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Our three-day a-MAIS-zing adventure of wine, beer and food in dog-friendly Prince Edward County

By Rick VanSickle

BLOOMEFIELD, Prince Edward County — So, here we are, dog in tow, on this wine-soaked island of profound pastoral beauty and unlimited potential.

Our mission is three days of adventure with only one rule — where we go, our one-year-old English setter Maisy goes with us. And that means restaurants, tasting rooms, craft breweries, markets, lodging — the whole shebang. It will take all of our resolve to make this happen. It will test us, but it will also make us stronger. We need to know, is Prince Edward County dog friendly, and is Maisy Prince Edward County friendly?

My wife Maureen and I are at a point in our lives where we have succumbed to the selfishness of having another dog and making the sacrifices that come with it. We didn’t want a dog that had to live our life, we want her to want to be part of it. She is a special friend and we like to think she is much happier with us than apart.

So, here we are after stuffing the SUV with all manner of doggy things and our wheels pointed straight for The County. She is a good traveller and only needs a couple of stops along the way from Niagara to our destination. Maisy is used to long drives by now. She likes the windows down and her face catching the stiff breeze. She naps, smothers us with kisses, naps some more and wonders WTF is going on, what’s taking so long?

Huff Estates and sandpipers

We arrive at the dog-friendly Huff Estates in Bloomfield where a few rooms are designated for pets. The room is pleasant with no odours from previous pets and a patio out back where Maisy (above photo) can sniff around and otherwise be a nuisance to arriving guests, who don’t seem to mind. Maisy is nothing but friendly.

What a gorgeous property. We quickly discover the art sculpture park where all manner of quirky and adventurous instalments are thought provoking and well curated. Maisy is mystified by the sculptures but captivated by the sandpipers that jet around the park. She is in full hunting mode every second of her walk (she has yet to capture a single bird — in her whole life). But she has the moves, an inherent trait, the slow, slithering half-crawl as if no creature can see what she’s doing. But, oh, they can and they always take flight the moment Maisy makes her big move.

It’s time to get at it. Back in the car, it’s to Hillier we go for an appointment at Trail Estate to meet up with winemaker Mackenzie Brisbois.

But first a quick stop at Hinterland, and, of course, a little bubbly to toast our arrival (very top photo) and get this show on the road. Dogs, understandably, aren’t allowed in the covered picnic area so we grab a seat overlooking the vineyards outside the patio. Maisy is a bit of looker and several people want to pet her while we enjoy the view. Maisy is only too happy to oblige.

Trail Estate

Trail has special meaning for us, not just because Brisbois, above, is making some of the most interesting wines in The County, but it was here just over a year ago, that we stayed in the wonderful little B&B on the property en route to getting Maisy from Kemptville when she was just a puppy. This time round, we have her with us, and as Maureen enjoys a glass of wine on the patio, and Maisy takes in all the scents of The County, I get to tasting wine.

Trail Estate County Chardonnay Unfiltered 2017 ($35, 93 points) — Both the County and Niagara Unfiltered Chards have become signature wines for Brisbois and it lights the way for the rest of the portfolio that takes many interesting twists and turns. The perfectly ripe fruit was hand-harvested from the estate in early October. It was wild-fermented and put to barrel halfway through the ferment. All-French barrels were used with a final ratio of 22% new, 22% 2nd-fill and 56% neutral oak in both 225L and 500L barrels. It was bottled unfined and unfiltered with only minimal sulphur at bottling. Such an enticingly reductive nose of flinty minerals, pear, pithy citrus, apple skin and just a hint of fine oak spice. On the palate, flavours of stone fruits and citrus are driven by pure County acidity and pristine salinity that shine a bright light on a finessed and lightly spiced finish.

Trail Estate Viognier 2018 ($35, 91 points) — Brisois made a single barrel of this Niagara-sourced Viognier that was whole cluster pressed, wild fermented and underwent malolactic fermentation naturally. Such a spicy and exotic nose of apricots, pear, orange blossom and ginger. It’s fleshy on the palate with a rich and textured frame that combines tropical fruits, creamy pear, nectarine, and gingery spice notes. Racy acidity steers the boat here, keeping it poised and fresh through the finish.

Trail Estate Foxcroft Vineyard Riesling 2017 ($35, 91 points) — This Niagara-sourced Riesling was pressed and cold settled without the use of any enzymes. The 2016 Riesling was pulled from barrel and the 2017 was put to barrel to keep the same yeast and malolactic culture alive. Fermentation did not reach dryness until the summer of 2018. Malolactic completed soon after. It’s aged in oak for 10 months and bottled unfiltered with only minimal sulphur added at bottling. So, yes, controlled reductive nose with earthy/spicy accents to go with citrus rind, peach, stony minerality and lemon curd. It’s textured on the palate and fleshy with tangerine, wild honey, peaches and citrus with tangy acidity on the finish.

Skin Fermented Series

All three of the wines below are from the Hughes Vineyard in Niagara, picked the same day, processed and fermented together. They are naturally fermented in stainless steel tanks, pressed after 13 days on the skins and sulphured to inhibit malolactic fermentation and to retain vibrancy in the wine. One wine is bottled right away while the other two go back into two barrels for eleven months, leading to divergent results.

Trail Estate Skin Fermented Riesling 2017 ($30, 90 points) — Grapes were sourced from the Hughes Vineyard in the Lincoln-Lakeshore sub-app in Niagara. It was fermented naturally on skins for 13 days prior to pressing. As the wine fermented the skins were punched down daily for gentle extraction. It’s aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak for four months before blending. An interesting nose of waxy lanolin, fresh apple cider, citrus and perfumed pear. It has lovely texture and verve on the palate with a flavour profile of lime, grapefruit pith, cider, apple skin and flint.

Trail Estate Heaven and Earth 2017 Skin-Fermented, Barrel-Aged Riesling 2017 ($90 in magnums only, both 91 points) — The mags come in tall, slim, sleek 1.5L bottles and are labeled either Heaven or Earth. I struggled to pick out the differences, but like all near natural, skin-fermented white wines, I find with each sip from any bottle keeps changing. The Heaven is deep, rich and so different from anything I have tasted that it defies description. Certainly there’s orange peel, spice, apple skin, stony minerality and some reductive notes on the nose, but also underlying citrus pith. Such beautiful texture on the palate and defined by its minerality and vibrancy on the finish. The Earth version shows Mandarin orange, clementine and lemon pith on the nose with reductive orange notes, rousing citrus, minerals, wonderful texture and verve on the palate. Crazy good, thought provoking and unlike anything anyone is doing (or dares to attempt) with Riesling in Ontario.

Trail Estate Skin Fermented Gewurztraminer 2017 ($35, 91 points) — The fruit was sourced from Four Mile Creek in Niagara and was hand-harvested and destemmed into stainless steel tanks then wild-fermented on the skins using no temperature control. Punch-downs optimize extraction from the skins. Pressed after 16 days. Distinctly Gew on the nose with grapefruit, pear, lychee, perfumed rose petals, marzipan, ginger and spices. It’s dry and austere on the palate, showing light tannins and structure with apricots, lychee, more spice and ginger, smoky undertones and wonderful mouth-watering acidity.

Orange and Pét-Nat

The “ORNG” and Pét-Nats at Trail are highly coveted and seem to sell out quickly. Only a few cases remained when I tasted at the winery in July. But they deserve reviewing.

Trail ORNG Skin-Fermented 2018 ($55, 91 points) — This is a blend of 70% Riesling and 30% Gewurztraminer from Niagara-on-the-Lake that had 258 days of skin contact. It was bottled unfiltered and without the addition of sulphur. Enticing nose of tangerine, lychee nut, rose blossoms and citrus pith. Lovely texture on the palate, some tannins, apple skin, tangy citrus, ginger, apricots and orange peel along a racy finish with reductive notes from start to finish. Out of the ordinary, yes, but something that would definitely spark an intellectual discussion about the outer boundaries of winemaker.

Trail Estate Pét-Nat White 2018 ($35, 90 points) — The grapes for this wine come from several smaller plots in the Trail Estate Vineyard and are fermented entirely with the skins-on. Consisting of a field blend of 68% Riesling, 22% Geisenheim and 10% Gewürztraminer — with the exact ratio determined by whatever the harvest is in a given year. Harvested first, the Geisenheim was wild-fermented on the skins until dry. Next, the Riesling grapes were harvested and crushed whole-cluster. These grapes were layered on the bottom of a tank and Gewürztraminer was destemmed on top. The already fermented Geisenheim was added on top of the Riesling and Gewürztraminer. It was pressed in a small basket press near the end of fermentation and bottled immediately without the addition of any yeasts, sugars or sulphurs — yielding naturally occurring bubbles. It’s bottled on its lees and is unfined and unfiltered. It has a complex (and ever-changing) nose of citrus pulp, ginger, mineral, earth, garden herbs and underlying umami notes. It has gentle effervescence on the palate, racy acidity, broad swaths of limestone minerality, lime zest, pulpy citrus and some reductive qualities on the tangy finish.

I could have tasted on and on with Brisbois, but this little get-away wasn’t about me … it was about Maisy and both the pup and her human mama were looking a bit bored, so off we went.

Grub and beer

We vowed to eat only where the three of us were welcome. It’s tricky, but Prince Edward County is as accommodating as it can be within the rules for dogs and respectful of other diners. We had heard Flame + Smith in Bloomfield was pet friendly, so we pulled up unannounced to check it out. Maureen got out first to make sure, and after some discussion, it was decided to just order take-out and eat it back on our deck at Huff Estate. While we waited, we had a delicious local beer at the Bloomfield Public House in town where Maisy was welcomed with open arms and a fresh bowl of water on the street-side patio (on the grass just in front of the patio). The Midtown Brewing Kolsch hit the spot.

County Cider, here we come

With our GPS clearly fixed on the County Cider Company in Waupoos, our second day in The County revolved around that, as well as exercise for @MaisytheEnglishSetter. Breakfast at Huff, another sand-piper hunting excursion in the sculpture park and it was off to the other end of Prince Edward County.

Bloomfield and Wellington are such quaint and interesting little towns, chock full of unique gift, antique and curio stops. Maureen soaked it all in full measure as Maisy and I sat on various benches just trying to hide from the sun and heat and watching people and dogs walk by.

On the way to Waupoos, we pulled into The Prince Edward Dog Park in Picton, built and maintained by a non-profit organization formed by a small group of dedicated dog owners who have worked hard to build a safe, fenced dog park in The County. While Maureen and I enjoyed some fantastic wine, cider, beer and food in PEC over three days, the wide-open off-leash dog park will forever be Maisy’s highlight of the trip. What a beautiful dog park with fresh water in jugs under every tree, absolutely spotless grounds, (mostly) free of dog poop, and friendly dogs everywhere to sniff and chase. Maisy was so sad when we had to leave (we would be back the next day, we promised).

In the car and headed to County Cider for a noon lunch we kill some time in the tiny town of Waupoos, nothing more than four or five small businesses, a winery and a cidery along the shimmering shores of Lake Ontario. A can of Prince Eddy’s Cream Ale in a Hop City Brewing glass and we drive the final minute to majestically perched County Cider.

You just won’t have a better wood-fired pizza and cold glass of cider than right here with stunning views of Lake Ontario. To dine with cidery owner Jenifer Dean, with Maisy by our side, makes it all that more special. We were seated away from most patrons in a spot designated as “dog-friendly.”

County Cider and its founder Grant Howes, who sadly passed away in January of 2017 at age 60, is credited with re-igniting the craft cider boom in Ontario. Grant’s widow, Dean, the first cider maker at the cidery, has carried on with the success and traditions at County Cider, added new flavours, kept up the high standards for 100% Ontario craft cider from their own apple orchards and keeps the property packed with people who flock for not only cider but also the renowned wood-fired pizzas on the back patio.

County Cider has always had one of the most diverse portfolios — and certainly has won its share of awards in North America — of all ciders in Ontario. Aside from the flagship brand, the County Cider, there’s the fresh and tasty Waupoos Cider, the Prince Edward County Ice Cider, made from apples frozen on the tree, the Sweet Sparkling Cider, a few flavoured ciders, including the new Maple Blueberry, and Root Beer ciders, and my favourite, and what I’m having on this day, A Tortured Path, an organic cider made from 50% bittersweet apples and sweeter golden Russet apples that’s high in tannin and built more like a white wine.

It’s a wonderful lunch fuelled by pizza and cider and such a pleasure and joy to catch up with Dean. As Howes was a close, life-long friend of mine from way back in our high school days, it was heartening to see how Dean has carried on his legacy of being a pillar on the drinks and food scene in The County.

We load up the SUV with cases of Tortured Path, Waupoos Cider and some tasty Blueberry Maple Cider (that our daughter loved) and haul it back to Huff.

Pleasant surprises

Our Friday afternoon consists of new discoveries in The County. A quick trip back to Trail to pick up a bottle of Cabernet Franc for a winemaker in Niagara he was curious about, and then it was another impromptu stop and yet another craft brewery seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Gillingham Brewing Company is built on the edge of the Domaine Darius Winery vineyard by owners Christine Mitchell-Gillingham and Andrew Gillingham (below), who moved to The County just two years ago and used a corner of Andrew Gillingham’s parents’ vineyard property for the attractive brewery and tap room. The doors opened just this past spring.

We sit on the back patio after a quick chat with Andrew about the beers. The BBQ is fired up and many patrons are ordering fresh grilled delicacies from a small tasting menu. The wheat beer is tasty as hell, so we slake our thirst, take the Maisy dog for a quick walk in the vineyard, and off we go again.

Morandin Wines

We’re in search of Morandin Wines, another tiny County winery that is getting increasingly more attention for the wines being made there by a young, dynamic, up-and-coming winemaker. We drive by it on Loyalist Parkway a couple of times before realizing the small building with a tiny sign is the winery. We pop open the door where we are welcomed by sales manager Britt Tuck. We tell her we are curious to taste the County Pinots and Chardonnays, which she is only too happy to pour for us, and, of course, Maisy is more than welcome inside. Wow, what a pleasant surprise, such beautiful wines.

Just as we were finishing up the tasting, winemaker Amelia Keating-Isakaen (above) came into the tasting room. We were struck by how young she is, but when she started telling us about her wines, which she is responsible for from the 2017 vintage onwards, it became clear she has a deep passion and the skills to make killer wines here. They truly are amazing, for such young wines.

Here’s what we liked:

Morandin County Pinot Gris 2017 ($25, 88 points) — A nose of stone fruits, minerals, bright Mac apples and citrus accents. Just a lovely, refreshing drop on the palate with peach, honey, fresh apple and minerals with racy acidity to keep it all lively and balanced through the finish.

Morandin County Chardonnay 2017 ($30, 93 points) — We tried the 2016 vintage first, but fell in love with the 2017 Chardonnay from the estate’s Sangreal Vineyard. It has a much more expressive nose with poached pear, quince, toasted vanilla, spice, and rousing mineral notes and citrus accents. This is a much less reductive style than the 2016, a purer, more seductive wine on the palate with lovely texture and depth, concentrated pear/apple and citrus flavours and caressing oak spices and minerality through a finessed and vibrant finish. County goodness through and through.

Morandin County Pinot Noir 2017 ($35, 91 points) — Two tonnes of Pinot was hand picked from the estate vineyard at 20.3 brix. After a spontaneous ferment, the wine was aged in 40% new French oak barrels for 14 months. It has a complex nose of profound minerality, sweet barrel spices, crunchy raspberry and bramble with red cherries and cranberry accents. Such incredible finesse and texture on the palate that highlights persistent wild raspberries, cran-cherry notes, tangy acidity and integrated spice that shine on such a racy and vibrant finish. A real treat.

Finishing the great Maisy adventure

Dinner to put an end to Day Two is close to home at Huff Estates. We are seated with Maisy at our side at the far end of the shaded patio on a sweltering summer’s night in PEC. We can’t seem to get enough wood-fired pizza, so we both order that plus a fresh greens salad to split. Maisy is drawing the usual attention from diners who just want to hug and squeeze her, which she doesn’t mind one bit. We enjoy our big glasses of Huff County Chardonnay, delicious, by the way, as the sun sets on The County for another day.

Our last day is all about getting out of Dodge before the hoards of weekend tourists begin arriving for the weekend. The car was loaded down with a lot more stuff than we arrived with. A quick stop at the Wellington Farmers Market, of course, and a healthy (?) helping of the most famous fries in the nation, dutifully cooked up every Saturday at the market by renowned resident Chef Jamie Kennedy, and we are headed to the Picton dog run for one last untethered romp for Maisy May. She wallows in the freedom and one last chance of exercise before the long ride home.

On our way up the highway to the 401, we come across another craft brewery, Parsons Brewery. As we pull in we see that the place is packed. We order one last pint and some delicious food while Maisy enjoys some down time with a big bowl of cold water. She seems quite content. As are we.

To answer the question posed 3,247 words ago (if you made it this, I applaud you), is The County dog friendly? I believe you have the answer to that.