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Turning East Coast air into big-bodied reds

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

France and Germany may be the mother countries of Canadian wine, providing inspiration for the Bordeaux-style reds of British Columbia, the Burgundian pinot noirs and chardonnays of Ontario and the Teutonic rieslings and icewines of both provinces.

But now Italy has begun making a small mark in Nova Scotia, where winemaker Bruce Ewert of L'Acadie Vineyards in the Gaspereau Valley has been crafting a promising red modelled after Amarone, the regal Venetian wine made from semi-dried grapes.

Mr. Ewert's new effort, called Alchemy, has already garnered a gold medal at the All Canadian Wine Championships and is drawing parallels with, of all things, the rich reds of sunny South Australia.

"It's a big wine," says Michael Laceby, sommelier at Blomidon Inn in Wolfville, N.S., which boasts a 7,000-bottle cellar specializing in local selections. "It's very much Aussie in style, with that sweet first impression, which is not characteristic of a red Nova Scotian."

Cool-climate regions with short growing seasons like the Gaspereau Valley rarely yield big-bodied reds. Alcohol tends to cap off at about 12 per cent because cold autumns aren't conducive to high sugar formation in the grapes. Yet the 2006 vintage of Alchemy tips the scales at 15 per cent, exceeding the alcohol level of most blockbuster reds from Down Under.

The secret lies in air-drying the grapes between harvest and crush until they become slightly shrivelled and have lost about 25 per cent of their moisture. During fermentation, yeast feeding on the copious sugar produce higher alcohol as well as more body and concentration in the resulting wine.

But what surprised Mr. Ewert most wasn't the mere girth. The Amarone-inspired drying technique also transformed the flavours of the cold-hardy blend of three lesser-known grape varieties on which Alchemy is based: Marechal Foch, Luci Kuhlmann and Leon Millot.

"It's not just a matter of desiccation, there's flavour enhancement and development during the process," Mr. Ewert says.

A former winemaker at B.C.'s Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards and Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Mr. Ewert moved east to start L'Acadie in 2004 with a view to specializing in Champagne-style sparkling wines based on the underappreciated hybrid variety l'Acadie. His plan for red wines was less clear until a chance encounter that year with Robert Prange, a federal research scientist based at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, N.S.

Dr. Prange, a specialist in post-harvest plant biology, had visited grape-drying facilities near the Italian city of Verona while at a conference earlier in the year. That's when the notion of an Acadian Amarone, so to speak, struck him.

Introduced commercially in the 1950s, Amarone essentially is turbocharged Valpolicella. You may remember Valpolicella as the affordable, bracing red your parents ordered at cheap Italian restaurants in the 1960s. It was drinkable, but its greatest virtue may have been that it would not distract from the conversation or the food.

Overachieving winemakers in the cool Valpolicella appellation around Verona discovered it was possible to goose up the flavour and texture of their often-pedestrian dry wine by drying the grapes. The technique had already been used for recioto, a dessert wine. Only in this case, instead of halting the fermentation mid-way to leave sugar in the wine, they let the yeast finish its job, yielding a more-or-less dry wine. To distinguish it from sweet recioto, they called it Amarone, or "big bitter."

Soon after his visit to Italy, Dr. Prange and Kentville colleague John DeLong began wondering if the body-boosting desiccation technique might work the same wonders for Nova Scotia's hybrid-based reds.

With their help and financial backing from National Research Council Canada, Mr. Ewert embarked on a three-year project to determine the optimum rate and level of desiccation for each of the three grape varieties used in Alchemy

"The key is, when have you done enough drying for the optimum flavour enhancement?" Dr. Prange says. "And we're trying to find out what compounds we're enhancing."

Mr. Ewert is also producing a sweet recioto-style wine, as well as a ripasso-style red called Eclipse. The latter is a sort of "baby Amarone" style, getting a soupçon of added flavour from contact with the pressed grape solids, or pomace, discarded in the Amarone-style process.

Mr. Ewert's isn't the only project of its kind in Canada, it turns out. A simultaneous and independent effort has been going on at Foreign Affair Winery in Niagara, where winemaker Len Crispino, a former trade ambassador to Italy and an Amarone lover, is using classic European vitis vinifera varieties such as cabernet franc.

Craig Pinhey, a New Brunswick-based wine writer and instructor, says Alchemy drew raves when he presented it as part of a regional wine seminar recently. "Everyone was wowing over the wine," he says. "They couldn't believe it was from Nova Scotia."

Flavour aside, one feature that's certain to raise eyebrows with consumers is price: $43 (including tax) for a 500-millilitre bottle. Yes - for a Nova Scotia wine.

That's certainly in line with the finest Amarones, which range from about $40 to $90 for a standard 750-millilitre bottle. But it's cheaper than the $110 that Foreign Affair Winery is asking for its air-dried cabernet franc.

At $79 on the wine list at the Blomidon Inn in Wolfville, Alchemy may require some missionary work on Mr. Laceby's part before it converts into big profits for Mr. Ewert. But Mr. Laceby says the following has begun.

"We have one couple that's been to a few of our winemaker dinners, and they used to have an $80 bottle of New Zealand red put on their table - until they had Bruce's Alchemy. Now they ask for a bottle of Alchemy for their table. So, that says something."

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