This article was published in The Toronto Star on May 17th, 2010.
While I do not have space to extol the virtues of all 25 wineries in the still-emerging Prince Edward County (eight new ones are opening this summer alone), let me share a few of my favourite spots, based on quality of wine.
Sure, there are sleeper cells: start-up operations not yet on the public radar producing tiny batches of wine. Our focus is on the main contenders, who have wines you actually have a chance of obtaining.
Bear in mind, PEC is a marginal grape subsistence zone. It is proudly at the frontier of grape growing, suffering through harrowing bone-chilling winters. Even though last winter was record breaking for warmth, producers still have to bury their vines (and especially the canes) under heaped up soil to prevent winter slaughter. So viticulture here is a true labour of love.
Despite the challenges, winemakers are rising to the occasion, and learning new things about survival mode each year in a bitterly cold climate. What emerges, despite a lot of wines that do not quite rise to Niagara ripeness, are many winners that are triumphs over Mother Nature, not to mention those PEC raccoons, who escaped from some Jurassic Park millennia ago. They can eat half a vineyard of grapes in one evening soirée.
Here are my current fave rave wineries, all well worth visiting this summer if you wish to discover their latest tasting treasures.
Long Dog Vineyard, 104 Brewers Rd., Milford, 613-476-4140: Noted IMAX film producer James Lahti, with wife Victoria Rose and partner Steven Rapkin, have lovingly built their adventure from an old yellow farmhouse with out buildings purchased in 1997 into an artisanal winery, sculpting world class chardonnay and pinot noir.
It’s still quite rustic, quietly gloving into the surrounding trees and fields. The winery itself is a converted barn. Their Burgundy-styled wines are thoroughly modern and have a diehard fan base.
They chose “Long Dog” as a brand due to their pet dachshunds. They make pinot gris and chardonnay but their top pinot noirs, including the Otto Riserva Pinot Noir ($50), are eagerly snapped up by panting connoisseurs.
Closson Chase, 629 Closson Road, 1-888-201-2300: Winemaker par excellence Deborah Paskus shot to instant fame with her opulent, privately made Tempkin-Paskus Niagara chardonnay in the 1990s.
Her main digs now are at Closson Chase, where vines planted first in 1999 are dishing up stunning fruit from 30 acres of limestone soils benefitting from the maritime warming of Lake Ontario.
The owners, led by Seaton McLean and including actress Sonya Smits, have given Paskus a free palate to sculpt the best wines possible. The setting is very rural, with the winery and tasting bar in an ancient barn.
I have never been wowed by the pinot noir she makes, but the Paskus stable of premium-priced chardonnays show amazing prowess, especially the sun-soaked 2007 vintage. Alas, some of her richest oaked chardonnays are very limited production and vanish instantly (I never get to taste them either!). Her entry level $29.95 chardonnay was released at Vintages May 1 and is excellent.
Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard, 1152 Greer Road, Hillier, 613-399-5297: I first met Norman Hardie when he was a sommelier at the Four Seasons in Toronto. He pursued a degree at the University of Dijon with master pinot noir makers in Burgundy, then fine tuned his knowledge at wineries in South Africa, California, Oregon and New Zealand.
Now firmly rooted in Prince Edward County, Hardie is crafting characterful, though often subtle, pinot noirs. His flagship Cuvee L 2007 Pinot Noir is $69, a blend of Niagara and County fruit. His pure PEC County Pinot Noir is $35. His three chardonnays ($25-$35) are very fine, and he makes a riesling as well ($21).
Hardie’s wines are available at his winery, online or at fine restaurants listed on his website. The winery is in modern buildings and Hardie loves to chat knowledgeably about wine and, of course, food.
Huff Estates, 2274 County Rd. 1 (at Hwy. 62), 613-393-5802: Lanny Huff, a chemical engineer, grew up in PEC, then moved south to the U.S., made his fortune in the plastics industry, and returned to his origins to found Huff Estates, which opened in its modern structure in 2004 on 150 acres.
Huff’s roots are deep, stemming from United Empire Loyalists who settled in the County in the 1820s. French winemaker Frederic Picard, who has made wine all over the globe, crafts the wines, which include fruit from the County with some Niagara sourcing.
New is their sparkling wine, 2006 Cuvee Peter Huff Blanc de Blanc ($39.95), and I also enjoy their Pinot Gris ($19.95). They sculpt various styles of riesling, chardonnay, plus merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Their Picard MacLaurin 2006 Pinot Noir disappeared too quickly.
Huff has opened a modern inn on the winery property, which makes a great overnight pause for wine lovers seriously tasting through the region’s wineries.
Rosehall Run Vineyards, 1243 Greer Road RR 1, Wellington, 1-888-399-1183: At long last, winemaker Dan Sullivan’s custom winery building is complete, with the largest gravity flow barrel cellar in PEC. I remember it when it was just a giant square hole revealing the limestone-strewn soil in perfect profile. The 24 acres of vineyards consist of fragmented limestone over an underlay of Hillier clay.
Dan’s pet grape is pinot noir, but he has a ton of fun churning out very stylish chardonnays that seldom fail to impress. Sullivan, to my mind, is an experimentalist in the vineyard. He plays with rows of odd varietals, including ehrenfelser, gewürztraminer and chardonnay musqué, always learning more about the limits of varietals in the climate-challenging County growing region. Many of the wines are on LCBO shelves, including a 2006 Rosehall Run Vineyards Chardonnay ($15.95, May 1 Vintages) that is outstanding at that price.
The Grange of Prince Edward County, 990 Closson Road, Hillier, 613-399-1048: The setting, with the winery in an original 1826 Loyalist barn lined with ancient slab stone walls, is inspiring. Bob Granger, then a Toronto lawyer, chanced across the property in 1970 on a picnic trip. He bought it and, for years, it served as a family weekend retreat.
The winery phase was launched in 2000 by Granger and his daughter, Caroline, who had been a much-in-demand model in Europe for several years. Gradually, the vineyards have grown to 60 acres, with the major focus by winemaker Jeff Innes now on riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris, gamay, cabernet franc and pinot noir.
Nearly all the grapes that go into their Trumpour Mill and Grange of Prince Edward Country Single Vineyards labels are sourced from estate grapes, grown on the property. Also welcome is the fact most are affordable, with prices ranging from $13.95 to $19.95 at the LCBO.
Waupoos Estate Winery, 3016 County Rd. 8, Picton, 613-476-8338: Rita Kaimins and Ed Neuser own the most personable winery, and one of the most scenic, in Prince Edward County.
It’s in apple country, where cideries abound. A gorgeous winery building, the octagonal Gazebo Restaurant below it, then a broad expanse of vines leading down to a dock on Prince Edward Bay of Lake Ontario (hint: they now have docking facilities for sailors).
The couple are pioneers in PEC terms, planting their first vineyard in 1993, long before the modern gold rush began to snap up vineyard land. The winery opened its doors in 2001. Felix, a frisky but very wise Jack Russell terrier, greets all visitors, but does not lead the tastings.
Waupoos offers a raft of fun wines. While the reds are now a bit pricey, the whites include some real values. Try the Geisenheim Dry White ($11.95), Pinot Gris ($15.95) and Riesling ($15.95) paired with locavore cuisine at the winery restaurant (be certain to reserve a table). They are 100-per-cent PEC, except for their gamay and cabernet. This is the kind of winery you can bring the kids to, and they will frolic all the way down to the lake.
If you wish to discover what this region is all about, a record number of Prince Edward County wineries will pour their new spring releases at the fifth annual Terroir Wine Festival, May 29, at the historic Crystal Palace in Picton. For info, go towww.thecountywines.com