How a Margaree man left the west to open the Island’s first winery
Ken MacLellan is the definition of a risk-taker. While it’s becoming increasingly common for Maritimers to make the “commute” from Alberta to finance life in their home province, this Margaree-born entrepreneur’s 10 years working in western Canada’s oil and gas industry has given him the push—and the freedom—to build Cape Breton’s first estate winery: Eileanan Brèagha Vineyards.
Growing up, MacLellan and his siblings picked berries on their grandparents’ Cape Breton farm. Once out west, these memories only served to solidify the 33-year-old’s urge to move home permanently, to return to the land he knew so well. He thought about starting a blueberry farm. “But then the wine industry in Nova Scotia just started growing in the past 10 years, and he started talking about how that might be a great idea,” explains Ken’s sister Natalie, who acts as the winery’s marketing and business consultant from her Ottawa home. And growth is an understatement. An economic-impact study released last spring by the Winery Association of Nova Scotia concluded that the wine industry contributes $196 million annually to the Nova Scotia economy, with a 14 per cent increase in wine consumption between 2007 and 2011 and approximately 100,000 tourists visiting wineries in 2011.
Being a family of Type-A personalities, as Natalie puts it, the whole MacLellan clan became involved in the winery research process, taking online courses (including Gaelic lessons) and reading everything they could get their hands on. In May of 2012, Ken and his sister attended the Atlantic Canada Wine Symposium in Halifax. Then, John Pratt’s Marble Mountain property, the former Côte de Bras d’Or vineyard, went up for sale. They bought it that August. “It just seemed too perfect,” explains Natalie, “the property was there, so it became [about] the planning.” MacLellan’s rebranding of the vineyard, Scottish Gaelic for “beautiful islands,” is both an homage to his family heritage (Scottish Gaels who first came to Nova Scotia in 1801), and of course, the view.
The breathtaking 200-acre former homestead property overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes was the first vineyard in Cape Breton, and to date remains the only one on the island. “Having not ever grown grapes or made wine was a bit of a challenge,” Natalie laughs, “I don’t know how common that is among people who own a vineyard. It was a huge learning curve.” For the first full year, Pratt, a Connecticut expat who founded the vineyard in 1993 and sold his grapes to Nova Scotia’s pioneer winery, Jost, worked with MacLellan, “teaching [him] about the property, what he’s done, and why,” Natalie explains. “He was really excited to have a local who wanted to buy it. He wanted to make sure whoever bought it really wanted to make it work.”
While Ken is the first to admit his inexperience in the industry, he makes up for it with the enthusiasm of a local finally coming home to roost and an unflinching dedication to the craft, which he approaches with scientific precision. According to Moira Peters, a Margaree-born sommelier who consulted for Eileanan Brèagha during its first year, the unique combination of MacLellan’s background and the property’s mature vines has been an advantage more than an obstacle. “The skills that [Ken] has are invaluable to running a winery,” she says. “He’s an expert in moving liquids and gases around in massive quantities…that’s what you need to be able to do. You can be as artsy as you want, but if you can’t rack your wine properly and without exposing it to too much oxygen, you’re screwed.”
As for the vines, “It can be challenging,” she adds, “because if someone 20 years ago made a mistake then you’re having to deal with it…[But] in terms of having mature vines, Marechal Foch is known to show age particularly well, [and] when I left it was showing beautifully.” The vineyard is also home to Cayuga grapes originally planted by Platt, which are unique in that they thrive in Nova Scotia’s relatively cool climate and short summer season. When picked in this environment, they produce a Reisling-like flavour. “They say that grapes grown in colder climates tend to have the most flavour,” explains Ken. “They make better-tasting wines.”
And that, after all, is what it’s all about. Eileanan Brèagha launched with five wines. Its first two releases, showcased at May’s Inverness County Expo, included a white blend of St. Pepin, Cayuga, and Acadie that delivers the refreshing tartness of a Granny Smith apple on the palate, a great acidic balance and a beautiful nose; and a dry, smooth rosé, a blend of 90 per cent Lucie Kuhlmann and 10 per cent Acadie. Other offerings include a blended red variety (similar to Jost’s former Marble Mountain Red) and a purely Marechal Foch, their most full-bodied wine.
While the priority for a nascent business is to get its product into the hands of consumers, the Marble Mountain community has been behind Eileanan Brèagha from day one. Says Ken’s father Lawrence, “On our busiest day last year, four or five people we didn’t even know showed up, came purposely to help [harvest]… It was unreal.” On top of which, established Nova Scotia wineries have offered mentorship and advice. According to Peters, most winemakers in this region are “young, really enthusiastic” and “really believe in the terroir,” with the common goal of maintaining a consistently high quality throughout the province.
As far as the future of the winery as a destination, MacLellan is pretty tight-lipped. “The main thing right now is to get the wine off—whatever kind of success [it] has will help determine what I do with the property. The big vision can go any which way.” At the end of the day, his philosophy is a simple one: “I want to make a delicious, local wine for Cape Bretoners and Nova Scotians—that’s the goal.”
Visit the winery at 5349 Marble Mountain Road, Inverness County, or online at Eileananbreagha.ca
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