To me, Prince Edward County is the most enigmatic wine region in the world. Why is that? The coterminous climate and geology comparison to Burgundy never wanes and the vintners who painstakingly cultivate and produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir never quite abandon the methodology. The Burgundian model of viticulture is almost universally applied to the County microclimate. Think about it further and note that latitude and soil composition aside, PEC is not Burgundy, never will be and the parallels drawn ad nauseum should begin to cease and desist.
There are many reasons for saying this. The most obvious has to do with winter and the painful condition of a once or twice every 10-15 year pain in the arse deep freeze that necessitates the hilling up of vines. Farmers select canes chosen for the following growing season and tie them to a wire very close to the ground. Upwards of two feet of soil is plowed onto the tied-down canes. The labour required is extensive and the subsequent yields are lower than most grape growing places on the planet.
Related – I’m a little bit County
At the 2015 spring County in the City event I noted that WineAlign primo scrittore David Lawrason presented his PEC state of the union address via the company website. “David touched on some integral points for growers and winemakers in the County, including the rise of Riesling and a case for increasing plantings of varieties like Chenin Blanc.” At the time I hung on to Burgundy with no immediate plans to recognize an imminent diurnal varietal shift.
Related – The ridges of Prince Edward County
Last fall I wrote a mini-dissertation on the ridges of PEC. “It all adds up to minerality in the wines and nowhere does the geology matter more than on the ridges.” Which brings me to the third bit of logic and one that is varietal based. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay share the stage with a wide range of planted grape varieties and it is the emergence of Pinot Gris that shakes the foundations of PEC-Burgundy thought. If this year’s grand tasting of County wines at the Berkeley Church showed one thing it’s that Pinot Gris is a must. From Hillier clay-loam to omnipresent limestone, the group begs for Pinot Gris, a mineral-loving, dry extract extricating and tertiary tannin absorbing grape. The makers know it.
Related – The Old Third and older County wines
A fourth dialectic concerns rules and regulations. A wine growing community may talk a big game of homage and publicly declare with politically correct language their allegiance to, a following of and the emulation of a wine-producing deity that has proven its success with hundreds of years of tradition behind it. But the fact of the matter is Prince Edward County does not yet know exactly what it means to be a community of wine producers. The grand cru, premier cru and lieu-dit blocks are only beginning to be understood and working with the climate is still an unmitigated, trial and error disaster.
So in steps a governing body to determine what winemakers are supposed to and even allowed to produce and what exactly they can call it. Absolute authority is exercised against a brilliant vintner who owns land, lives and produces wines in the County, but can’t label it as such. Forget about the economics of an acronym that saves on taxes. They are not allowed to write Prince Edward County on their label.
I hear you. Regulatory boards are needed to make sure a region is putting its best foot forward out to the country and to the world. You can’t have a golfer wearing cut-off jeans, a fishnet tank and a mesh visor shanking nine-irons on the perfectly groomed country club 18. But what if one guy’s wines are off the charts, gorgeous representations of terroir? So what if her skin-contact whites are not what we are used to? Who cares what either of them are wearing. Who should complain that they make new tracks in their own special way? Exactly how is it they bring shame, detriment or housing market decline to the neighbourhood?
Related – Take them home, County wines
Rant aside, the last piece of the Prince Edward County puzzle stretches from the idea of freedom and into a polemical discussion in which no two County wines are the same. Dynamism has never known such hyperbole as it does in the County. Yet another Sparkling epiphany was had after tasting Lighthall Vineyard’s first (not yet labeled) traditional method fizz. It should be called “Au Courant” because it takes everything we have assimilated from Champenoise bubbles, filters it through Cherry Valley soil and rewrites the book. The collective needs to embrace the Sparkling example set by Jonas Newman, Bruno Francois and Glen Symons.
The endearment “The County” is a term meant to bestow a sense of down to earth affection on a place you have to detour through to pay it a visit. “The County” is in fact Ontario’s most diverse and magnetic wine region. To borrow from the American literary critic James Wood, PEC is “one of those rare occasions where the absence of evidence is evidence.” Everything is changing all the time and everything is new. No County for old wines.
I recently reviewed 20 County wines. Here they are.
Casa Dea Dea’s Cuvee 2015, VQA Ontario (261263, $18.95, WineAlign)
Distinctly August cling stone peach, ripe, lightly crushed and fenocchio glacier. Really pollinated fizz, with a bright pink grapefruit granita personality and cool chardonnay exemption. Pretty, pretty stuff. Lingers precisely and there is nothing remotely precious about it. Well made. Drink 2016-2018. Tasted April 2016 @ @
Comes from a place and will return again to the junction where rusticity and elegant oxidative character live. Erstwhile fresh, alive, prescient and yet must have been a challenge to tame. Quite the gustatory, culinary, mis en place of torched vegetables and acidity de-glazed game seared off into caramelization. Intensely real, characterful and attention grabbing Janine but not funky. Slow braise ahead. Drink 2017-2021. Tasted April 2016 @
Reductive and reeling from the pushy barrel, young, tight, angular and closed. Green apple, tart white berries and barrel spice. Emerald gem Chardonnay leaving little to no wonder Niagara Bench winemaker Paul Pender is so interested in the fruit. South Bay is the Quarry Road of the County. Wait for the richness and the platinum peaches and cream to emerge commensurate to ostensibly consummate cool climate Chardonnay. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted April 2016
Welcome winemaker Derek Barnett to the County and to Pinot Gris with a Gorrilaz style, “the essence, the basics,” gone ripe beyond the pale, round and full. Sweet green apple and basil relish, veritable tang, baked tart shell filled with apple-citrus curd but so far from sour. Wish it hung around for longer. I suppose I have only myself to blame. “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad. I got sunshine in a bag.” Clint Eastwood and Pinot Gris in the County. “The future is coming on.” Drink 2016-2018. Tasted April 2016 @
Very Mosel Germanic Riesling Kabinett in style, with some residual and low alcohol. Juicy, round acidity, ripe sapidity and almost tersely spoken from the edge of the late harvest forest. Good length and will live a half decade or more with severity tempered by herbal countenance. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted April 2016
Tart and tight, rich and tangy, as expected and with some density. What needs from reduction lays low and melds into wood. The handling was necessary from out of a challenging and demanding 2014 vintage. The Portage is fully entrenched as a true County stalwart. This is what defines what Keint He is, has come from and to where it will go. Ground zero for the range, from what others will feed from. Sister Chardonnays Greer and Frost embark from this Portage starting point. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted April 2016 @ @
The specificity of the label conjures up territorial Hillier thoughts for Chardonnay made by Norm Hardie, Dan Sullivan and Paul Battilana. While the Greer thread runs through and keeps it in the family this is all in Keint-He issue. Possessive of a richness shown by few other PEC Chardonnay, there counteracts and stabilizes a cool climate snap, crackle and green apple pop. Tang folds into lovely tart, citrus bitter curd with a wisely executed tumult. And there is no relent. A Chardonnay ripper. Beware the power. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted April 2016
Glenn Symons’ 2014 from the southern flank in the Cherry Valley is perhaps the most regionally intense, lights out Chardonnay in Prince Edward County. ‘Twas a good growing season in the Lighthall Road ward so say hello to phenolic ripeness and an old school, reductive and layered striker of flint and wood. The yields being as low as they are and exponentially were, there grunges much tonic reverb stirred into leesy, sweet extract in its rather ripped sonic youth. Such a mineral wine, sword-wielding, axe-grinding and tannin mining. Will find its unctuous way with time. ‘Cause it’s lights out right now. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted April 2016 @
The paradigm shift that began with Lighthall’s 2013 Pinot Noir continues with this stay the course 2014 and then some. The vintage offered up a slower developed phenolic yawning so the stygian runs deeper than the vermillion. That is to say the cherry fruit turns to black even while such a pretty Pinot pours with tension beneath the rich and glorious surface. Tension yes, but also soil infiltration and cooling breezes to temper the Cherry Valley conflagration. Tautness de-armed by a necessary streak of humus conditioning pomace, for grounding. Voluminous palate notes are repeated in demonstrative refrain. Another step forward for Prince Edward County Pinot excellence. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted April 2016
Made in the Lighthall style mixed with location, location, location. Vines of healthy fruit in the Cherry Valley, making for wines that are stark, sturdy, demanding, self-fortified and of limited quantities. Like its siblings, this Pinot Gris is also exempt from weakness. Here PG reminds of lieu-dit Alsace, of attitude, with tannin, extract, salinity and and of course, mineral. Singular County Pinot Gris. Could age for a decade. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted April 2016
Norman Hardie Riesling 2015, VQA Ontario (131169, $21.00, WineAlign)
More reductive for a Norman Hardie Riesling than even it ordinarily shows and also pervasive of penetratingly concentrated stone fruit. While the acids may be received as hard and potentially malic that perception is calibrated by this wine’s typical aggregate. The walls need breaking down and the road is purposely graded high knowing full well it will eventually finish even with the shoulder. I like the sweet tannins and the difficult way in which it uses extract to a futuristic advantage. Wait a year and imagine the possibilities of balance. Drink 2017-2020. Tasted April 2016 @
In Prince Edward County and for Pinot Noir there is no substitute and no comparison. Quixotically sweet Pinot Noir fruit, from the lowest of the low yields, scrupulously heeded and handled with care and yet also, somehow without a care to the world. As self-effacingly pretty and impossible as ever though in 2014 the tensity is lower, the anxiety bereft and not so crucially or dearly developed. There is almost no crisis from out of this first of the near-crisis vintages. This is an early to love Norm Pinot Noir, brought to life and with red citrus that only a Hardie low alcohol Pinot can bring. Humility only exceeded by impossibility. Ready to enjoy younger than most. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted April 2016
The vintage steps out of a particular shadow and into bright light, exposing the JCR Pinot Noir with a particularly beautiful level of freshness and vitality. What has come before is not forgotten; the County tartness, the limestone preparation and the earthy red ochre fruit. But here is something other, something new, exciting and structured. The balance begins and ends on a seamless circle with no obvious demarcation point. The most elegant Rosehall Run Pinot Noir comes out of this 2013 and its level of poise should see it enjoyed now and for 10 more years easy. Drink 2016-2025. Tasted April 2016 @ @
A tenderly and beautifully rich, stone roses reductive and buttery Chardonnay, fully malo-activated, in adherence to the consistently classic Dan Sullivan righteous style. Makes me think of 1990’s Manchester post-punk, 60’s retro guitar pop, with a sweet softness as foil to an angst-riddled, contemporary acid house rhythmic sensibility. Sullivan’s JCR draws from influence, playing both time-tested Burgundy and new world Chablis pop hooks. “Where there’s life there’s gotta be hope and where there’s a will there’s a way.” Just sip along with the Rosehall Run JCR Chardonnay. It’s hard not to become enamoured after experiencing such great, coherent length. So young. Drink 2017-2021. Tasted April 2016
Quite remarkable and reductive Chardonnay, from fermentation of a certain halting, the yeast not quite having finished munching and malo just short of finding fulfillment. Low in alcohol after posting pH similarly reserved. This has real gumption, a stalwart of phantasmagorical Chablis allegory in the guise of salty, mineral PEC with minor residual sugar and a dip into the funky well. Just lettin’ it all hang out. This is a very promising wine. Just wait until the weather holds out and the yields go up just enough for Colin Stanners to make a really proper Chardonnay. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted April 2016 @ @
The coppery-hued Stanners Pinot Gris Cuivré 2014 is like a member of the cup of coffee club, its skin contact time limited but forever significant. The PEC conceptualization may seem as strange as surfing Wellington waters but this Pinot Gris is a boy who trapped the sun, having sealed in brightness and freshness beneath the surface, cauterized during fermentation. This is not an orange wine but rather a a Pinot Gris with poise and a balladeering sense of calm. The Cuivré comes from pure sourced County fruit, spent time in stainless steel, is more than a curiosity, is a little funky and offers a feeling of rosé as a gateway drug to orange wine. Saline, nicely savoury, with a tinge of wild sauvage, all within reason. Such a skin contact white in self-proclamation “when you go into your skin, I’ll be the hope joining the walls.” The missing piece is tension, dynamic tempo changes, rises, falls and a crescendo. Though it lacks such structure it is still a beautiful mistake by the lake. Copper down. Only 230 cases were produced and it was released in February, 2016. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted April 2016
One of three Skin Contact Rieslings from winemaker Mackenzie Brisbois, from Lincoln Lakeshore fruit out of Ed Hughes’ farm. For whatever reason this vineyard is far less reductive then the (Wismer) counterparts. It may be attributed to site, of decreased nitrogen (or not) and/or when sulphur is applied. “Ed Hughes is a very calculated grower,” notes Brisbois, which may account for what stylistic deference is syllogistically accrued. “They’re very dry and they will be very tart,” she warns, “and aromatic.” Pressed when fully dry and 14 days on the skins. Arid is the understatement, this shining and whispering Riesling, of tartness not on top slides beneath the surface of acidity. So much length. Youth is not on its side while it wiles away in withheld revelations though longevity is not necessarily its greatest ally. This is Riesling of stark realities, arid with no Niagara frame of reference and fruit so crisp it cracks into perfectly linear fissures. Laser focus without pierce or citrus. Spellbound skin contact stuff. Needs six months to seek a wave beyond the shock. Only 32 cases made. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted April 2016 @ @
The second of three skin contact, Niagara borrowed Rieslings from winemaker Mackenzie Brisbois. This time from Craig Wismer’s Lakeview, a Twenty Mile Bench block with 18 years-ish old vines. Spent 21 days on the skins and comes through in or around 10 per cent alcohol (like the others). More herbology balms the nose and while it may not waft with equanimity or gregarious aromatics, it’s bleeding delicacy and savoury sapidity breathes freshness. If it just came with an added juicing of lime it would help to bring out structure and balance the anterior acids. As it is the acidity runs through the middle, streaks and halts the fruit from gaining on time. Adheres to acting typical of a 20 Mile Bench Alsatian Clone 49 example. Only 15 cases made. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted April 2016
The third and most effectually ingenious of Mackenzie Brisbois’ skin contact series Rieslings, with far more texture on the palate and overall Riesling acumen. Endowed with a gram less acidity than the Lakeview and burgeoning with veritable Twenty Mile Bench viscosity. Can it be such a coincidence that so many winemakers choose Foxcroft for their Riesling fruit? A real burgunder sensation is to be annexed out of the crafted brim of an invisibly stitched, tart-pan curl. This is irrefutably the most accomplished of the three (that includes Hughes and Lakeview), of length increased, laser focus and thirst quenching pleasure. Such a pity that only 12 cases were made. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted April 2016
The concept is in line with what winemaker Mackenzie Brisbois set out to do with Riesling but the result couldn’t be further from the truth or the ideal. Sauvignon Blanc is nothing like Riesling. It’s malleable, amenable and submissive. The process took de-stemmed fruit, saw it ferment on its own (dry, in nine days), needing no inoculation and then handled with hand-punched, TLC. In the end it was sterile filtered, leaving it to shine with latent lucidity, of brilliant clarity and with skin-deep grace. The whole is a snapshot of nothing less than supple integration. I would like to taste this side by side in 2020 with Jean-Benoit Deslauriers’ similarly struck Benjamin Bridge (sweeter and cloudier) 2014. The divergence should be fascinating and confounding. Only eight cases made. A drop in the skin contact bucket. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted April 2016
Good to go!