By Rick VanSickle
PICTON — Not sure if the Hollies had Prince Edward County on their mind when they penned their big hit song He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, but I find myself humming it every time I visit.
“The road is long, with many of winding turns. That lead us to (who knows) where, who knows where?”
There are often periods of time when travelling the meandering, often pot-holed gravel roads of The County when you have no idea where you are or where you’re going, but there always seems to be something delicious just around the corner. So you stop, enjoy and meander some more until the next mystery destination catches your eye.
It is the most unique wine (and beer, and food, and cider and beaches and …) destination in the country. Nothing else comes close. That the people who make it their home and craft some pretty spectacular booze and food just makes it that much more intriguing for visitors.
We took a pandemic trip to The County in late summer with another couple who joined us from Ottawa. We found a wonderful B&B in Picton owned by Ontario wine enthusiasts Shawn McCormick and his wife Debi White called By the Manor. It is built to accommodate four couples comfortably, but during these times of social distancing and staying safe, we elected to trim that down to just the four of us. It was simply perfect with all the amenities we could ask for and perfectly furnished with antiques and modern touches. It was centrally located to get to where were going down whichever long and winding road we wanted take.
The County can be a challenge at the best of times. Not everything runs on time, not everything is open when you want it to be. It’s that laid back, laissez faire attitude that is part of the charm of the region. And maybe just a little frustrating at times? But here we are, not on a wine adventure per se, but rather a break from our respective locked down homes, COVID-19 and just wanting go somewhere other than our backyards for a few days. We needed this.
Going to PEC in a pandemic can be tough if you don’t make reservations in advance. You can take your chances down those winding roads all you want, but it doesn’t mean you can just walk into whatever oasis of goodness you run into without some advance planning. Although we enjoyed all our meals out on outdoor patios, there was some scrambling at times and some panic when inclement whether was rolling in. We were not prepared to dine indoors and, as it turned out, we didn’t have to. We got lucky, enjoyed amazing food and appreciated the service and dedication of the staff who were there to serve us safely and professionally.
Because we were visiting with friends who did not want to spend three days at wineries, we chose our spots carefully. And because you cannot just drop into a winery in these times, meticulous planning was needed, for the most part.
Our first winery visit of the three-day adventure was at Rosehall Run, arranged in advance with owner/winemaker Dan Sullivan, above. I knew Sullivan would be the perfect person to offer our friends a glimpse of what The County does best. He has so much passion for the region and knowledge that he loves to share.
I had already tasted most the new releases (including the Ontario Wine Awards Red Wine of the Year — the Rosehall Run JCR Pinot Noir Rosehall Vineyard 2018), but Sullivan insisted on pouring a wide range of his wines for our friends plus a few new ones for us to try. He dazzled with technical details about yeasts, minerality, oak treatments and County wine history that left our friends is awe of his knowledge. Sullivan regaled us for a couple of hours on the upper deck at his Wellington winery overlooking the vineyards and our friends were suddenly talking yeast strains and sulfites for the rest of the weekend. So, thanks for that, Dan!
Here are some new wines from Rosehall Run we tried and liked with Sullivan:
Rosehall Run Small Lots Chardonnay Musque 2019 ($29, 91 points) — A pleasant surprise from a grape that often underwhelms. It has such an expressive nose of ripe pear, peach, honeysuckle, lemon, subtle pineapple and spice. It’s steely and crisp on the palate with a mineral edge, lemon, peach, pear and bright acidity through the finish. Simply delicious and gushing with fruit.
Rosehall Run Gewurztraminer 2019, Niagara (Between $25 and $30, late fall release, 91 points) — Sullivan sources this Gew from Bob Nedelko’s vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench in Niagara and barrel ferments a portion of the grapes to add texture. Such a beautiful nose of apricot, grapefruit, wild honey, pear, lychee, ginger and nutmeg spice notes. It’s fleshy/oily on the palate and shows a broad range of exotic fruits, apricot, grapefruit, lychee nut, pear and wild honey notes with plenty of zippy acidity to keep it lively on the finish.
Rosehall Run Pixie Petite Rosé Spritzer ($4 for a 355 mL can, 1,000 points!) — By a long shot, this is the best can of wine I have ever tasted. Everything you want in a rosé spritzer resides in this attractive can (if you tasted this blind you would never guess it came in a can) of goodness made from the estate’s Pixie, a Vidal/Pinot Noir blend. It simply bursts with a basket of red berries, tiny touch of sweetness and a lovely spritzy feel that keeps it popping from first sip to the last. This is a super fun can of wine that goes where you go when you want a not-so-serious and delicious treat. 5.5% abv.
My wife Maureen joined me on the next stop (she’s a trooper!), but our friends needed a bit of break from all that talk about enzymes, wild yeast and Brix. On we ventured on our own to Hubbs Creek, where we had made an appointment with owner and winemaker Battista Calvieri, above. We found him holding court with a group of wine lovers who got word his new rosé was just being released. They were tasting and buying it by the case when we arrived. The winery is small and cluttered with boxes of newly bottled wines everywhere and Calvieri doing triple duty pouring, tasting, and happily accepting people’s debit cards.
Hubbs Creek is a family run vineyard in Hillier, approximately two kilometers north of Lake Ontario. The first block of vines — with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — was planted in the mineral-rich soils of The County back in 2002. It had been awhile since I visited Hubbs Creek and wanted to get a clear picture of the portfolio.
Calvieri was gracious and enthusiastically poured his wines and talked about them as he navigated consumers dropping in unannounced to grab the quickly-disappearing rosé that was causing a bit of stir on this day (and for good reason, it’s delicious!). His portfolio shows the best of what The County does, and is especially renowned for the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Not only did I want to taste the new releases, I had caught wind of a little bottling he calls “Papà Wine,” a 10-case cult-like garagiste-style bottling sourced from a single row of Dolcetto planted in 2002 and blended with estate Pinot Gris. It was long ago sold out, but he reserved a bottle for me to purchase and drink at a later date.
Here’s what we liked from our tasting:
Hubbs Creeks Gamay Süssreserve Rosé 2019 ($24, 90 points) — This Gamay-based rosé is fermented dry with a touch of sweetness from reserved juice added post-ferment. It’s highly aromatic with a nose of wild raspberries, strawberries, plums, cherries and herbs. It explodes with flavours on the palate, from ripe red berries to plums with an enticing note of sweetness that balances out from the bracing adicity on the finish. Gulping rosé.
Hubbs Creek Profumo di Legno Chardonnay 2016 ($35, 93 points) — The Profumo di Legno (aroma of wood) was fermented in 25% new French oak barrels (20% new) for 12 months. This is simply gorgeous with a perfumed nose of creamy pear, apple skin, lemon, stony minerality and fine oak spices. It’s generous and silky on the palate and yields flavours of poached pear, vanilla toast, butter, a smidge of lemon zest and saline minerality in a complex and fleshy style that finishes long and fresh.
Hubbs Creek Chardonnay Unfiltered 2017 ($28, 92 points) — This is made in a lightly oaked style and bottled unfiltered. It has an enticing nose of minerals, pear, apple, lemon and freshness. It’s lean and vibrant on the palate with flinty/smoky notes and a touch of spice to go with quince and lemon that all lead to a long, lingering finish.
Hubbs Creek Pinot Noir Riserva Unfiltered 2017 ($40, late fall release, 92 points) — So, aged in 100% Slovakian oak barrels for 12 months and bottled unfiltered. If you like your Pinots on the bolder side, this will do the trick. It has a smoky nose with perfumed spices, black cherries, cassis, tobacco and brambly raspberries. It’s complex and bold on the palate with a silky texture that reveals tart cherries, rhubarb, earthy/loamy notes, smoke, minerals, sweet spices and a long, finessed finish. Can cellar 8+ years.
Hubbs Creek Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2017 ($33, 91 points) — A minerally, fruit-laden nose of brambly raspberries, cherries and perfumed with subtle cassis and light spice notes. It has gorgeous texture and a complex array of cranberries, cherries and minerals with a finessed finish. Drinking well right now but can cellar 4+ years.
Our second day in The County featured a visit to Sandbanks Provincial Park — the world’s largest baymouth barrier dune formation with three expansive sandy beaches that many claim are among the best in Canada. We arrived in a torrential downpour with extreme winds turning our umbrellas inside out, but on a good note — we were alone on the expansive beach and enjoyed a beautiful walk once the rain subsided.
Next was a leisurely drive to Waupoos and lunch with County Cider proprietor Jenifer Dean.
If you have never enjoyed the breathtaking views of Prince Edward Bay from the outdoor patio at County Cider, where the most delicious pizzas are made in a wood fired oven, you are missing something wonderful. Dean, above in this photo taken at Del-Gatto, and her late partner Grant Howes have built an amazing destination for County lovers. The team at County Cider churns out some of the best ciders (A Tortured Path is my absolute favourite) in Ontario and have done so longer than any other cidery in the province. Dean has carried on with the business and it continues to be a going concern in Prince Edward County. Cider lovers will want to watch for the upcoming “Legacy Series” of ciders being made in honour of Howes.
After a long, leisurely lunch (try the amazing BLT pizza, above, with double smoked bacon, cheddar, roasted tomato, arugula and garlic aioli dip) with Dean, we all took the short drive to Del-Gatto Estates, a family owned and operated winery specializing in hybrid grape varieties. The grapes are all hand planted, hand picked and hand crafted in a range of styles and all made in tiny quantities.
Pat Del-Gatto, below, met us at the winery and we settled in for a thorough look at the unique portfolio built by the family.
Lured by the beauty of The County, the Del-Gatto family purchased their 74-acre parcel in Cape Vesey in 2001 and moved there the next year. Del-Gatto’s father laid out the grid of the vineyard and the vines were hand planted by family members. The estate currently maintains almost eight acres of vinifera and hybrid grapes: Geisenheim, St. Croix, Leon Millot, Marquette, Petit Pearl, Baco Noir, Frontenac Noir, Frontenac Gris, L’acadie, and Ontario’s first commercial planting of Pinotage. Here’s what we liked from the tasting:
Del-Gatto Marquette 2019 ($25, 88 points) — Aged in American oak with medium+ toast, this newly anointed VQA variety has an attractive nose of black currants, anise, dark cherries, smoke, dried tobacco and rich barrel spice notes. It bursts with a range of flavours on the palate from dark berries to kirsch and then bold spice notes that all lead to a long, bright finish. Cellar 5+ years.
Del-Gatto Baco Noir Giacomo’s Select Baco 2019 ($20, 87 points) — A smoky, rustic and savoury nose of black currants, kirsch, blackberries and spice. It’s certainly savoury and brash on the palate with notes of ripe cherries, cassis, herbs, rich spices and a tangy finish.
Del-Gatto Vidal 2019 ($20, 89 points) — An enticing nose of melon, pear, white flowers and subtle citrus notes. It has gorgeous texture with creamy pear, chalky minerality, melon and sweet honey notes that are somewhat held in check by the racy acidity.
Del-Gatto Dragonfly 2019 ($22, 88 points) — This Riesling-Vidal blend is a crowd pleaser with an intense nose of grapefruit, lime, melon and herbs. It’s off-dry on the palate with a range of citrus, apple and herbs with a bright finish.
Dal-Gatto Blushing Peacock 2019 ($20, 88 points) — This tasty rosé is made from estate Frontenac Gris with a nose of wild raspberries, Mandarin orange, wild herbs, cotton candy and cherries. It’s dry on the palate and features tart red berries and herbs in a fresh, zippy style.
The final day of our adventure took us to the eerie Lake on the Mountain (no one knows how it got there or where the source of the water comes from … weird!) and some sightseeing to watch the ferries bring weekend tourists to the island for the weekend.
Our plan was to have one final lunch, this time at Parsons Brewing Company in Picton, but alas, the chef was running a bit late and the food was behind schedule, so we said our good-byes and headed in opposite directions, another County adventure in the books.