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Touring The County with stops at Hinterland (sparkling and beer), the new Trail Estate and Lacey

Ontario sparkling wine

By Rick VanSickle

HILLIER, Prince Edward County — A visit with Jonas Newman and Vicki Samaras at Hinterland Wine Company, a premium Ontario sparkling wine producer in The County, is one of the great joys in life.

The couple own and operate a growing operation that now includes the County Road Beer Co. (a partnership), where craft beer is brewed and sold on site, and a popular restaurant and patio to complement their deep portfolio of sparkling styles.

Tasting with winemaker Newman is an adventure as you dive into the most diverse sparkling wine program in Ontario — maybe the country — that he continues to add to. His newest sparkler is the Hinterland Sacrament, a co-picked, co-fermented 50/50 Chard/Pinot blend that sits on the lees for five years. It is not released yet and is pending VQA approval, but we tasted it nonetheless.

Prince Edward County wine

Newman runs a serious sparkling program with the top sparklers made in the traditional method with very low dosage along with a two or three fun sparklers — Whitecap, an unusual blend of white grapes made in the charmat method and the highly gulpable Ancestral from Gamay grapes that is sexy sweet (hey, they don’t call it the “baby maker” for nothing!) and totally irresistible.

Here’s what I can recommend from a quick tasting with Jonas of both the sparkling wines and the beers that are reviewed by a beer friend of mine. Note: I also visited the new Trail Estate and had a quick stop at Lacey. Those reviews are below, along with a Syrah from Rosehall Run.

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Hinterland Sacrament 2011 (in the $50 range when released, 93 points) — As mentioned above, this is a blend of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay that sits on the less for five years. Such a gorgeous nose of lemon, brioche, smoky minerality and pear that comes at you in layer after layer. It’s elegant and brisk on the palate with a persistent mousse. This is all about complexity of flavour, texture and energy through the finish. A sophisticated bubbly that will reward with time in the cellar. A beauty.

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Hinterland Blanc de Blancs 2013 ($39, 91 points) — This 100% Chard sits on the less for four years and is barreled in 500L puncheons for 10 months. It still shows lovely freshness on the nose with a citrus core, green apple notes, baked bread and subtle toasted vanilla notes. The depth of flavour is a marvel with such beautiful texture from beginning to end. The focus is on the lemon/citrus flavours that light up the palate and turn mellow on the finish with just a hint of toasted spices. Feels nicely mature right now but the bracing acidity might carry it for a few years yet to come.

Hinterland Les Etoiles 2013 ($39, 90 points) — This version of the popular Les Etoiles is made with 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Chardonnay, and gets a low 4 g/L dosage. The nose shows smoky/flinty/minerality notes to open with and fades to bright lemon citrus, pear and brioche. It is brilliantly dry with an energetic mousse on the palate with a range of citrus and pear, gunflint, complexity and power. I see this one aging and developing for 5+ years, in fact, I wouldn’t open it for at least three years to fully enjoy what this wine will become.

Hinterland Whitecap 2016 ($22, 88 points) — The blend is Muscat and Vidal from Niagara and Riesling and Pinot Gris from The County and made in the Charmat method. Pure sparkling fun in a glass with a fruity nose of peach, lime, apricot and honey. It’s frisky on the palate with a range of tropical and orchard fruits with a note of sweetness on the finish.

Hinterland Ancestral Rosé 2016 ($25, 90 points) — The Ancestral, the legendary baby maker (for good reason) is named for the original way of making sparkling wine. Ancestral is produced using the similar techniques first employed by the monks of the Saint-Hillaire abbey in 1531. The carbon dioxide is captured during the primary fermentation producing a lightly sparkling, off-dry, fruit-forward wine. It’s one of the first wines to disappear off the shelves at Hinterland and, I’m assuming, doing its bit to raise the population in The County. Pure fruit on the nose — red berries and red currants and strawberries and rhubarb, oh my, what a fun sparkling wine on the nose and on the palate. Yes, it’s sweet, but it’s a balanced attack of sweetness. I dare you to put your glass down after one sip.

Hinterland Red Herring Syrah 2015 ($35, 88 points) — Why a table wine in a sea of sparkling wines? Well, first of all Syrah just happens to be Newman’s favourite grape, and second of all: “Red Herring is a diversion from everything else we’re doing,” he tells me. The Syrah is sourced from the Wismer Vineyard in Niagara and is aged in two-year-old 600 L French oak puncheons. It’s about as basic a winemaking process as you can imagine. The grapes were picked, destemmed and finished unfiltered. It’s raw on the nose with lovely earthy, funky, meaty, bloody, savoury notes to go with currants, boysenberry and sharp red fruits on the nose. It’s quite rustic on the palate with firm tannins and high acidity to go with all those savoury, smoky, tart fruit flavours. Instructions: Build a fire, light it, grab some friends, drink this Syrah. That’s how you do it.

County Road Beer Co. notes

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I tasted a couple of beers with Newman on the brewery side of the operation, notably the delicious Sour Cherry Gose, Belgium Hopped and Petit Saison, but, crap, I can’t accurately describe them for you. I enlisted a friend to help in that department. Jordan Ercit, a journalist with Postmedia and lover of craft beers, accepted the beers I brought back (two of them growler samples) on the promise he provides some notes (because I trust his beer palate). Here are his notes:

Prince Edward County beer

County Road Farmhouse Saison — Pours with a light amber colour and light, airy head. Cloves hit the nose right away and give way to citrusy notes. Hints of grapefruit and orange hit the tongue with a slight effervescence. Finishes with notes of banana bread and spice.

County Road IPA — Tart berries hit the nose as soon as it’s opened, followed by caramel and citrus. Pours to a hazy caramel colour with a foamy head. Caramel persists on the first sip, which was very smooth for an IPA. Very complex flavour as it resembled an ESB early on with an almost nutty bitterness. Takes on typical IPA characteristics as it warms up with pine, papaya and citrus notes on the tongue.

County Road American Dry Stout — Smacks you in the face with scents of coffee, molasses and chocolate and pours to a dark brown colour like a cup of espresso. Slight carbonation that goes down easy and with a tickle. Notes of toasted oats and vanilla bean hit the tongue with coffee-like attributes taking over at the end.

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County Road Cherry Gose — Pours with an orangey red hue and pumpkin spice hits the nose right away and gives way to cherry pie. Cherry takes over immediately on the first taste, but is not too overpowering with a nice balance of tartness and sweetness. Tastes sour, like an uber, and is not quite as salty as other goses. Hints of honey and cereal join the party as it warms up.

County Road Petite Saison — Mix of pumpkin spice and fruit right off the hop, reminiscent of a raspberry and hibiscus wheat beer, and pours with a hazy amber colour. Flavour sits on the back of the tongue with a slightly bubbly feeling. Tastes of malted blackberry and raspberry and finishes with the mouth feel and flavour like that of a pilsner.

County Road Belgian Dubbel — Sweet and rich scents and flavour with notes of molasses and spice. Pours a reddish brown in colour with a nice, light head. Flavour gives way to notes of toasted caramel, crème brulee or caramel apple with hints of clove as well.

Off the beaten Trail

There have been rumblings of a cool new winery in Prince Edward County that did things, well, a little differently. Boy, was that an understatement.

Arriving at Trail Estate Winery for a pre-arranged tasting, about a seven-iron from Hinterland, where Benway Road meets the Millennium Trail, I’m met by Alex Sproll with a friendly handshake.

Inside the small, tidy tasting room, large windows reveal a vineyard just awakening from winter’s slumber.

Anton and Hildegard Sproll embarked on their journey of owning a vineyard in 2011 when they fell in love with the 14-acre (6.5 acres of vineyards) property in Hillier. No stranger to hard work, they had just retired from running a successful bakery for 30 years. The family had all the bases covered to start up a business with son and graphic designer, Alex and daughter and accountant, Sylvia Sproll.

To complete the picture, the Sprolls enlisted the help of winemaker and grape grower, Mackenzie Brisbois to work on the production side.

Brisbois, a native of Prince Edward County, graduated from the University of Guelph’s Arts and Science program and Niagara College’s Winery and Viticulture Technician program. Learning, living and drinking in the culture of amazing Canadian wine while working at Norman Hardie Winery and gaining experience during harvests in South African and New Zealand shaped her style.

Taking on a new project, Brisbois moved from Prince Edward County to Nanaimo, B.C. to teach friends how to grow and make wine for their small-batch winery, Chateau Wolff. But it was the limestone-rich soils of The County that brought Brisbois back to put down her roots.

She has quickly put her stamp on the small portfolio that includes a range of skin-fermented whites that are highly unique and, I have to say, quite daring and risky for a new winery.

Brisbois, who presided over our tasting with her new son Aubrey (who was awesome, by the way, and the cutest kid ever!), says that Trail Estate will always walk a little on the wild side. Brisbois, Aubrey and Sproll are pictured above.

“We’re always going down the small-batch path,” she told me.

The plan is small-batch, single-vineyard wines of exceptional quality from grapes grown at the estate and from Brisbois’s favourite Niagara growers from outstanding sites.

In the start-up mode, the mix of fruit is highly slanted in the Niagara vein as the estate vineyard reaches maturation. The goal is a one-third County, two-thirds Niagara mix, breaking down to Baco Noir (County, originally planted in 2011), Pinot Noir (County, planted), Chardonnay (County, planted, and Niagara), Cabernet Franc (Niagara), Riesling (one acre County, rest Niagara) and Gewurztraminer (Niagara).

Case production now is about 1,400 with a ceiling eyed at 2,000 cases.

The first 100% County Chardonnay is slated to be released at i4c in Niagara in July alongside its Niagara version, which I tasted with Brisbois.

Here’s what I tasted and can recommend. All wines available at the winery.

Trail Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($26, 89 points) — Brief skin contact on this savvy sourced from the Ed Hughes vineyard in Niagara with a floral nose that combines pear, lime, passion fruit and mineral. It’s fleshy, yet vibrant, with good texture, citrus fruit and savoury accents on the finish.

Trail Estate Skin Contact Series Ed Hughes Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($30, 91 points) — A lot going on here with 14 days of skin fermentation (contact) after destemming, and punch downs twice a day. It’s finished filtered. It has a funky nose of apple skin, flinty minerality, salinity, and a range of citrus fruits. It’s rather dramatic on the palate, racy and rebellious with profound minerals, evident tannins, structure and then fading into citrus and free-run fresh-picked apple flavours that shout fresh and vibrant through the finish.

Trail Estate Fox Croft Vineyard Unfiltered Riesling 2015 ($28, 92 points) — A lot happening here in this Niagara-sourced Riesling: Fermentation in older oak barrels, full malo, full lees contact. The nose is a rocking with expressive apple, pear, ginger, white pepper and tangerine notes. It’s fresh and layered with some structure and body that lifts the racy lemon curd, apple and swirling minerality common to Fox Croft. It would be amazing to watch this improve in the bottle for years to come.

Trail Estate Skin Contact Series Gewurztraminer 2016 (sample, no score) — This was a sample of what’s to come, so did not score it. The Gew from Niagara-on-the-Lake is wild fermented on the skins for 13 days with what Brisbois says were “pregnant” punch downs twice a day. The fruit was picked at 24 Brix. What a beautiful, dry and stylish Gewurztraminer. Rich aromas of lychee, grapefruit, exotic tropical fruits, ginger and apricot. It’s rich, layered and loaded with spice to go with a range of tropical fruit and lychee/ginger notes.

Trail Estate Chardonnay Unfiltered 2015 ($32, 92 points) — This is a blend of 60% Ed Hughes Vineyard Chard (all stainless) and 40% Fox Croft fruit (fermented and aged in a mix of older French oak barrels) that is all wild fermented and bottled unfiltered. It will be shown at i4c along with the first County Chard made at the estate. The nose is gorgeous with smoky vanilla toast, pear, baked apple and flinty minerality. Sensational in the mouth, lovely texture that displays fresh pear, citrus and mineral notes that meld beautifully to the elegant spice.

Trail Estate Cabernet Franc 2015 ($44, released June 3, 90 points) — Single-vineyard CF from the Fox Croft Vineyard in Niagara fermented and aged in a mix of older French oak barrels. The nose displays savoury cherry, cassis, dried herbs and barrel spice notes. It’s thick and rich on the palate with savoury red fruits, some currants, a lovely balanced approach to spice and uplifting, mouth-watering acidity.

Big reds from Lacey

A quick stop at Lacey Estates with winemaker Kimball Lacey, above, was a surprise. He was showing two of his showpiece 2012 reds — both sourced from Kevin Watson in Niagara-on-the-Lake and both spending a whopping four years in 100% new French oak. So, ripe hot vintage, pushing the limits of oak aging. Here are my teeth-staining reviews.

Lacey Estates Cabernet Franc 2012 ($32 or $60 in magnum, 92 points) — So, 28 days on the skins and four years in 100% French oak. This is thick and rich on the nose, a big Cab Franc, with aromas of cassis, kirsch, herbs, and a range of savoury spices. The palate reveals high-toned red and dark fruits that are layered, textured and melded to firm tannins that provide the structure for a long road ahead. A spicy bite on the finish suggests time is needed to further integrate for greater reward.

Lacey Estates Dorland Reserve 2012 ($32, 91 points) — A 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc blend that gets the same oak regime as above. More hickory smoke on the nose with black currants, blackberries, blueberries and barrel spice notes. It is rich and smoky on palate with dark, concentrated fruits, tar and leathery, savoury spices, firm texture, evident tannins and a structure that will need to time to integrate. I suspect a bright future is ahead for this big red.

Rosehall Run The Swinger

I did not get a chance to visit the excellent Rosehall Run winery on my short visit, but I did snag a bottle of Rosehall winemaker Dan Sullivan’s tribute to Dick Singer — “For Dick Singer, a father, friend, writer, farmer and dreamer.”

Rosehall Run Cuvee County The Swinger Syrah 2012 ($34, 89 points) — It shows a range of savoury spices in the nose to go with black currants, smoke, blueberries earth and loam. It shows more fruit on the palate and freshening acidity. The flavours are a mix of red fruits, black pipe licorice, barrel spices, currants and smoke with smooth tannins and fairly good length through the finish.