• Simon Reilly

Benjamin Bridge v. Champagne - a blind tasting at 67 Pall Mall

I have done a bit of blind tasting before (see How good are own label wines?) but it's not something I do often. Apart from it being tiresome on the palate, tasting blind is just not a realistic environment. It's not how people consume wines so to judge them in that way feels a bit false. Kermit Lynch makes this point much more eloquently than I ever could in the introduction of his book Adventures on the Wine Trail; "When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat's head to judge it; she puts it on her own."

Taking gulp after gulp of different wines often leads the taster to search for something obvious to hit them between the taste buds to create some sort of reference point. As a result, in many cases, the wines with the obvious reference points are the ones that stand out. Yet we all know that the most memorable and enjoyable wines we consume are those which reveal their beauty over a full glass (or more if you are lucky) with a meal, ideally with good friends. These generally don't have obvious character traits but have a complex mix of subtle aromas, flavours and textures. That is what we look for in a great wine.

Having said all this, I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.... I was recently invited to a blind tasting of the wines of Canadian sparkling wine producer Benjamin Bridge at 67 Pall Mall, the private members club for well-heeled winos in Mayfair. I had not tried any of their wines before but had heard good things, so I popped along yesterday to try them out.

The tasting was hosted by Friarwood, Benjamin Bridge's UK importer and distributor. There were about 15-20 attendees, mainly sommeliers and the odd wine writer. Following an introduction by Will Prudhomme (one of Canada's top sommelliers), the format was a masterclass on the unique Nova Scotia microclimate that creates these wines led by Benjamin Bridge's Head Winemaker, Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, concurrently with a blind tasting competition.

Each attendee was given seven glasses of mystery fizz and informed that there were either 4 Benjamin Bridge wines and 3 Champagnes, or vice versa. Our job was twofold; firstly we had to note whether we thought each wine was a Benjamin Bridge wine or a Champagne, and secondly to rank the wines in order of preference.

The point of the competition was not to try and prove that the Benjamin Bridge wines are better than their Champagne equivalents, but as Will Prudhomme humbly asked "do these wines belong alongside the wines of Champagne?". Throughout the event the emphasis from both Will and Jean-Benoit was not about their wines winning, but simply "not looking out of place" alongside these world renowned bottles of French fizz.

As we slurped and rated the wines, Jean-Benoit took us through the geography, philosophy and terroir:

Benjamin Bridge is a relative baby in sparkling wine terms. The project was started in 1999 by Gerry McConnell and his wife Dara Gordon, and only made its first commercial wine in 2004.

The winery is situated on a steep southern slope of the Gaspereau Valley in Nova Scotia, on Canada's east coast. With the Atlantic ocean for company, its difficult to imagine that viticulture could be possible, let alone successful, with the salt water winds buffeting the coast from the deep. But the vineyards have protection from the ocean as they sit in the Bay of Fundy, an inlet protected from the wilds of the Atlantic. The growing season is long, with harvest typically not until the first week in November. This long, relatively cool growing season gives the wines greater complexity and freshness than warmer climes.

Jean-Benoit's wine-making philosophy is to create a wine style that is "compatible with the micro-climate at his disposal in the Bay of Flundy". He aims to make wines that are built on a foundation of freshness, but still have a richness. "I want to merge freshness and richness. That is the key to great sparkling wine."

So what about the results? Here are my notes on the mystery wines, along with my ranking and guess at where its from:

Wine #1;

Quite a sweet nose. Sweet apple flavours leading to almost toffee like sweetness, but finishes with nice acidity to balance it out.

Ranking - 6th

Origin - Benjamin Bridges.

Wine #2

Straw nose. Lemon curd flavours with lovely acidity and balance. Great energy and minerality on the finish. Long.

Ranking - 1st.

Origin - Champagne.

Wine #3

Sweetness again, this time more red fruit, this must be heavy in Pinot Noir. Nice acidity and balance.

Ranking - 5th

Origin - Benjamin Bridge

Wine #4

Powerful nose, much drier in style than the other wines. Less fruit but greater complexity. Still feels young but clearly a serious wine.

Ranking - 3rd

Origin - Champagne

Wine #5

Slightly sweet and lighter than the others. More of a quaffer, simple but very pleasant.

Ranking - 4th

Origin - Benjamin Bridge

Wine #6

Reticent nose, not much to it flavour wise but a nice soft texture.

Ranking - 7th

Origin - Champagne

Wine #7

Lovely nose of spiced, stewed fruit. Quite a full palate, but has real energy and poise. Delicious refreshing salty finish.

Ranking - 2nd

Origin - Benjamin Bridge

After a tally of who liked what, the actual wines were revealed as follows;

Wine #1 was Crystal, 2006. What can I say, I'm a daddy not Puff Daddy. I ranked this 6th (or second last...) and I thought it was a Benjamin Bridge.

Wine #2 was Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve, 2008. My favourite wine of the tasting but I thought it was a Champagne.

Wine #3 was Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve 2008, which I picked correctly as a Benjamin Bridge.

Wine #4 was Benjamin Bridge Blanc de Blanc 2004, the fist commercial vintage for the winery. I thought it was a Champagne and was my third favourite.

Wine #5 was a Rothschild NV Champagne. I was wrong again...

Wine #6 was a Lanson Rose Champagne. I got this one right but is was my least favourite of the tasting.

Wine #7 was a Benjamin Bridge Brut Rose 2011. Not only did I get this one right but it was my second favourite wine of the tasting.

Here are the wines we tasted after the big reveal:

So what does this tell us? First of all, I am not very good at blind tasting, I only scored three out of seven on the origin test. Second of all, I like Benjamin Bridges wines. My top three wines of the tasting were all from the Canada rather than Champagne.

Given the relatively young age of the vines and the winery itself I think there is great potential here. Will and Jean-Benoit need not have worried. Already the Benjamin Bridge wines sit happily alongside the wines of Champagne. And rather than merely belonging at the same table, to my palate at least, they are outperforming them. Just imagine what the future holds.

The following Benjamin Bridges wines are available in the UK from Friarwood Fine Wines;

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2008 (£30)

Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve (£48)

Benjamin Bridge Brut Rose (£33)

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