HILLIER, Prince Edward County, Ont. — We’re making our way down the winding and twisting back roads of Prince Edward County, passing dairy farms, cash crops and fallow fields at a speedy clip. I’m with Suresh Doss, publisher of Spotlight Toronto, who knows these roads and this region better than most.
Every so often, a barn appears, rising from newly-planted vineyards that are heavy with fruit in early fall, that looks decidedly different from the many traditional working barns in this pastoral region.
There are 30 wineries (and counting) in the region, most eking out a modest living with small volume boutique wines that you won’t find at the LCBO or Vintages, but popular with wine lovers who make the trek to the County or order the wines online.
Any kind of trip to the County requires careful planning and a good map to keep you on the right track (or, if lucky enough, have a great guide like Doss riding shotgun with you). Some of the hours wineries in the County keep are dodgy, especially during the off-season.
I have visited Prince Edward County twice now, both times with Doss as a guide, and have been impressed by the wines and the people who have chosen to pioneer the region. It’s a comfortable feel here, relaxed and more tied to the farming aspect of the industry than other more established regions.
Our first stop is at Huff Estates on County Road 1 in Bloomfield. It has one of the region’s most modern wineries constructed with one thing in mind, producing high quality wines. Huff’s state-of-the-art facility has the grape processing area and fermentation tanks sitting on top of a hill allowing for a natural gravity flow into a temperature controlled barrel cellar below which sits just behind the tasting room. Complete with a moat-surrounded patio, kitchen for light lunches, floor to ceiling windows and even a heli-pad, this is unlike any other winery in the area and offers a unique experience for all.
Huff has invested a lot of money in its winery and tasting room. In 2006, a 21-suite was added to the experience.
There is also an art gallery called Oeno Gallery, which offers fine contemporary art and sculptures from local, national and international artists. There are new artist openings throughout the year making this a unique visit every time.
Huff farms grapes in two distinct regions in the Country — the vines surrounding the winery planted are planted to Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir as well as hybrids Vidal and Frontenac Gris. It also has vineyards on South Bay, located on a small peninsula in the southeastern corner of the county surrounded by Lake Ontario’s South Bay. It is an ideal site for various styles of wines such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
Huff produces about 8,000 cases of wine annually, making it one of the larger wineries in the County.
What we tasted:
Huff Estates Vidalescco 2009 ($20, 87 points) — A sparkling wine made with Vidal, the nose has aromas of lemon-lime, toast and mandarin orange zest. In the mouth the wine shows wonderful citrus, peach and pear flavours with a consistent and soft bead of lovely bubbles.
Huff Estates Cuvee Peter F. Huff 2008 ($40, 91 points) — This is an all-Chardonnay sparkler with a welcoming nose of citrus, yeast, pie crust, green apple and pear. Love this wine in the mouth — with it’s vigorous bead of bubbles, and flavours of lemon meringue pie, and juicy fruits held in balance with firm acidity, it’s got it all.
Huff Estates South Bay Chardonnay 2008 ($30, 89 points) — A nose of spice, vanilla, pear and zesty citrus with just a hint of oak. A wonderful note of minerality floods the palate with pear fruit and racy acidity. Great food wine.
Huff Estates First Frost 2008 ($20 for 500 ml, 88 points) — A semi-sweet white wine with apricot, citrus and apple tart flavours. It’s fleshy and delicious and pairs well with fruity desserts.
Huff Estates Zero de Gris 2009 ($35 for 375 ml, 90 points)— Named because it’s harvested at 0 degrees, not the usual -10C for icewine. It’s a nice sweet treat with fig, apple and grapefruit flavours with a touch of mint and honey. It’s sweet yet balanced with good acidity.
A short drive away, Closson Chase, on Closson Road in Hillier, is a 30-acre estate sitting on limestone-rich soil planted to high-density classic Burgundian varietals of Chardonnay and Pinot.
Its tasting room is housed in a century-old barn that has been restored with a 21st century flair. It’s a gorgeous setting with a rotating series of artists that hang their paintings in the country elegant foyer.
In 2007 Closson Chase opened a new, gravity-fed, state of the art production facility with two underground barrel rooms that are climate controlled using geothermal heating and cooling. Now at a production volume of 3,000 cases a year, the winery’s ultimate goal is 5,000 cases annually.
The wines are made by Deborah Paskus who is committed to pesticide-free, organic vineyards and is moving toward biodynamics.
Closson Chase, in addition to its estate grown wines, produces both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (about an even split between the two).
Closson Chase makes extraordinary Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, some of the finest in Ontario.
What we tasted:
Closson Chase South Clos Chardonnay 2009 ($40, 92 points) — This is among the finest Chardonnays from Ontario I have tasted. The nose shows flinty minerality, apple and elegant spice and oak stylings. It is extraordinary on the palate with depth of flavour, texture and minerals. The flavours range from ripe pear to sharp lemon citrus and buttery toast notes. All beautifully balanced and structured on a foundation of oak and acidity.
Closson Chase CCV Chardonnay 2009 ($25, 90 points) — A Chard made with less oak than the others made here. The nose shows pear fruit, mineral notes, soft oak spices and vanilla. In the mouth it’s crisp and vibrant with green apple fruit, pears and developing minerality. Very nice Chard that has wide appeal.
Closson Chase Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 ($30, 91 points) — This is just now being released at the winery and my, oh my, what a gorgeous Chard! The nose is buttery and creamy with sweet apple, toast and vanilla notes. It’s pure elegance on the palate, creamy soft with pear-apple fruits, wonderful spice accents and a bead of minerality running through the core of this wine. Built to cellar for a few years.
Closson Chase CCV Pinot Noir 2009 ($40, 89 points) — This single-vineyard Pinot is fermented with wild yeast and is unfiltered and unfined. It shows its wild side on the nose with tart cranberry-cherry fruits, bramble and earth along with toasted vanilla spices. It’s rich and textured on the palate with red fruits, earthy bits, cigar-box cedar and mingling spice.
THE OLD THIRD
Also in Hillier, the Old Third Vineyard, run by partners Jens Korberg and Bruno Francois, is a gorgeous facility converted from a dairy barn built near the end of the 19th century.
Francois and Korberg are fabulous and enthusiastic hosts, farming a small amount of Pinot Noir from the property using sustainable farming practices, wild fermentation and no filtering or fining.
“For me, what’s interesting is what’s in the vineyard, what’s in the field,” Francois, who makes the wine, said, on a recent visit.
The Old Third makes very limited quantities of Pinot Noir and a botrytis affected medium-sweet Pinot Noir and is adding a sparkling wine to the portfolio. Total production is a measly 350 cases with the goal being only 500 cases at full production. The wines sell out quickly and the next release isn’t until May.
They keep their tasting room open until the wines sell out.
What we tasted:
The Old Third Pinot Noir 2009 ($35, 90 points) — Such a distinctive, terroir-drive Pinot that’s wild fermented and finished unfiltered and unfined. The nose shows rich cherry fruit, violets, raspberry and integrated spice notes. It’s silky smooth on the palate with lovely mineral and spice notes to go with the red fruits.
In Wellington, we are met by Richard Karlo, owner of Karlo Estates, an artisanal winery which blends the best of old world and new world winemaking using wild fermentations, minimal filtration and reserved use of oak to create clean fruit driven, well balanced wines with great complexity.
Karlo is a burly man with an infectious laugh, a genuine personality who believes in the soil and climate of Prince Edward County.
The 93-arce estate was bought in 2005, planted in 2006 and the first vintage was in 2008. The tasting room opened in 2010 with 2,000 cases of wine made that vintage. The goal for Karlo is to produce about 5,000 cases of wine in an array of styles.
Karlo grows most vinifera grape varieities and also plays with several hybrid grapes, especially from the cold-hardy Frontenac family of grapes.
Karlo says his wines are made in the old world style. “They are food friendly because they are lower in alcohol with less use of oak and higher in acidity to cut fats and creams in food. Our limestone soil provides minerality and the cool climate allows for more complex wines.”
The winery takes an artisanal approach to the wine making. Everything is hand picked, wild fermented and unfiltered. They hang the fruit longer, or, as Karlo’s partner, Sherry Martin, is fond of saying, with a wry smile: “Richard lets his fruit hang longer.” Most of the reds aren’t released until two years of bottle age.
What we tasted:
Karlo Estates Riesling 2010 Prince Edward County ($22, 87 points) — A nose of flint, pear, citrus and marmalade with just a hint of honey. Juicy and fleshy on the palate, with ripe citrus-lime fruits and lovely minerality. This Riesling is wild fermented in older oak barrels to soften the racy acidity, says Karlo.
Karlo Estates Pinot Noir 2009 ($29, 90 points) — This Pinot is wild fermented, unfiltered and spends 14 months in third-year oak barrels. The nose shows classic County minerality, cherry-raspberry fruit, vanilla toast and spice. Lovely bright and vibrant red fruits on the palate with spice and oak in balance. “We use older oak barrels because we like to taste the fruit first,” says Karlo.
Karlo Estates The Fifth Element 2010 ($39, 91 points) — A 100% Petit Verdot, one of only two wines made in Canada with this variety (I think … Stratus the other?). Karlo calls this his “big steak wine,” and it’s loaded with expressive notes of plum, pepper, red and dark fruits, and lavish spices. It has firm structure on the palate, great acidity to go with a layered array of red and dark fruits, spices and tannins. I would cellar this for a couple of years or, as Karlo says, eat now with a big juicy steak.
Karlo Estates Van Alstine Port 2009 ($29 for 500 ml, 91 points) — Made in a Vintage Port style from Frontenac Noir and Marcette grapes, aged in French and Hungarian oak, and finished with 18% alcohol, you want to sitting down while enjoying this wine. Karlo says it’s best to serve just slightly chilled. The nose is all about chocolate-kirsch notes and inviting spices. It’s unctuous on the palate with waves of chocolaty cherry flavours, sweet spice, raisins and dried spices all nicely stictched together through the finish. Strong enough to hold up to a nice Cuban cigar at the end of the evening. Pass the Cohibas!
In stark contrast to the wineries above, we head to Hinterland in Hillier, where we find partner Jonas Newman hauling fresh-picked grapes off the back of his pickup truck into the winery for crushing.
Hinterland is about as basic a winery as you will find anywhere. It’s all about the production of sparkling wines here. “It’s all we’ll ever do,” says Newman as we step into the modest (by any standards) tasting room.
The converted dairy barn stands as the winery, tasting room and the storage facility for thousands of bottles of sparkling wines spread across five different styles — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Vidal.
The wines are called Les Etoiles, Rose Sparkling Ancestral, Whitecap and Riesling, and, my, oh, my, these are some mighty fine sparkling wines.
Hinterland has a dedicated following and the wines sell out quickly.
What we tasted:
Hinterland Les Etoiles 2008 ($39, 92 points) — A traditionally made Champagne method sparkling wine from this sparkling-only producer in the County. It’s a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a nose of bread dough, lemon, grapefruit and sweet fruit accents. It’s lush on the palate but with brilliant acidity and depth of flavour. An exquisite bubbly.
Hinterland Riesling 2009 ($33, 91 points) — Made in the traditional method of Champagne, this bubbly shows notes of sharp citrus, yeast-bread notes and lime zest on the nose. It’s beautifully refreshing on the palate with delicious citrus notes, persistent bubbles and sustained flavours through the finish. A well-made sparkler.
Our visit to the County ends with a return trip to one of the County’s most popular wineries, Rosehall Run.
Owner Dan Sullivan is fresh from a trip to Toronto where he was pouring his wines at an event there.
Sullivan makes outstanding wines at Rosehall Run, especially his Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, which are among the best in Ontario vintage to vintage.
Sullivan tells us he’s making two sparkling wines for the first time but they won’t be ready until 2015 after two years on the lees. He’s also planning an appassimento style (dried grapes) Cabernet Franc and maybe Syrah.
What we tasted in the gorgeous, new tasting room at Rosehall Run:
Rosehall Run Sullyzwicker Red 2010 ($15, 87 points) — This is Rosehall Runs’ irreverent red blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 30% Gamay and the rest Pinot Noir and Syrah. It has a jammy nose with pepper, cherries and spice. It’s delicious in the mouth with cherry fruit, savoury spice and cracked pepper. A porch sipper or with a good pulled pork sandwich.
Rosehall Run Sullyzwicker White 2010 ($15, 86 points) — The white version of owner Dan Sullivan’s Sullyzwicker is a blend of Riesling, Ehrenfelser and Chardonnay Musque. Notes of tropical fruits, peach and citrus that all follow to the palate. A flavourful white with rich, textured fruit. Nice.
Rosehall Run Cold Creek Cabernet Franc ($23, 89 points) — Rosehall excels in its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays but has crafted a delicious Cab Franc out of the 2008 vintage. The nose shows juicy, layered fruits, herbs and spice in typical cool-climate fashion. In the mouth, raspberry-cherry fruit mingle with roasted herbs, vanilla-wood, fine tannins and racy acidity. A beautiful wine to drink now with your meal or cellar for a couple of years.
Rosehall Run Unoaked Chardonnay 2010 ($18, 89 points) — Made with 60% Chardonnay and the rest Chardonnay Musque, this wine has wonderful aromatics of fresh tropical fruits and citrus. It’s ripe and fruity on the palate with a fair amount of balancing acidity.