What We CAN Do!

By / Wine + Drinks / January 30th, 2008 / 2

Prince Edward County (PEC), the most-talked about new wine region in Ontario, may be scoffed at as being too intemperate for vines to survive there, but wineries like Norm Hardie, the Grange, Rosehall Run and Long Dog are changing the way we think about winemaking in the cold, cold north.

“The County,” as locals call it, is home to approximately fourteen wineries, fifty growers, 450 to 500 acres of vineyards planted with vinifera, with a few hybrids scattered about. The largest wineries are the Grange of Prince Edward County and Huff Estate Winery at approximately 8,000 cases each annually; the smallest is Sandbanks at 1,200 cases. The region may be small in size but it produces some fabulous wines that have writers raving they’re the best in the country.

The controversial issue for Prince Edward County has always been its climate. Winter temperatures that tend to plummet below -25˚C spell out certain death for delicate vinifera vines. Grape growers have been adapting, however, with low-training systems, tilling up or even spreading straw as insulation. It’s an expensive proposition each year, but one worth the effort that makes for grapes growing in such rich soils.

Rich in limestone that is — the entire county is a bed of limestone with soil depths that range from 12 to 36 inches. The limestone is soft, friable and mixes well with the varied soils of sandy loam to heavy clay. The result is thick, gravely soils rivalling the best in Burgundy.

The gravely limestone acts as a sponge, soaking up excess rainfall and moderating any potential drought-related issues. This is critical to PEC, the driest region in Ontario. Thunderstorms traditionally pass through Trenton in the direction of Lake Ontario, bypassing Prince Edward County completely. In June to almost the end of August 2002, there was no rain at all; it was the driest vintage ever.

The calcareous limestone not only helps to moderate moisture, but it’s soft enough for the vines to reach deeper down through the various layers of soil imparting nuances and building complexity in the wine.

One of the biggest advantages to this fractured soil (referred to as “fluffy clay with limestone rocks”) is that it’s easy to till up over the vines. Each year after harvest, the fruiting wire is brought down to four inches or lower and two to three canes per plant are buried under piles of soft soil that is heavy enough to avoid erosion problems but light enough to not impact on the vine over time.

Some may scoff at burying vineyards year after year, but this tiny region sixty-five miles across the lake from Canada’s renowned Niagara wine region is already giving the king a run for its money.

Norm Hardie, owner and winemaker of Norm Hardie Winery, argues that tilling doesn’t have to be a big job. He’s able to do 15,000 plants in less than eighteen hours, a small, but critical job.

Norm Hardie Winery is a small 3,000-case premium winery that produces phenomenal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “The best wines are made in marginal regions where the vines have to struggle to survive,” says Hardie, who looked for premium vineyards in South Africa, New Zealand, Burgundy and California before finally discovering the perfect scenario in Prince Edward County.

He is a winemaker that puts everything on the line for his wines. He crops to excessively low yields, uses natural yeast and lets the wines rest over the winter in a wine cave built into the side of a limestone hill. Cool 5˚C winter temperatures in the cave keep the wine comfortable until spring warms it and brings on a natural malo-lactic fermentation.

The 2005 County Pinot Noir ($35, 75 cases), besides being satiny textured and seductive, was cropped at an outstanding one-third of a tonne per acre — “The berries were tiny but super quality,” says Hardie. It bursts with clean, focused red-berry aromas and flavours on a rich-textured Pinot. The refinement stems from a seamless combination of decent natural acidity and exceptional natural ripeness.

One of PEC’s largest producers is the Grange of Prince Edward County. Owner Caroline Grange also believes in Pinot Noir — the winery has seventeen acres planted. “Pinot Noir is one of our more co-operative grapes,” says Grange, smiling.

In the whites, she puts her money on the Chardonnay. “We’re beginning to get interesting fruit character with high acidity and lots of minerality.” She’s referring to the delicate white-peach aromas and notes you can find in many of the well-crafted Chardonnays from the region.

The Grange barrel-fermented Chardonnay Victoria Block 2005 ($24.95) was aged sur lie and barrel-fermented for six months (split between one- and two-year-old barrels). It’s dominated by the spicy, buttery accents of the oak and shows elegant lemon-apple and fresh white-peach flavours that layer with a hint of almond and wet stone. It finishes off with a long lemony finish.

It’s not only the signature white-peach flavours that make PEC’s Chardonnay so entrancing. Dan Sullivan, proprietor of Rosehall Run Vineyards in Wellington, identifies anise as another signature flavour of PEC’s Chardonnay: “It comes from the soil.”

It really is the soil that keeps these pioneers committed to what they’re doing. “We focus on growing good grapes like [people make] a movie,” says Sullivan as he pours his 2005 Chardonnay ($24.95). “We shoot out there (in the vineyard) and simply edit it in the cellar.”

His 100 percent County Chardonnay was barrel-fermented in a blend of French and Hungarian oak, then underwent a complete malo-lactic secondary fermentation. It’s cleanly made, smooth and fruity, full of fig, white peach and melon with a twist of anise underneath. It starts out bright and turns complex on the long, full finish.

East of Wellington, in the Milford region, James Lahti makes exquisite wines under the Long Dog Winery label. Twenty of the 300 acres on his property are planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gamay, because he believes that “these are the only varieties that will ripen consistently.”

Milford and neighbouring Marysburgh are becoming known as the warm-pocket areas in PEC. “We’ve had 185 to 190 frost-free days on the farm,” explains Lahti, who admits fall frosts are a problem in other regions but not where he is. “We burn bales [in the vineyard] to warm the harvest. Farming [in the county] is an uphill battle but if we can produce Pinots like this…” His voice trails off as he pours a glass.

The Otto Pinot Noir 2005 ($45, 175 cases) is delicate and seductive with graceful ripe cherry, spicy flavours, layered with tempting bits of lush black chocolate. It’s a silky style that’s elegant, subtle and gains firmness with tannins on the finish.

When it comes to Chardonnay, Lahti has discovered that “there’s a lovely handshake between our soils and Hungarian oak.” He’s referring to the full, round, luscious vanilla spice and butter-enhanced peach and pineapple flavours of his Chardonnay Bella Riserva 2005 ($26, 200 cases produced). It shows a sense of delicacy despite the rich layers of flavours.

Burgundy-trained winemaker Catherine Langlois, of Sandbanks Winery, is banking on a few different varietals. She grows Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir on her six-acre vineyard and is becoming known for the big, luscious bodies she is able to craft from her Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir. Both are award-winning wines that deserve mention for their forward ripe-berry flavours and distinctive style that’s jazzed up with subtle oak. Part of her success lies in having eliminated the final filtration, thereby saving the flavour intensity for the bottle.

The real issue in Prince Edward County, it seems, is not whether vinifera grapes can grow. It’s more a matter of how to take advantage of the perfect soils, marginal climate and weather anomalies to keep the grapes on the edge. Norm Hardie and others like him don’t have a textbook to guide their future; these true mavericks are risking everything to create something absolutely magnificent for our dinner table. They are true Canadians.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lynn Ogryzlo is a food and wine writer and author of Niagara Cooks, from farm to table cookbook. Niagara Cooks is the recipient of the Best Local Food Cookbook in the World – Second Place by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Lynn can be reached for questions or comments at www.NiagaraCooks.com.

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