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Nova Scotia (Provincial Appellation)

Bear River: Appellation in the making

Chris Hawes has been entrenched on the slopes of Bear River for the last twenty-two years. He is 'the man' on this mountain, as much an integral part of the ecosystem as any human can be.

by Roger Dial
August 15, 2005

There are some winegrowing places that just beg to be designated as distinct “appellations”. The sense of being in a definable ecosystem is palpable; you can stand in one spot and literally see where the microclimate begins and ends. The Bear River Valley in southwestern Nova Scotia is like that.

Bear River is a giant tidal estuary; twice-daily flushing Bay of Fundy waters in through the Annapolis Basin and four miles upstream to the historic little village of Bear River, sitting astride the headwater of the river. On the northeast side, the land rises dramatically from the riverbank to elevations of about 250’. Though the Bear River Valley was dubbed little Switzerland many generations ago, the traveled viticulturist would more likely call it little Mosel. The slope is workable with a light tractor, provided one is not too often seduced by the absolutely stunning panoramic views… or distracted by daydreams of landing one of the giant striped bass cruising with the tidal flow in the River below.

If Bear River ever does earn an official appellation designation, it will be owing to the pioneering work of Chris Hawes at his Bear River Vineyards. One time resident of Grand Pre (where he says he caught the grape bug) Chris has been entrenched on the slopes of Bear River for the last twenty-two years. He is the man on this mountain, as much an integral part of the ecosystem as any human can be. If he wasn’t here, the place wouldn’t be the same… nor would Bear River’s future as a viticultural region be so close to realization.

Chris Hawes has made a step-by-step progression through the varietal options, from labrusca to hybrids to vinifera, experimenting broadly and bravely. On the front end of the learning experience Chris doesn’t take kindly to the words “impossible” or “never”; though on the backend of experience Mr. Hawes isn’t hesitant about saying “never again”. He’s definitely a bridge burner! When Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Seyval Blanc out performed the Niagara planted in his vineyard, it was goodbye labrusca. And, don’t think those hybrids aren’t nervous as hell about the Pinot Noir that is thriving in adjacent rows of the Hawes vineyard!

The slate covered slopes of the Bear River Vineyard contain substantial plantings of mature Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, as well as lesser quantities of Auxerrois and Pinot Gris. Most are grafted to 3309 or SO4. However, like some other Nova Scotia vinifera pioneers, Chris thinks that own-rooted vinifera may be the best route for the future. Though the Bear River Valley is, relatively speaking, a hot spot, trunk splitting is an all too common phenomenon in the freeze-thaw dormant season and therefore crown gall takes its toll of even mature vines. Periodic trunk renewal may well be a better management strategy than hilling-up, especially on the steep slopes of the Bear River Valley. What is more, the spartan-rocky ground doesn’t encourage excess vigour, even with own-rooted vines.

With nearly four acres planted and mostly bearing, Hawes has room for another 4.5 acres on his stretch of the Bear River slopes. And, did I mention that he has also had amazing success growing Riesling. This is a variety that will hopefully play a significant role in his expansion program, and one that definitely belongs in the development of a market image for Nova Scotia’s little Mosel.

Chris and his bride/partner, Peg, are mulling over the prospects of opening their winery in the coming year (“or so”). Production in recent years has grown to commercial quantities, albeit limited, for several hybrid and vinifera varieties. Reconstruction to accommodate a sales room is underway in the historic barn that has been Chris’ home and working cellar for the past couple decades… ever the iconoclast, the man on the mountain naturally “lives with his work”. It is just that kind of dedication which will bring new life to the Bear River community and earn the future Bear River winegrowing appellation recognition and acclaim in the global wine community.


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