The Other Brothers
Let me get this out of the way right now: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the signature varietals of Prince Edward County. The symbiotic relationship between these two varietals and the limestone soil is absolute.
Recently, while tasting through a multitude of top-end PEC Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay, I started to hypothesize on which other grapes and/or styles produced in the county are next in line. Clearly, the answer can be found by spending a few days near Belleville. So, a list of wineries was put together and two rules were enacted. The first was no table wines from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. The second, all wines had to be made from 100 per cent county fruit. This latter criterion was to ensure authenticity, since many wineries, due to their size, import grapes from Niagara and either blend them with PEC fruit and/or produce Niagara-only bottlings. Now, don’t get me wrong, a winery has every right to turn a profit, but to properly evaluate, it had to be 100 per cent local. If blended, the wines generally carry the generic “Ontario” appellation and not the “Prince Edward County” designation.
So, after four days of swirling, sipping and spitting, my vote for top two varietals were Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Franc, with its natural affinity to cooler climates, tends to produce the Loire model in the county. It is also a favourite of Dan Sullivan, owner/winemaker of Rosehall Run. “Typically, I have found Cab Franc to be the most successful on a consistent basis. It responds well to good vineyard management and if cropped at levels matched to the vigour and ripening potential of the site, it can do reasonably well. I think the best sites for Franc are those that are warmer, such as south slopes. It also really benefits from leaf pulling in the fruiting zone to burn off some of the vegetal/bell pepper character that is prevalent in under-ripe fruit,” says Sullivan.
As for Riesling, there are two different styles that dominate. In the warmest areas, it produces ripe, concentrated offerings with great balance between acidity and residual sugar. The other, from cooler zones, tends to produce high acid, leaner styles. The cause of this is the foliage dropping early in the autumn, effectively shutting down the growing cycle and leaving PHs well over 10. To temper the sharpness, three options come into play: de-acidification, leaving higher residual sugars or blending with riper Niagara fruit.
Of course, I would be remiss in mentioning the ever-expanding sparkling wine production in PEC. “Sparkling is a perfect fit for the county,” says Paul Battilana, winemaker at Casa Dea Estate. A similar sentiment was echoed by Jonas Newman, owner of Hinterland Wine Company, PEC’s only 100 per cent sparkling wine house, which produces three different bubblies, using three different methods. According to Jonas, “if you take a cross-section of all the commitments to quality in the county, sparkling is the best product.”
Almost every vigneron that I talked to also had high praise for Pinot Gris and Gamay Noir. Theoretically, these two make perfect sense for PEC, but to date, the majority of what has been bottled is generally good at best.
As stickies go, thankfully, very little is made. Early on, common sense prevailed amongst the producers that the county’s limestone is a privileged one for table wines and that there were already too many high-quality Icewines and late harvests from elsewhere in Ontario.
All things being equal, it is also possible to find the occasional surprise varietal, such as Syrah, Merlot or Gewürztraminer, which bodes well for diversity — as well as our palates.
90 Karlo Estates Lake On The Mountain Riesling 2010 ($22)
Sourced from a small vineyard in eastern PEC, this wine was fermented (and aged) in old oak, using natural yeasts. This, combined with the warm growing conditions of 2010, has produced a substantial Riesling with loads of peach, lime cordial, honey, and minerals. There is only a dash of residual but the ripeness might actually trick many in thinking that it is sweeter than it actually is.
90 Huff Estates Cuvée Peter F. Huff Sparkling 2007 ($39.95)
From a hot year comes 100% Chardonnay bubbly, which spent 60 months on the lees. It is an aromatically overt wine with loads of cream, brioche, apple and spice, with a slight oxidative quality weaving through. There is excellent length and it is best suited with cream based dishes or halibut topped with a beurre blanc sauce.
90 Rosehall Run The Swinger Syrah Cuvée County 2010 ($34.95)
When owner Dan Sullivan offered to pour me a sample of this wine, I was more than a little bit skeptical due to the majority of lacklustre Syrah grown and vinified in the province. Well, was I ever surprised! Medium-plus body, it is an elegant and concentrated offering exhibiting a huge nose of white pepper, cassis, raspberry and sweet herbs. There is excellent length and supple tannins. Without a doubt this is one of Ontario’s top Syrahs. Drink over the next 4 years.