Can you think of an island (leaving Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand out of the discussion) of greater interest anywhere for growing grapes and making world-class wine? Prince Edward County’s just a shade more than 1000 square kilometers, 800 kilometers of shoreline and tiny 22,000 population is that place. It’s geology and climate eerily mimics that of Burgundy. A superficial layer of limestone peppered clay loam hovers above penetrable layers of larger limestone. Fissures in that bedrock allow vines to reach deep into its crevices. It’s a veritable mineral wonderland.
More than 30 wineries dot the land and water interspersed honeycomb of a wine trail. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the obvious cornerstone varieties but unique Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris have joined the attention gaining fray. Ontario’s finest Sparkling wine is being made at Hinterland. Vintners like Rosehall Run and Keint-He Winery exemplify top to bottom consistency. They and others like Lacey Estates are involved in the yeoman’s ambassador work, in the field, at tastings or through social media. Smaller production houses like The Old Third Vineyard, Hubbs Creek and Exultet Estates are sought after by those who know.
The County returned to the city on April 3, 2014 to showcase a cross-section of their wares at Toronto’s Berkeley Church. The usual suspects continued to impress, yet the collective needs to embrace the Sparkling example set by Jonas Newman and Vicky Samaras at Hinterland. If White Cap and Ancestral are any beacon to be drawn towards, plantings of Vidal, Riesling and Gamay should be employed in earnest in the turning towards pressure in the bottle. Lighthall’s Glen Symons gets it, as does Frédéric Picard, with his Cuvées, not to mention Bill Turnbull and his 3630 Bubbles. True, Casa Dea has the shy Dea’s Cuvée and the Grange makes a Sparkling Brut and a Riesling (346726, $24.95). But the questions begs, is fizz just another word for everything to lose in the County?
Here are notes on 23 wines tasted. The soundtrack to these PEC Wines includes Foo Fighters, Cracker, Nine Inch Nails, Modest Mouse, REM, Sufjan Stevens, The Beatles and Dire Straits.
Pours and perches in the glass dry and stoic, as if bled from concrete or amphora. Swirled or not this fighter begins to rumble in a growing momentum of tang and acidity, as if it were being fed by sugar and feeding on yeast. So primary, like a sample in thief, yet already circling in complexity. A spike of spicy sweetness, a delicate dressing of aglio e olio, a chiffonade of basil on top. The County does this style of dry Riesling at this price in ways no one in Niagara can. This is no foo but rather a “blessing in disguise. Believe it or not, hands on a miracle.” @casadeawinery
Note the VQA Ontario designation, meaning the fruit is a combination of PEC and Niagara. The former brings limestone to the table while the latter weight and substance. Typically soda-driven and spatially atomic in maximum thrust. Turns towards the lake with sweet emotion and sails off into the sunset. Multi-purposed, works to great summer afternoon effect, especially with the waves of the bay lapping at the shore. @HuffEstatesWine
Light, airy, delicate and nearly ethereal Pinot Gris that takes few chances, instead choosing an acquiescence with life’s simple pleasures. The vanilla of Gris, malleable, agreeable and ready to pair with whatever comes its way. A minor spike of Hillier minerality gives accent to pears and its blossoms.
A most non-pretentious sparkler that holds a pertinacious attitude towards anything but serious fun. From estate Vidal grapes that has seen a second fermentation using the Charmat Method, Lighthall’s ’12 picks up right where its solid ’11 left off. Picked early to preserve freshness and acidity, the Progression is big on tart green apple preserved by a squeeze of lemon. Chill it, refresh with it, serve it up and bring the house down.
Twenty Mile Bench in Niagara borrows 30 per cent County fruit to complete Hardie’s cracker Riesling. Low in alcohol (9.1 per cent) and residual, bound by jacked up acidity and tension. Pale platinum with an old-school aromatic sentiment that “fruit is rusting on the vine,” and flavours recalling that “the fruit is calling from the trees.” A masonic force of winemaking, “like being low, hey hey hey like being stoned.” @normhardie
The Huff Chardonnay bent has seen a shift as strong as South Bay’s prevailing winds, away from the weight of barrel ferment to a clean, Chablis-like style. The ’10 might just have been the turning point and though they now make two versions, this ’12 is the cementing of the attitude. What is most amazing is that the texture, aromas and feel remain those of an oak-influenced wine. Huff manages the linear consistency without the need to encumber, toast or char the purity of its glade, glycerin and citrus fruit. Only Prince Edward County’s limestone soil can effect this kind of nine inch nails drive into Chardonnay without oak and only Huff can do it with this kind of elegance. A wine “less concerned about fitting into the world.” Do not miss this singular effort. @HuffEstatesWine
Karlo’s take is Riesling in torsion, barrel fermented & aged in older (six-year) French Oak. The program adds wax and herbal mucilage to what otherwise would have been a frenetic study in bone chilling acidity. This unique and neo-progressive intuit invites a global Riesling symposium to the County to learn something old and something new within this single bottling. Riesling with attitude that’s got glycerin and a medicinal meets floral, pear extract meets candied lilac viscidity. Though so young, it seems wise, with an anamnesis for old Mosel, a coolant aroma and a taste that recalls white sangria. Yes, it’s different and eclectic. Anti-bracing stuff, not for everyone, but everyone should be for it.
This is the inaugural Riesling release for Stanners, from a single Vinemount Ridge plot. If it were not so winged-footed it might gain more positive repute from the appellation’s quarry effect, but in time and with experience, Colin Stanners will settle the grassy aromas into the limestone demand. For now it remains effortless and balanced with a dismounting of acidity and well provided apple and lemon flavours. @StannersWines
The 2011 Brock has settled into its Niagara River appellative skin, having now been in bottle 18 months. Working with fruit from 300 kilometres away increases the unknown quotient, magnifying the adage that you have “one chance to get everything right,” Closson’s ’11 is neither modest nor is it a mouse but it is less frenetic than it acted when tasted repeatedly last year. The hard deposits have oozed into liquid metal gold and the ripe orchard fruit has mellowed into a creamy pudding with a hint of spice. I don’t see the Brock as a very public wine, but more from a maker, for friends, from habit, for family. A wine that you need to get to know, to patronize with repeated listening’s, to accept. @ClossonChase
The 2012 Brock was only sulphured and bottled a month ago so it’s quite shocky and shaky. Still in the REM sleep stage, the ’12 is not quite ready to reveal the warmth so generously granted by the Niagara River appellation’s extending growing season. The ripe tropical fruit notes are there, if subdued and the omnipresent minerality will rear its rocky head before too long. This Brock will see a lifting “but gravity is holding” it down for now. Look to see the weights fall away late in 2014 “and in review,” you will have noted “the air was singing,” all the way to 2020.
If $25 seems a premium to pay for Ontario Gamay, consider all that is on offer in winemaker Frédéric Picard’s take on the friendly French grape. Picard caddies for 13th Street (Niagara) fruit, vinifies it bone-dry with the minimalist edge of 14 months in 15 per cent new French oak. The fruit is so very ripe, in raspberry and gritless, creamy blueberry. Like savoury adult ice cream, silky smooth and with nary a hint of chalky grain. Well-designed and consumer-friendly as any Gamay has ever graced the Ontario consciousness. So you’ve “got that going for you, which is nice.” Shack up with Huff’s Gamay treat.
Lighthall Vineyards Gewurztraminer 2012, VQA Ontario (Winery, $25.00, WineAlign)
Proprietor Glen Symons sources his fruit for this unctuous Gewürztraminer from Vineland at the base of the Escarpment’s steps. Highly tropical and exaggerated by the warm summer of 2012 to the point of candied, but with an edge. Just restless enough to divine temptation for further sips which when multiplied, relax the palate rather than excite it. The flavours turn nutty, waxy, even and calm. A mistral wind blows through in a breezy finish.
It should be assumed that the four types of wood used to house this warm and inferential Choa (cherry, hickory, oak and ash) would smother and smoulder other aromatic suitors but those woods are actually quite subtle. The other woods, as in forest, backyard and compost are the acute players. The Choa goes from fromage to funky, from an enzymatic leesy feeling to inner, inward innards. It barks of a dogged persistence, I will give it that. Most definitely singular of style to be sure and will need a few years to settle down.
Hardie’s 2012 Cabernet Franc comes of age out of a preternatural and ontological perfect storm. Casts odds into the river of ideal weather, procures phenolic grape ripeness out of the vineyard, avoids the green and embraces the brown stems. Ferments under the natural eye of indigenous yeasts and settles into its silky skin at a low, low 10.8 per cent (give or take a lab sample) alcohol. Cabernet Franc of impossible soul, its “burden is the weight of a feather.” Pepper and currants are noted, tobacco and tomato are not. Comes “bearing a sword” but seduces with primal proclamations. Radical County red.
The oak repeal in decreased new barrel impact allows the County to speak in the clearest of voice. As it should, from a South Bay landscape and terroir as rugged and dramatic that can be found anywhere Chardonnay is made in Ontario. There is a honeyed unctuous and viscous feel to the South Bay ’10, no doubt a result of its middle filled in by a meritorious and pure lees. Limestone wraps up the fruit in a clean, crisp and pure package.
The licensee only Loyalist is the micro-embodiment of the Deborah Paskus style. Rich, compact and built to satisfy a need for lush, nearly tropical Chardonnay. From a vintage that saw bud reducing spring frosts and resulting yields of only one tonne per acre. The oak influence comes to it with a scaled back embracing, allowing the County’s rock bent to connect and form a bond with the acidity’s bracing intent. Perhaps the profits will suffer from the year’s miniscule crop, but the level of quality will making it all right.
A year later has softened considerable and thinking of laying down in softer pastures. From my earlier, April 2014 note: “Combines 60% (horizontal) County fruit with 40 per cent (vertical) Niagara (Lincoln Lakeshore) grapes in balance and with finesse. Simply apply the distance formula to figure out the length of the hypotenuse. Bridging the kilometres that lie between, though inadmissible to some, comes by way of a deft winemaker’s vision and touch. Plum good, mineral rich and perceptibly tannic without breaching a threshold of varnish. Cherry toffee speaks of the sunshine and indicates time is of the essence. Will look forward to full-on County issue for 2013 in the hands of Cliff and Colin Stanners.” Last tasted April 2014
After wetting their Pinot Noir feet with a few vintages that coalesced Niagara and County fruit, this is the first go it alone release for Stanners. It’s yet another effortless and quiet handed response to impressionist County fruit. A noticeable step up from what came before, this has primary balance, secondary (floral) aromatics and tertiary brightness. Like Hillier lavender, drying on the rocks in the waning afternoon sun.
Karlo Estates The Fifth Element Petit Verdot 2010, VQA Ontario (Winery, $33.00, WineAlign)
Mounds of respect are due any Ontario winemaker that decides to tackle single-varietal Petit Verdot, especially in a climate-forsaken locale like the County. Richard Karlo tackles such a struggle between good and evil, looking to elevate this fifth most important Bordeaux grape (not Malbec?) to great PEC heights. His dark, brooding wine of massive extraction starts off into the toffee, the after dinner mints and a suck of coffee cream through a wood straw. Twiggy, angular, resinous and wired, the wine then turns incredibly floral, in violets, from boron to aether and then returns to its roots. The rebound is to acidity, freshness and tang. An intriguing wine that “used to be angry young man” but the evolution it shows in glass bodes well for its future. Give it three to five years to achieve quintessence. “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.”
Only 165 cases were produced of this Niagara born Pinot Noir. Discreet and unpretentious in every facet of its being. Like the colour of beautiful Rosé, the Watson causes such small-scale tannic pain. Though elegant and lithe, don’t be fooled. It’s not Burgundy. It’s Deborah Paskus. It’s Closson Chase. Profoundly appointed, in mind of those who mind. A signal to the understanding and knowledge of what the variety is and from this place. Clarity comes from an intensity in flowers, quality from a high sense of purpose. Really fine.
Hardie’s 2012 County Pinot Noir is a beacon, a flashing light on the shore, an invitation to copycats because this is what making red wine from limestone foundations is all about. To taste this ’12 is to experience Hardie’s purest berry maceration and distillation to date. It’s as if there was no alcohol present and in fact, at 11.5 per cent it is a modest and transparent pronouncement. Longevity may not bless the ’12 as in other vintages but this is certainly the most groomed and coiffed County Pinot Noir.
The calcareous clay, the edgy stone, the molt of the earth. Dense, cluttered and clamorous fruit. A different animal then what walks the County. Magnanimous Pinot Noir full of fruity flesh and medieval attitude. From my earlier, October 2013 note: “That Norman Hardie can make Pinot Noir in Prince Edward County that could never be confused with any other makes it that much more incredulous to nose this Niagara cousin and know it can only be his. A barb on the very verge of ripe, tart cranberry and as smoky a nose as Hardie’s Pinot wants to be. Strawberry and raspberry red beret. Ashes to ashes but not funk to funky, we know Hardie is a Pinot junkie. Still, this is a warm and melodious example with only one coat of primer. Impressive.
Norman Hardie’s uncanny ability to coax hyperbole at the lowest alcohol levels is again blatantly apparent in this climatically epochal, yet restlessly cool County Chardonnay. Recalling and expanding on the exceptional ’08, the tonality, texture and motion are achieved by way of a) early picking, b) indigenous yeasts, c) arrested fermentation, d) lees and e) moxie. The dire straits of the vintage wants to exaggerate the fricassee, the roasted nuts and the chemical flow but who might argue against the gape at Burgundian reduction? She’s a roller girl this ’10, taking chances. She skates away, “making movies on location,” all in the name of learning ahead of the curve.
Good to go!