best. 92.

Next came Inniskillin Niagara Montague Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($24.99). The wine has herbal notes and flavours, with flavours of ripe apple and citrus. There is good weight on the palate. 90.

The partner in the portfolio is Inniskillin Niagara Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($29.99). This is a robust wine earthy cherry flavours wrapped around a spine of minerality. 88.

Those who live in Ontario should keep an eye on coming releases from Inniskillin. Nicholson is particularly excited about a blend of Merlot and Petit Verdot that is stil in barrel at Inniskillin.

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