Prince Edward County Bound
The last time local wine, good food and Prince Edward County intersected my life was 10 years ago. I was a wet-behind-the-ears salesman promoting Niagara wine in the Belleville area. The finest cuisine was Chateaubriand at the local big chain hotel and the major agricultural pursuits were corn and cows. Well, times have changed, and even though I have tasted many offerings from the County, I didn’t venture east of Toronto to visit these vineyards again before this past spring.
Taking Regional Road 62 from highway 401, memories of a decade past came flooding back. The bovines and the crops were still there. But resilience and change have always been part of the County’s agricultural blood. Their first cash crop was during the “Barley Days,” from the late 1800s until Prohibition, when the region was selling its entire production to the brewers north and south of the border. After the abolition of alcohol, it was all about tomatoes. The area became ground zero for the Canadian growing and canning industry. In the 1960s, post pomodoro, the dairy industry (notably cheese) and corn took over.
Today, it’s all about grapes. As an island surrounded by temperate water, PEC experiences an extended growing season, making viticulture possible. Another major reason why many vignerons have grafted themselves to the region is because of the soil — limestone and clay, the perfect partner for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The only down side, historically, has been the brutal winters, which decimated most of the vineyards early last decade. Out of lessons learned the hard way, wineries now hill up their vines right to the branches, to insulate them from the cold.
Any uneasy feelings I may have had soon faded as the first vineyards appeared on the horizon, just before I arrived at the base of operations for the three-day tour — Huff Estates.
Right off Route 62, smack dab in the middle of the County, is Huff. One of only two County-born winery owners, Lanny Huff made his fortune in the plastics industry before turning to the vine. In 2004, he started his operation. Realizing there was an absence of fine accommodations to meet the demands of discerning wine lovers, he opened his winery with an inn, constructed in the shape of an H, as well as an art gallery. His foresight proved to be prophetic, as the winery’s biggest market for visitors is from Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and Quebec. Of course, no premium wine destination would be complete without a talented winemaker. Enter Burgundian Frederic Picard, via Italy, South Africa, Chile and, lastly, JP Colas at Niagara’s Peninsula Ridge.
His 2006 Cuvée Peter Huff Blanc de Blanc was the best sparkling I tasted on the trip. It was creamy with apple, citrus, toast and some nuttiness — 88 points. The 2007 South Bay Chardonnay earns the same score. Aged in new and one-year-old barrels, the toast and cream combine with figs, peach and spice.
Three other wines earned 87 points — the 2008 Merlot, 2007 Picard MacLaurin Pinot Noir and 2006 Wismer Riesling Reserve.
Sandbanks Estate Winery
Quebecoise Catherine Langlois garnered her wine knowledge working at different times as a sommelier, winemaker and marketer in France. After returning home in 2000, she fell in love with the County and decided to plant six acres of vinifera and hybrids within a stone’s throw of the banks of Lake Ontario.
It is now the 10th anniversary of the winery. To celebrate the occasion, as well as to facilitate the growth of the retail side, a new wine boutique was christened this past May.
I was surprised by the ready-to-drink Cabernet Franc 2008 for its herb, spice, plum, raspberry, vanilla personality. For something with a little more punch, try the 2007 Baco Noir Reserve. Dark cherry colour, its perfume of cherry, earth, blackberries, spice and vanilla is supported by fresh acid and supple tannin.
The Grange of Prince Edward County
The daughter and father team of Caroline and Bob Granger first planted their vines in 2001. Today they are the largest growers of grapes in PEC, accounting for 24 per cent of the entire vinifera crop. Caroline is quick to point out why the County is prime grape-growing land. According to Statistics Canada, it is the driest region in Ontario. The same data also shows that the average temperature in the summer is one degree warmer than Niagara, and one degree colder in the winter.
Their first wines were produced in 2003. At Grange there are two tiers of wine — Trumpour’s Mill and the premium Grange of Prince Edward Single Vineyard. Of the entire portfolio I tasted, my preferred were the 2007 Grange Victoria Block Chardonnay (89), 2007 Grange Northfield Cabernet Franc (88), 2008 Trumpour’s Mill Gamay (86) and the very pretty 2007 Grange Brut (87) — an equal parts blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with small pinpoint bubbles and a bouquet of yeast, caramel, apple and toast.
Dan and Lynn Sullivan are two of the most down to earth, friendly people you will ever meet in the business. Dan also has significant skills when it comes to his favourite grape, Chardonnay. His reds aren’t too shabby either. Giving witness to Dan’s self-taught talents, Toronto superstar chef Jamie Kennedy has partnered with him to create a private label that can only be procured at Jamie’s restaurants or at the winery.
Where to start? The 2007 Rosehall Run Vineyard Chardonnay is a 91-point wine. The 2008 version earns 90 points. The 2007 Jamie Kennedy Chardonnay and 2008 Cuvée County both score 89. As Pinots go, there are many to choose from — the 2008 Cuvée County (88), the 2007 Rosehall Vineyard (89) and the seductive Jamie Kennedy (90). I would also be remiss not to mention the best Cabernet Franc of the entire trip. The 2007 Cold Creek, all fruit and no vegetal (90).
Although Trenton native Domenic di Pietrantonio has been in the construction business his whole life, his dream has always been to own his own winery. To achieve vinous fulfilment, he planted vines on his property and even started to make wine for the day when his winery would eventually open. That is when fate intervened.
In mid 2009, Carmela Estates, located in Wellington, went on the chopping block. Acting quickly, Domenic purchased it and christened it Casa Dea, in honour of his wife. His first decision was to expunge the wine inventories of the old regime and replace them with the superior wines that he had been stockpiling. His second decision was to open La Pergola, an Italian-inspired trattoria, to meet the needs of famished oenophiles. Of the wines I tried, my favourite was the Dea’s Cuvée, a Charmat method sparkling wine made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It exudes a yeasty, citrus and apple personality (87). The 2008 Riesling and 2008 Cabernet Franc earn 86 and 85 points respectively.
There is a lot of promise here. With the addition of winemaker Paul Battilana, formerly of Creekside Estates and Peninsula Ridge, this winery will continue to flourish.
Norman Hardie has earned high praise for his wines. After learning his trade in the Pinot-friendly regions of Dijon, California, Oregon, South Africa and New Zealand, he decided to graft his knowledge to the soils of PEC. Like many of his peers, he vinifies grapes from both Niagara and the County. On my visit, Norm wasn’t home, but his assistant winemaker and one of my old acquaintances from Niagara, Ben Simmons, was.
The 2008 County Chardonnay earns 88 points for it high quality hazelnut and toast, which combines with apples, citrus, minerals and a touch of butter. The 2008 Chardonnay, from Beamsville-sourced grapes, earns 89 points as it is a touch fuller than the Cuvée County. As Pinot goes, the 2008 County is delicate with plum, raspberries and cherries (88), and the Pinot Noir 2008, once again from Beamsville grapes, has more weight as well as plums, vanilla, roses, toast and smoke (89). My favourite wine was the 2009 Riesling, which I gave 91 points.
Black Prince Winery
Located centrally in Picton, Black Prince is the brainchild of oenophile John Sambrook and winery general manager Geoff Webb.
I have always been fond of their Melon de Bourgogne and the current release, the 2009, is reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc for its passionfruit, lime and grassy aromas (86). The Chardonnay Terroir Elite 2008 is the County’s first Chardonnay aged in local oak. Having spent 10 months in barrel, it reveals Indian spice, caramel, cream, apple and figs (88).
As most vintners of PEC concentrate on dry wines, Icewine is not on their radar. So when the 2007 Rieslingtraminer Icewine was poured, it came as no surprise that it was sourced from Niagara-on-the-Lake grapes. Golden colour with a sublime personality of peach, honey, golden delicious apple, dried apricots and golden raisins, it is concentrated and sweet (89).
So where was the genesis for the entire PEC industry? The answer is Waupoos (Ojibwe for rabbit). In 1993, Ed Hauser and Rita Kaimins, with advice from Klaus Reif, planted a small vineyard on the shores of Prince Edward Bay, where the temperatures are warm, humidity is low and there is always a gentle breeze. In 2001, the winery opened, and the rest is history, literally.
Today, the winery operates a restaurant on the docks, with a place to moor your boat, so you can easily grab a glass of wine, a quick appetizer or a full meal. At the end of the meal, make sure to try the singular Maple Ice, a blend of Geisenheim Icewine and home-grown maple syrup.
My last winery before heading home, and probably the most satisfying, was CC. I first met Deborah Paskus back in the early 1990s when she was working at Thirty Bench Winery and crafted some fabulous Chardonnay. My favourite was her fabulous Tempkin-Paskus Chardonnay. Richly extracted and lavishly oaked, it was the benchmark for the Niagara region, and a style to which others aspired. A decade later, she has set up shop in the Chardonnay-friendly limestone soils of PEC and produces wines from both local and trucked in Niagara grapes.
Her recipe for great whites is simple — respect the soil through organic growing, low yields, barrel maturation in top-end French oak, and a wild yeast fermentation. From the 2007 vintage, seek out the following Chardonnays: Aberdeen Vineyard (88), South Closs (89), S. Kocsis Chardonnay (90) and the super-duper Iconoclast, which merits 92 points.
When visiting different wine regions, I often notice that most of the wineries tend to have a “me only” philosophy. Such is not the case in the County. Each member extolls the virtues of the others, as they all understand their size, and how growth depends on co-operation. It is this teamwork that will help to ensure the prosperity of the region as it grows from the current 20 members to 32 by year’s end.