Prince Edward County wine

By Rick VanSickle

HILLIER, Prince Edward County — I’m loathe to even mention his name; how so quickly it became toxic, deservedly so, to utter it under any circumstances — but there we were in “King of the County” territory, the first time back since the king was king no more.

Maureen, my wife, wanted nothing to do with my ill-conceived plan to visit the shamed ex-king’s winery, order a couple of pizzas, couple glasses of wine, take in the vibe that seems to still be going strong (if Instagram and Facebook are to be believed, and no, I no longer follow or “friend” the winery or the man), observe, pay, eat and drink nothing and leave. I wanted to see for myself what it was like there, who was there, and if it was as it has always been there.

It’s what the journalist in me would do, but it’s not what the husband in me would. As close as we got was the sign pointing wine tourists, the unknowing ones, toward his winery and what were once (I have been told, but have never had one) the best wood-fired pizzas for miles around.

If you have no idea who or what I’m talking about, please go here and get yourself caught up.

The fall from grace was immediate following that story in the Globe and Mail. And while the man cast a long shadow over The County — to both good and bad reviews from his neighbours — few either whole-heartedly lament his predicament or simply say enough is enough with even talking about it.

One thing is certain, though: no one wants to discuss the fallen king, at least on the record; but they have plenty to say off it.

To repeat comments off the record is not how I roll.

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Prince Edward County is a vibrant, wholly unique wine region that was never ever about one man. It wasn’t before and it isn’t after.

I am reminded about that on a quick two-day visit with Maureen. I’m trying to squeeze in as many winery visits as is fair to her. The King’s court hasn’t been in my rotation for a number of years. It just hasn’t. That vibe that was talked about, written about and gushed about by some of the most important names in the wine world just wasn’t my thing; the wines were hit and miss at best and the atmosphere there, well, I never felt it like obviously so many others did. It was easy to take a pass.

And, so we did.

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It’s people like Dan Sullivan, proprietor/winemaker of Rosehall Run Vineyards, who are pure County through and through. He’s not a king and there is no cult of Dan, but he’s a big cog in a very interesting mosaic who all believe in community and that adage that all boats rise with the tide.

We are fondly greeted at Rosehall by Sullivan.  He’s wearing a dollar store Canada hat adorned with miniature beer mugs and what appears to be a pretzel in the shape of a peace sign. His smile is wide and genuine, oblivious (or, maybe not) to the kitschy chapeau on his head.

Dan Sullivan and Maureen on the deck of Rosehall Run. Sullivan and VanSickle were both having a good a good hat day (above).

His winery is packed with people on this Friday, bottles are flying off the shelves and the tasting bar is humming with activity. He was expecting us and we are led the back deck that overlooks his County vineyards that are swaying in the breeze. The sun is trying to peak out from the turbulent weather and finally emerges just as we sit down to talk and taste.

Sullivan is one of those County pioneers who has fattened up his portfolio slowly and methodically to become one of the most complete in the region. He is most proud of his wines made with his estate County grapes, but isn’t afraid to mix in fruit he expertly sources and clearly identifies from Niagara in separate bottlings. There is always something new to taste at Rosehall.

Here are some of the wines I can highly recommend:

Rosehall Run Sauvignon Blanc Hungry Point 2017 ($25, 89 points) — Sullivan picks this County estate fruit late. It has has aromas of lemon, zesty lime, some tropical fruit notes and a touch of spice. It’s zesty and fresh on the palate with lime, grapefruit, lovely texture and spice with plenty of acidity to keep it lively through the finish.

Rosehall Run Rosehall Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($35, 93 points) — I originally reviewed this brilliant Chardonnay in June, but on further tasting, I moved it up a point as it’s already showing more weight and the minerality is simply stunning, pure County goodness. Here’s the original review: This JCR bottling of Chardonnay from the warm 2016 vintage was fully fermented in 500 L oak puncheons. It was aged in 60% new oak, a mix of tight French and Extra-Tight Caucasus Mountain wood for 16 months sur lie with minimal batonnage. It has a highly mineralized and complex nose of apple, vanilla toast, river rock, pear and integrated spice notes. Incredible how fresh this wine is on the palate considering the heat of 2016. The flavours of rich apple and pear with citrus accents are intense but well integrated with just the right amount of spice and mineral notes through the vibrant finish. A beautiful Chardonnay that speaks to the terroir of The County. Bravo!

Rosehall Run Stardust 2011 ($50, 93 points) — Sullivan loves his ’60s and ‘ 70s rock and prog-rock, British invasion music (I believe he was quite jealous of the Todd Rundgren shirt I wore that day) and sprinkles references subtly (or not so subtle, as is the case with this sparkler) throughout his portfolio. Stardust is the theme in Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Aside from the album name there is also Ziggy Stardust, the song, and Lady Stardust, another song on the album and the one I decided to reference and play on my iPhone for Sullivan as we sipped this gorgeous sparkle overlooking his vineyards. Sullivan smiled throughout the entire song (have a listen below).

This is Rosehall’s top traditionally-made sparkling wine made from 55% Pinot Noir and the rest Chardonnay, all estate fruit and left to age on its lees for an incredible six years before disgorging. Such a gorgeous nose of baked bread, brioche, lemon, grapefruit and baked apple notes. The sexy bubbles tickle a palate that’s bathed in rich mineral notes, lovely texture, baked apple, richness and citrus that keeps everything lively through a peppy finish.  The depth and persistence suggests cellaring a couple of years or more as it gains fat and complexity. A celebratory bubble that is worth every penny of the $50.

Rosehall Run Silver Fox Block Nedelko Vineyard Pinot Noir ($35, available soon, 91 points) — Sullivan poured the 2016 estate Rosehall Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 (previously reviewed here) beside the Niagara Twenty Mile Bench version of the 2016 Pinot to show the vast differences in the wines. They both benefit from the heat of the vintage (if you like your Pinots on the riper side) but this one has more darker fruits of currants, bramble black cherry, rich spice notes and minerals. It’s a bit bigger, richer and earthier than the County Pinot with lovely texture and aging potential.

Rosehall Run Small Lots Tempranillo 2017 (Price not available, 89 points) — “Yes,” Sullivan says, “you can ripen Tempranillo here.” Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but this just might be the first Tempranillo made in the County and it’s a beauty. Not big like Rioja, but more a County take on this varietal with a perfumed, floral nose with red berries, plums and light spice notes. It has firm tannins and structure on the palate and beautiful texture with red berry and spice flavours that last on the long finish.

Rosehall Run The Certain Ratio 2016 ($35, available online or at winery, 90 points) — This is what I mean by music that permeates Sullivan wines. The Certain Ratio could refer to the ingredients here — Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, sourced from both Niagara and Prince Edward County — or, for the music buffs, maybe, just maybe, from the Brian Eno song The True Wheel, of which Sullivan is a fan … I leave it up to you to decide. This is only the second vintage, made only from the warmer harvests, and has nice ripe, soft aromas of blackberries, currants, splash of cherries and spice. It is delicious on the palate, not quite Bordeaux style, but more the County’s take on rich fruit, balancing acidity, soft tannins, minerals and vibrancy on the finish. Interesting wine and treat to taste in its infancy.

The Certain Ratio was a very nice segue into the final two wines — one we enjoyed immediately on that back deck, a beautifully aged Cos D’ Estournel 1988 from Saint-Estephe, the other, Sullivan’s first County Pinot Noir from 2007 that was fabulous and enjoyed by Maureen and I once we were back home to celebrate our new puppy we picked up in Kemptville after The County trip.

It had such depth, purity of fruit and loaded to the gunwales with that County minerality which is a hallmark with all wines in the region, especially the Pinots and Chards. It must be rewarding for Sullivan to see such life and vigour 11 years into his first Pinot’s existence.

We also tried one more secret wine, a red, frothy one that was bursting with flavours and energy, but I am not allowed to say anything about the wine other than what I just said but I can tease you a bit with the photo above.

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The very first stop of our mini adventure in The County began at The Old Third to visit and taste with co-owners Bruno Francois and Jens Korberg. We were greeted warmly, first by Korberg and later by Francois, as we always are at this charming winery and elegantly-appointed tasting barn on Closson Road in Hillier.

I had seen on their Facebook page, that because they lost their entire vineyard in 2017, they were releasing their first-ever Chardonnay. Not just any Chardonnay, but a Chardonnay not of their vineyard and not even of their County.

“For the first time in our 13-year history as a winery in Prince Edward County, we will be selling wine from purchased grapes. From Tawse Winery, Quarry Road Vineyard, to be exact. For many years, we were strict in our belief only to make and sell wine from our own vineyard in The County,” a message posted on Facebook in August said.

“But illness humbles you. And sometimes the convictions you were so steadfast in clinging to no longer seem to matter as much. We lost our crop last year and had a choice—either close our doors and end our dreams or take a risk and buy fruit and make wine. Life, love and the pursuit of our dreams of making this small winery a successful business drove this decision.” 

The Old Third Chardonnay 2017 ($39 with a portion of the proceeds from every bottle sold going to the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto) is an unoaked and unfiltered version from the Twenty Mile Bench in Niagara. Certainly a creamy, elegant style after going through full malo, with defined apple/pear fruits and citrus accents. It’s a lovely drop and I am very happy that Francois has now decided to plant a bit of Chardonnay on the property to open up more opportunities in the portfolio.

The only other two bottles for sale at the Old Third until the 2016s arrive are the Golden Russet Sparkling Cider – Cuvée Yquelon ($25), and the second vintage of the stunning Old Third traditional method 100% Pinot Noir sparkling wine, called À la Volée Sparkling Wine 2014, which is pressed as a white, second fermentation in the bottle, hand riddled and hand disgorged. It’s a beautiful sparkling wine with depth, purity of flavour, minerals, brioche/baked bread, leesy notes and a tight, lively bubble that rises straight through the heart of the glass.

The Old Third A La Volée Sparkling Wine 2014 ($75, 93 points) —The nose is an enticing mix of bready/brioche from extended lees aging/stirring, lemon, pear and subtle spice notes. It has a racy/fresh delivery on the palate with lemon and green apple to go with biscuit, smoky-flinty notes and lovely texture through the finish. Irresistible now but try cellaring a couple for two or three years. Exceptional bubbles.

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We’re deep in the barrel room underneath the main building at Keint-he Winery and Vineyards for our first stop early on Saturday before the crowds settle in.

Winemaker and vineyard manager Lee Baker is using his thief to draw out samples from the various Pinot Noir and Chardonnay barrels. We hear a sound from above, a familiar voice, as John Battista Calvieri, neighbour and owner of Hubbs Creek Vineyard, calls out for Baker.

Calvieri, who makes outstanding wines himself at Hubbs Creek, just dropped by to check in on Baker, as he often does, and uses the opportunity to heap praise on the young winemaker. There seems to be a lot of mutual admiration between the two as Calvieri joins us for the barrel exploration.

Baker is a Niagara native who grew up in the heart of wine country. He spent several years working in the vineyards and cellars at some of the top Niagara wineries while attending and graduating from Brock’s viticulture and oenology program with distinction. Before Keint-he, Baker spent some time in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley as an assistant winemaker at two premium wineries.

What excited Baker about the job in The County was not only making the wine but also the responsibility he was given for growing the grapes. Bringing everything full circle provides the ultimate challenge — and responsibility.

Here’s what was tasted at Keint-he and what we can recommend:

Keint-he Melon de Bourgogne 2016 ($30, 90 points) — Made unfiltered with wild fermentation, this lovely Burgundian varietal is captured beautifully here with lovely aromatics of apple, melon and citrus, yes, but also underlying earth and umami. It’s perky on the palate with brighter orchard fruit, melon and saline minerality through the fresh finish. Interesting wine.

Keint-he Greer Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($45, 92 points) — A deft touch is evident in this unfined/unfiltered Chardonnay from estate County fruit. The nose is gorgeous with pear, apple and mineral notes all working in harmony with the lightly toasted spices. It has wonderful texture and verve on the palate, integrated orchard fruits, flinty minerality, uplifting acidity and length on the finish. Exactly what you want from County Chardonnay.

Keint-he Portage Chardonnay 2014 ($25, 90 points) — Portage is a popular wine at Vintages stores when it’s released there. This 2014 was still a bit tight when we tasted but lemon, pear, flint, apple notes were beginning to emerge (and fully revealed themselves as you swirled the wine in the glass). Once opened up, the flavours shone on the palate with a nice melange of quince, citrus, flinty/stony minerality and a fine, finessed finish.

Keint-he Little Creek Pinot Noir Closson Block 2016 ($50, 92 points) — Such a beautiful Pinot that’s County through and through. The nose shows lovely brambly raspberry, cherry, red currant, earth, spice and chalky minerality. It’s quite rich on the palate with ripe, smooth tannins delivering a mouth of rich red berries, that underlying minerality, barrel spice notes and a long, long finish. Beautiful wine.

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We had pre-arranged to meet Ryan Monkman, the man behind the new FieldBird Cider operation, which operates and is sold at Keint-he. Monkman cancelled at the last minute to spend a couple of days with his family before harvest, which is understandable. However, he did leave a few ciders for us to try.

FieldBird, as described by Monkman, is “a journey, an adventure, I hope. Cider born of ethical farming. Cider shaped by the life forces of yeasts and oak. Cider of honesty and possibility. Hopefully “interesting” in a delicious sort of way.”

The three ciders we tasted were made like wine is made, in a still style, rather than most of the ciders you see in Ontario that have at least some effervescence. They were also all fermented in oak barrels.

Monkman sources the vast majority of his apples — myriad kinds — from The County.

Here’s what we liked:

FieldBird Northern Spy Still Cider ($20 for 750 mL bottle, 9% abv, 90 points) — This is a single varietal (northern spy) still, dry cider made from 100% PEC apples and barrel fermented. The nose shows bin apple, citrus, lime zest and a floral note. It’s perfectly dry on the palate with flavours of crunchy apple, lemon-tinged citrus, cream and minerality that’s all kept lively by racy acidity.

FieldBird Buzzing Chatter Cider ($15, 89 points) — So, barrel fermented in an oak vat with 50% of the County apples barrel aged for 5 months. The nose shows a range of apple tart and baked apple notes with honey and spice accents. It’s not too sweet on the palate, but shows rich apple flavours, honey and nutmeg with fairly good acidity.

FieldBird Black Tail Cider ($30, 91 points) — This Monkman’s favourite barrel from the 2017 apple harvest. “It’s a snapshot of our cellar. Just one barrel, nothing changed,” he says. This ends up being mostly golden russet apples with northern spy and winsap. It’s a beauty with a nose of rich, mature apple, melon, candied citrus, spice and wild honey notes. It has lovely texture and verve on the palate and made in a not-too-sweet style that benefits from electric acidity through the finish.

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The view outside our B&B at Trail Estate

It was our intention to taste a fair representation of the wines Mackenzie Brisbois makes at Trail Estate because, well, I have been previously blown away with what she has done at the relatively new winery.

Maureen and I stayed at the winery’s Vineyard Cottage, a B&B situated right next to the winery and just steps from the vineyard, and it was easy to make the short walk over to the tasting room (often!).

But every time I went, because Trail was so busy with wine lovers, it was impossible to get anywhere near Brisbois, who was pouring madly for thirsty visitors.

I finally got a quick tasting with Brisbois, but, — damn — I did not have my notebook and have no reviews to share. I can tell you that Trail is continuing down that road of making unique County wines with more and more of their own recently planted grapes alongside Niagara wines from expertly sourced fruit. Brisbois loves to explore with skin-fermented whites and natural wines, which gives the portfolio depth and interest.

One of the wines coming out this fall is a Trail Estate (white) pet-nat. It’s a field blend made from estate Geisenheim, Riesling and Gewürztraminer that has a leesy nose of citrus pulp, mineral, earth, umami and herbs. It has a firm acidic backbone that highlights the tart and pulpy citrus, grapefruit and subtle reductive note on the finish.

Brisbois loves to push the limits of winemaking, and both her red and white pet-nats will do just that.

If you love adventurous winemaking (along with some very fine Chardonnays, Pinots and more), Trail Estate is a must. Pretty awesome cabin, as well, but book far in advance (photos above).

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That was our little adventure in The County — a bit of tasting, some delicious meals in Picton and Wellington, and an eye-opening trip to the Wellington outdoor market on Sunday (also open on Saturday) that gave us the strangest sight of the weekend — celebrated chef Jamie Kennedy making his signature fries with a lineup down the road to get them. Those people couldn’t wait to hand Kennedy $5 for a cone of fries and a choice of two toppings. No one was disappointed, especially Chef Kennedy.