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Part I of The County: A booze-soaked wine journey with a ‘strange’ twist

By Rick VanSickle

HILLIER — Never change, Prince Edward County, never change. We love you just the way you are.

Part I of a two part series on The County.

The County rarely disappoints with its cornucopia of drink, food, vistas and hospitality, and it certainly lived up to expectations on a recent two-day journey of non-stop sipping and feasting on all the region has to offer.

Prince Edward County wine
Gerry Spinosa.

It was a structured (but casual) visit for former executives of the Ontario Wine Society all arranged by the unflappable uber-planner Sadie Darby. Everything was on the table; the group only craved variety to fully explore different venues from previous visits and expanded horizons beyond wine. I was a guest of Bruce Barber, a past president of the Toronto chapter of the Ontario Wine Society and a good friend from way back. I was invited to tag along with this engaged and knowledgeable wine crew that also included Heino Claessens, Steven Gunning, Frank Baldock and chef Christopher Boland. I was not there in an “official” tasting capacity, but took notes on the wines we tasted and soaked in The County vibe that I had craved for the past 12 months.

There was zero time to get acquainted with the gang, some I knew from various wine events and some I was meeting for the first time, as everyone arrived from various far-flung points in Ontario to our first port of call at Exultet Estates and our attentive hosts, Lia and Gerry Spinosa.

If you are unfamiliar with the wines from Exultet, you are missing out on some of the finest wines made in The County. With vineyards first planted in 2004 and nurtured on limestone rich soils in view of Lake Ontario, Exultet has managed in a short period of time to collect consecutive gold medals at the Ontario Wine Awards and twice earned the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Ontario Wines. And they achieved this with no previous experience in farming when they purchased the farm. It was the couple’s willingness to experiment with different styles of winemaking techniques from the soil, climate, and geography to produce extraordinary wines, unique in quality and expression.

The original owners of the farm were the Striker family, United Empire Loyalists, who from the early 1800s operated a dairy farm and apple orchard. In 1870, the milk from the cows was used for cheese production. Operations continued until 1956 when the building was abandoned. In 2011, the Spinosas had the building historically designated and now the former cheese factory houses all of Exultet’s production. It’s a tiny facility and the production is small, but up and down the portfolio, the wines speak for themselves.

A grand tasting awaited us upon arrival as Gerry Spinosa took the lead and Lia assisted in making sure glasses were charged and appropriate precautions were taken in the seating arrangements.

The last (and first) time I visited Exultet was back in 2014 after the Blessed Chardonnay 2012 had won Best Oaked Chardonnay over $20 at the Ontario Wine Awards for the 4th year in a row. It blew me away, and when I reviewed it, it received one of the highest scores I had given out at that time. So, imagine my surprise and big smiling face when Gerry Spinosa treated us to his last bottle of the Exultet Blessed Chardonnay 2011 to taste beside the new 2019 version.

Both versions of the top Chardonnays were mind-blowing, with the 2011 rife in a pure saline quality, still fresh pear, integrated oak, lemon toast and an incredible vein of still developing minerality. It was complex, layered and rich on the palate with sweet toasted vanilla, spice, flinty minerality for days, integrated tree fruits and a such depth and precision through a finessed finish. Such a treat to taste this beside the 2019.

Asking Spinosa how he builds the Blessed Chardonnay and he plays it coy: “It’s just barrel selection. I don’t now, I just like it. It’s like how did I choose my wife, I don’t know, I just liked her.”

Here’s what we enjoyed from the Exultet tasting:

Exultet Blessed Chardonnay 2019 ($70, 95 points) — The nose shows pure and rich pear, golden apples, lemon curd, flinty/wet stone minerality, a floral tinge, elegant oak spice and a subtle savoury note. It’s fleshy, yet maintains poise in its approach to the dense pear/apple/quince fruits on the palate and is joined by layers of elegant spices, wet stones and lemon tart with an impressively finessed and long finish. Such a beautiful and irresistible Chardonnay, even at the $70 price tag. Based on the 2011, this can improve for 8+ years.

Exultet Kuncklehead Sparkling Apple Wine 2018 ($29 for 750 mL, 88 points) — There is a lovely saline quality to this fresh and lively apple-wine sparkler with bin apple and subtle citrus notes on the nose. There is light effervescence on the palate with a creamy feel, golden apple flavours and a crisp, dry finish.

Exultet Skin-Fermented Pinot Gris 2019 ($40, 88 points) — This orange-style Gris was fermented on the skins and has a nose of marmalade, herbs, mature peach, spice and mulled berries. It’s bright and juicy on the palate and super dry with orange zest, dried berries, citrus rind and a perky finish.

Exultet Mysterium 2020 ($55, 92 points) — A unique white Pinot Noir that shows only a subtle copper colour in the glass with a nose of earthy red berries and lifted floral notes. It’s rich and savoury on the palate with brambly raspberries, citrus zest, lovely texture and length through the finish.

Exultet cruX Estate Pinot Noir 2019 ($55, 92 points) — Such a bright nose of tart cherries, violets, wild raspberries, minerals and light toasted oak spices in a clean and pure style. Oak plays a larger role on the palate adding depth and complexity to go with the full range of fresh red berries, crunchy cranberries, earthy notes and finesse through a long finish. Can age 3+ years.

Exultet Royal Road Recipe Pinot Noir 2019 ($65, 93 points) — Such a beguiling nose of field raspberries, tart cherries, earth, mushrooms and integrated spice notes. There is a lovely iron/bloody minerality on the palate with tart red berries, forest mushrooms, tannic structure, spice and depth through a highly finessed finish. Will benefit from some time in the cellar.

Exultet Pinot Noir Beloved 2019 ($75, 93 points) — There are two wines that stand tall above all the others in the extraordinary Exultet portfolio: The Blessed and the Beloved. This top Pinot Noir at the estate has a beautiful nose of lifted and perfumed red berries, floral notes, elegant oak spices and underlying earthy notes. It has depth, power and richness on the palate with brambly raspberries, dark cherries, cassis, fine oak spices, firm tannic structure, such beautiful spice and a long, freshening finish. Lots of life in this wonderful Pinot and some cellaring is recommended.

Hubbs Creek Vineyard

Bruce and I split from the group briefly to enjoy a quick and delicious pizza patio lunch at Huff Estates Winery, and then it was off to see an old friend at Hubbs Creek.

This was a quiet call on Battista Calvieri, above, viticulturist, winemaker the owner at Hubbs. So quiet, in fact, Calvieri forgot we were even coming. Thankfully, he was driving by and saw us in the driveway and took some precious time out of harvest for a taste and a chat.

Hubbs Creek is a family-run vineyard situated in the township of Hillier, approximately 2 km north of Lake Ontario. Hubbs is clearly focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but always has a few surprises every vintage to expand the portfolio.

The first block of vines was planted back in 2002. Since then, Calvieri has experienced a few ups and downs at the vineyard. “Although we have been successful at producing high-quality grapes, our work has not been easy,” he says. “Growing grapes, especially Pinot Noir, has been challenging due to the harsh winter conditions in The County. Each year we learn how to better prepare our vineyard for winter survival. We find new ways to adapt and modify our sprayers, vineyard layout, vine pruning, hilling up, and de-hilling of buried vines. By adapting our skills to the growing conditions here, we have been able to produce high-quality grapes and wine year after year.”

The vineyard soil is stony and calcareous by nature. It varies in depths anywhere from 18 to 36 inches and lies on a fragmented limestone bedrock. The soil is known locally as Hillier clay loam. It has a high lime content that is ideal for making Burgundian-style wines. It is in the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays made at Hubbs that you taste the soul of The County and discover why Calvieri and others make wine in such a harsh and challenging climate.

On the day we visited, Calvieri was pretty much sold out of the majority of his wines, such is the popularity of them. However, he pulled out a vintage gem for us to taste, the 2010 Hubbs Creek Pinot Noir Unfiltered to compare to the 2017 version. What a gorgeously aged and beautiful wine and such a pleasure to taste it not only with Calvieri, but also to pour the wine later for our group at a homemade dinner at our B&B.

Here’s what we enjoyed at Hubbs:

Hubbs Creek Allegra 2018 ($22, 88 points) — This summer sipper is named Allegra, meaning joy, and joy is certainly what this provides. It’s a blend of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay that’s aged in stainless steel for 30 months. It has a vibrant, fresh nose of peach, melon and lemon-lime zest. It’s tasty and highly quaffable on the palate with vibrant orchard fruits, lemon tart and a crisp, dry finish.

Hubbs Creek Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2017 ($33, 92 points) — Such a lovely nose of tart cherries, wild, brambly raspberries, herbs, lifted floral notes and well-integrated oak spices. It has a savoury edge on the palate with the full range of red berries, anise, oak influence, mushroomy/earthy notes, silky tannins and a long, finessed finish. Classic County Pinot.

Hubbs Creek Pinot Noir Riserva Unfiltered 2017 ($40, sold out, 93 points) — At Hubbs Creek the word “Riserva” is only reserved for those special vintages. The 2017 growing season started off cool and very wet, but gave way to a cool, dry summer. The ideal growing days stretched into fall, creating the perfect conditions for the estate’s second Pinot Noir Riserva. This Pinot was aged for two years in oak barrels (33% new), some of which were from Slovenia for 18 months. This gorgeous Pinot begins with lifted floral notes followed by pretty red berries, mineral notes, fresh tobacco, bramble, anise and oak spices. It shows depth and complexity on the palate with wild red berries, lovely savoury/woodsy notes, cassis, savoury/barnyard accents with spicy bite on the long, finessed finish. If you managed to get any of these limited bottles, lucky you. Try cellaring one or two bottles and see how it evolves. A beauty!

Closson Chase

Our last wine tasting on this trip was arranged for Closson Chase, the winery founded by Deborah Paskus in 1998, who settled upon Hillier Township as the ideal location for her dream vineyard — south sloping at six degrees, good drainage, gravelly soil on a limestone base, approximately five kilometers inshore — on land that was once the Closson family farm, early settlers to The County.

Our group was excited to meet with winemaker Keith Tyers, who began his winemaking career as a vineyard hand in 2003, soon after his arrival in The County. This quickly led to an assistant winemaker position, where he worked under Paskus for several years. After a brief period in wine consulting and sales, Tyers returned to Closson Chase and took over as winemaker in 2015. Alas, we did not get to taste with Tyers, but were comfortably seated at the production facility down the road from the main winery under the guidance of a tasting room associate who took us through a flight of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Here’s what I liked from the tasting:

Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay 2019 ($33, 90 points) — A perfumed nose of lifted pear, wet stone minerality, toasted spices, apple and a fresh saline note. It’s crisp and zesty on the palate with bright orchard fruits, flinty minerality and an electric acid trip through the vibrant finish.

Closson Chase South Clos Chardonnay 2019 ($42, 93 points) — This is a more savoury Chard with a mineral-laden nose, pear, lemon zest, subtle oak and toasted hazelnuts. The fine oak spices show on the palate with riper notes of pear/quince, flint/match stick, lemon tart and apple that shows persistence and length through a lively finish.

Closson Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($36, 91 points) — This estate blend of the two vineyards is the perfect place to start while waiting for the other two Pinots to come around. It shows lovely ripe red berries on the nose with an earthy/savoury profile, forest floor and well-integrated spice notes. It’s quite lovely on the palate with focused red berries, touch of cassis, subtle earthy notes, light toasty spices and persistence and length through the finessed finish.

Closson Chase Stirling Barrique Pinot Noir 2019 ($50, 92 points) — The 2019 Stirling Barrique Pinot Noir is made with grapes grown in the estate’s Churchside vineyard and aged in barrels made from a white oak tree harvested in Stirling, less than 50 km from the vineyard and coopered at Carriage House Cooperage in Picton. It doesn’t get any more local than this! It’s lifted and perfumed on the nose with notes of sandalwood, savoury dark cherries, wild raspberry bramble, cassis and interesting oak spice notes. It’s complex and enticing on the palate with savoury red berries, forest floor and mushrooms that all lead to a lifted and fresh finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Strange Brew Studio

Strange Brew owner and brewmaster Dave Frederick.

It was a long day of wine tasting and just getting to The County from my home in St. Catharines via my friend’s house in Toronto draining. By the end of the day, we had no idea what to expect from Strange Brew. But boy, were we in for a surprise!

Bruce hightailed it down the pock-marked Chase Road from Wellington, dodging pot holes (sort of) and cyclists (sort of) in his obvious city-slicker Mercedes AMG. One wrong move and we become one with the swamps on either side of us. It’s dusk and we have no clue what’s down this wretched road.

We spot a ramshackle old tin-sided barn, a house tucked off to the side and a giant truck trailer on a property on the right side of the road. A rather large gathering of people on bikes were all looking just a little buzzed, laughing and enjoying themselves mightily. We figured this was the place.

You don’t stumble onto Strange Brew, you just have to know it’s there. There’s limited social media, a sparsely populated IG account (@strangebrewpec), void of all the trappings of most beer accounts, and a Facebook page that is equally stingy on info. There is no website and very little info online. But for those who know, they know! And they keep coming back for more.

When owner and brewmaster Dave Frederick opened his doors, people just began arriving to try the truly unique small-batch beers he was crafting. He has a beer and wine background and makes many of his brews in what can only be described as “free-style” approach to making beer. He forages for ingredients close to home (and literally anything and everything will find its way into his creations), buys local hops, uses spent grapes from growers in the area and experiments with small 200 litre batches (though that may have changed since he moved production to the giant transport trailer that now sits on the property). He is about the coolest and most genuine dude you will ever meet.

There’s a table set aside for our gang and in short order Frederick turns his full attention our way. Now, we aren’t beer people, but we are immediately smitten by the beers on the tasting paddles he was spreading out on our table.

The Horn Trip Juniper Pale Ale is made with foraged juniper berries and has savoury taste and a crisp, fresh finish. Absolutely delicious.

Then there’s the Jomo Black Liquorice Root IPA that is all about the anise and full-bodied profile with a subtly bitter finish.

The beer/wine hybrids called the “Ninkasi” series, are named after the Sumerian Goddess of Beer from 4,000 BC. Frederick ages these beer-wines in oak barrels. The Baco version, called Swamp Monkey, picked up those herbaceous notes of the Baco and had complexity and body you would find in a wine.

My absolute favourite was the Echos (yes, spelled like that) sold in an attractive 750 mL bottle and signature hand-made label and based on the Belgium lambic style of sour beers. This will make you a fan of this style of beer, if you aren’t already.

In all, we must have tried 12 different beers from this fascinating brewery in the woods. And each one was unique and delicious.

It was a fabulous way to end Day One of our County adventure.

Note: In Part II of our journey to The County posted next week, we start with a boozy breakfast at Kinsip Distillery, lunch at Midtown Brewery, ciders at the County Cider Company and I fold in fold some new wine reviews from Rosehall Run Vineyards.