We drove into The County across the Bay Bridge from Bellville on a hot and sticky mid-July morning. The shimmering waters of Lake Ontario beneath us looked refreshing and exceptionally inviting.
Sunset on the beach and a swim is definitely on our agenda, but before that there are wineries to visit and winemakers to talk to.
Just a few hours away from Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Kingston, nestled on Quinte’s Isle are the vineyards of Prince Edward County, Ontario’s newest VQA wine Appellation and the fastest growing wine region of Ontario.
With close to 40 wineries, and the new ones opening each year, the wine tourism of PEC has grown into a robust industry and greatly increased the already steady tourist traffic to the island.
“The County”, as locals call it, evokes images of sun, shimmering waters, romance and tranquility. Home to Sandbanks Provincial Park, the world’s largest freshwater dunes with the most beautiful white, sandy beaches and unique small towns and villages, the island is a true vacationer’s paradise.
The island has also become known as an emerging culinary destinations and a hot spot for an ever-growing community of artists.
While summers are warm and breezy, the winters in The County are harsh. Frigid winds sweep from the vast Lake Ontario, bringing in large amounts of snow. Cultivating grapes when the mid-winter temperature dips down to below -25C is extremely challenging.
To protect buds on the vine, the innovative PEC winegrowers developed a technique unique to the island of burying them under the soil to keep them warm during the freezing winter months and uncovering them again in the spring.
At that point everyone keeps their fingers crossed that there is no late spring frost like this past May, when many wineries lost significant amount of crop due to the late frost damage.
The limestone-rich soils of PEC, produce wines with pronounced, natural minerality and a “sense of place”. The County’s best expression is in their Chardonnay’s and Pinot Noirs.
As in any other young and still developing wine region, winemakers experiment with many other varietals; among them Rieslings and Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Niagara’s Baco Noir and even Merlot. They are treating the island as “the lab” and by trial and error, they are letting go of varietals not suited for the county’s terroir and perfecting the winning ones instead.
Norman Hardie, former Four Seasons Sommelier, replaced his fancy suits with the “vineyard couture” sometime in the mid-90s. As his friends were starting families, he set out on a pilgrimage to work for the best producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Oregon to California and New Zealand, before opening his small boutique-style winery in the county.
With his “old world” approach and minimal intervention, Hardie allows natural yeast from the vineyard to work their magic, lets the whites to develop on their lees and guides his reds through the natural malolactic fermentation in the spring.
We had a great opportunity to contrast and compare Unfiltered Chardonnay’s and Pinot Noir’s at the barrel tasting in Hardie’s mighty cellar. It was unmistakable which ones are County’s due to their pronounced minerality.
Hardie and his team were getting ready for bottling 2014 Rosé that sticky afternoon and invited us to join in and stay for the dinner after. Sadly, our tight schedule did not allow it, however, we did take the time to relax on the winery’s sunny patio and enjoy Hardie’s legendary wood-fired thin crust pizza. It truly was the very best pizza we’ve ever had.
Norman Hardie County Pinot Gris 2013, PEC
Vinified with 100% County fruit this fantastic white comes with a great concentration of aromas and flavours due to exceptionally small yields, use of natural yeast and further maturation sur lie. Dry and aromatic, it’s bursting with citrus aromas of lime drops and lemon zest on the nose, followed by ripe peaches on the palate. It closes in a long, clean mineral-toned finish. Fantastic with grilled seafood.
The sun was getting unbearably hot as we reached Rosehall Run. Owner and winemaker, Dan Sullivan, lead us into their sun-filled tasting room, overlooking the vineyards.
Another true county pioneer, Dan acted as a consultant to many wineries at their beginnings and is known as one of the best grape growers and winemakers in Ontario.
We took a stroll in Dan’s limestone, Hillier clay soil vineyards as he explained his hands-on approach to both grape growing and winemaking with minimal intervention while practicing sustainable farming. Dan’s award-winning wines are both elegant and approachable, and beautifully showcase the terroir and personality of the county.
Back in the tasting room, we’ve swirled and tasted his Signature and Premium Colections; crisp, lite and focused 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay, delicious off dry and fruity 2014 Righteous Dude Riesling and full-bodied and complex 2012 “JCR” Chardonnay fully fermented and matured in French oak, followed by super-limited, full-bodied and smooth Cabernet Franc, vinified with 100% county fruit.
We left Dan’s with a bottle of Righteous Dude, two glasses and a detailed instruction on the shortest cut to the amazing beach nearby. And after a long-awaited cooling dip in Lake Ontario, we enjoyed the sunset while toasting Dan and his awesome wines.
Pinot Noir “JCR” Rosehall Vineyard 2012
Vinified with 100% county grown Pinot Noir that beautifully showcase that unique sense of place and character of the County wines. Medium-bodied, dry and fruit forward, it’s bursting with aromas and flavours of red fruit; sour cherries and cranberries with a touch of earthiness. It closes in a long, lingering, smoke-tinged finish. Try it this year with the Thanksgiving turkey and a home-made tangy cranberry sauce. VINTAGES#: 326504, $39
By the next morning we were ready to discover more of County’s wine and headed to Huff Estates Winery, owned by County-born Lanny Huff. His modern, gravity-flow winery with the crash pad and fermentation tanks on top of a hill, and a temperature controlled barrel cellar below was opened in 2004. A chance meeting in Niagara back in 2002, got their long-term, French-born winemaker, Frédéric Picard on board from the very beginning.
After finishing his MBA in Montreal, Frédéric returned to France and took a further degree in oenology at Dijon. He spent the next four years as a flying winemaker, doing two harvests a year between California, Chile, Italy and South Africa, before obtaining his first wine industry job in Canada at Niagara’s Peninsula Ridge Winery.
We met with Frédéric that morning to taste his elegant wines from County’s South Bay vineyards. Tucked in the southeastern corner of the county, with the climate moderated by the two large bodies of water and a mix of limestone and clay soil, the vineyards are in a perfect location to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Frédéric guided us through the tasting of their South Bay Chardonnays. The Unoaked version is bursting with flavours of lemon pie with delicious creamy texture due to lees aging. The oaked one is brimming with flavours of ripe stone fruit and County’s signature minerality.
Unfiltered Merlot with intense flavours of plum and cherry with cedar notes is a true delight. Delectable and elegant sparklers are Frederic’s passion; Cuvee Peter F. Huff and Cuvee Janine are absolute must when visiting the vinery. We concluded our tasting and our visit with a luscious late harvest First Frost, made from estate Vidal grapes.
Huff Estates South Bay Vineyard Rosé 2014
Crafted with a 100% county-grown Cabernet Franc from the South Bay vineyards. Beautifully articulated and intense aromas and flavours of ripe wild strawberries and raspberries, with subtle floral notes and pronounced minerality. Closes in a clean, tangy finish. Pair with summer salads, soft cheeses, grilled seafood and planked salmon.
As a child, Tania passed her weekends at the countryside house helping with the grape picking in her family’s Croatian vineyards, and then “assisting” grandpa with the winemaking. As an adult, she lived abroad in London, England, Milan and Venice, Italy, and explored the food and wine cultures while traveling throughout Europe.
While living in Toronto, Tania completed studies with the International Sommelier Guild (ISG). She continued her wine education with the prestigious, internationally-recognized Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), based in London, England. In 2007, she achieved the WSET Level 3, Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits.
In 2013, Tania was awarded with a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) designation by The Society of Wine Educators, based in Washington, DC. She is currently studying for the organization’s Certified Wine Educator designation.
Tania also offers sommelier services, consulting and tutored wine tastings via RunawayGrape.com and is a regular columnist with NatalieMacLean.com.