NewsNiagara Wine ReviewsTop Stories

The Little Pinot That Could: New wines from PEC’s Last House and Closson Chase

By Rick VanSickle

It’s like the Little Engine That Could, or rather, the Petit Pinot That Could, a Prince Edward County wine that overcame adversity with shocking results.

Also in this Ontario Wine Report: Four Chardonnays from The County’s Closson Chase, just in time for i4C.

Ontario wine

Yes, I’m aware of the Thomas the Tank Engine/The Little Engine That Could  mixed metaphor (blame it on all those years of buying our son endless Thomas stuff), but I see this wine from the Last House Vineyard in Hillier beginning life slowly with few expectations and then picking up steam — “I think I can, I think I can” — even as it climbed a steep hill on the clickety-clack track to the pinnacle of Pinocity in The County.

It was an a-ha moment for me, transcending all expectations, when I tasted the pale red Last House Petit Hillier Rouge 2021 last week as one of several wines from The County on my tasting table. Even the maker of the wine, Last House owner/vigneron Andre Gagne had his doubts that this wine would ever overcome the steep hill it faced.

“They are from the 2021 vintage, the one I have been trying to forget,” Gagne told me. “Six inches of rain in July, then more rain at harvest. Crop load was heavy. Full ripeness was not really achieved. A great ‘learning year’ for a newish vigneron doing his third harvest.”

It’s not like Gagne, above, hasn’t been met with success with his previous two vintages; both his Chardonnays and Pinots have been impressive for such young vines planted from scratch. He could have easily given up on the 2021 vintage and come back strong the following year. “After some soft selling and some pretty good feedback … I have decided to be proud of them as they are unique.”

He calls the two wines Petit Hillier Rouge and Petit Hillier Blanc for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively, so as not to be confused with his premium tier of Pinot Noir called Hillier Rouge Daniel Block and the Chardonnay called Hillier Blanc Christian Block. Those are made from vines planted in 2009 and the block names are registered with the GGO. The “Petit” wines are made from young vines planted in 2018. “So, as the vines are not yet mature, it is meant to be an opening tier,” Gagne said. “I was inspired by ‘Petit’ Chablis in my choice of name. In time, as the vines mature, these wines will simply be called Hillier Rouge and Hillier Blanc, with the block designation.”

The Pinot Noir is stunning, and the Chardonnay is quite nice as well. It was certainly the right decision to stick to the plan to bottle these wines and not give up.

“As I tell my colleagues here in PEC, I have decided to be proud of my 2021 wines, despite the tough season,” he said.

Here are reviews of the two wines and one piquette I tried from the Last House, followed by Closson Chase Chardonnays:

Last House Piquette Tranquille de Chardonnay 2022 ($16) — The piquette from Last House is made from the pomace of the 2022 Electrum (skin-contact Chardonnay), “So, it is kind of double hipster,” jokes Gagne. Piquette, for the uninitiated, is a beverage simply made from water, sugar, sulphites, and the solids left over from grapes once they are crushed. This is unfiltered and unfined and finished with 7% abv. It shows a hazy lemony glow in the glass with notes of grapefruit, apple cider, bready/yeasty notes, and pear skin. It has light effervescence on the palate and is made in a bright and cheery style with lemon zest, fresh stone fruits, leesy/bready notes and fresh through a tangy finish.

Last House Vineyard Petit Hillier Blanc 2021 ($32, 92 points) — The estate Chardonnay comes from a young planting (4th leaf) and the best sample sent to the GGO had brix of only 19.6%, which is just shy of the level required for VQA Prince Edward County designation. So, it became a VQA Ontario wine by default. The fruit was hand harvested in 15 kg bins and then whole cluster pressed. The wine was aged in second fill barrels, lightly sulphured, hand bottled in May and left unfined and unfiltered. It has a pretty, delicate nose of fresh sliced apples, bergamot, stony minerality, elder flower and ever so subtle spice. It has a savoury edge on the palate with crisp stone fruits, lemon pie, flint, integrated spices, and mouth-watering acidity on a lifted finish.

Last House Petit Hiller Rouge 2021 ($32, 93 points) — This estate Pinot Noir was “mostly” fruit from vines planted in 2018 (4th leaf). Unlike the Chard above, this did make the minimum brix to allow for the VQA Prince Edward County designation. The fruit was hand harvested into 15 kg bins before it was crushed and destemmed. The wine was fermented in two, one-tonne insulated bins with punch downs three times a day. Total time in the bins was 21 days, with seven days maceration post cap fall. Due to lack of barrels, the wine was moved to a 1,200-litre steel tank until March of 2022 where it was moved to neutral oak barrels to complete malo and continue elevage. It was lightly sulphured and hand-bottled in May of 2023 with no filtering or fining and finished at 10.9% abv. As mentioned in the intro, expectations were not high for this wine and the paler shade of red in the glass didn’t help matters. But I’ve been down this road with Pinot before and colour and expectations are sometimes only there to completely befuddle you. You know that wine you come across from time to time and you taste it and some sort of bell goes off and you can’t quite believe what you are tasting? It’s those rare moments that make wine so much fun, so interesting and fuels our desire explore the crazy world of wine. This is THAT wine, not the first for a Pinot Noir, but rather another one in a line of many. It’s a rather simply made, non-interventionist wine that shows the essence of County Pinot Noir in its rawest form. The nose, oh my goodness, the nose. Now I’m know Michael Godel, and I mean that in the most respectful way, but smelling this wine is like breathing in the air on a hike through a boreal forest after a summer rain. The truffles, wet decaying leaves, and lovely saline perfume from a fresh, babbling brook surrounded by forest berries and wild herbs, leaves you mesmerized. There is magic on the nose of this ethereal Pinot Noir; fresh, wild, and untethered, delivering notes of wild raspberries squeezed directly into your glass, some tart cherries, a touch of anise and dirt, like fresh turned soil and crushed granite, and only a soupçon of spice. It’s fully integrated as is and caresses the palate with its silky texture and it runs fresh and long all the way down the hatch. I just could not stop drinking this wine; a pure, simple, delicious, and unpretentious County Pinot unlike any other. I know I’ve said a lot here, maybe a bit of hyperbole added for impact, but make no mistake, this is not a 100-point DRC or even the equal of some of the finest PEC or Niagara Pinot Noirs being turned out on a regular basis, but, damn, from a suspect vintage, from a low level of expectation, it certainly makes a bold statement.

Get Last House wines here.

Four Chards from Closson Chase Vineyards

Closson Chase is a terroir-driven winery in Prince Edward County that helped spearhead the birth of the Prince Edward County wine industry. Winemaker Keith Tyers, above, uses European traditions and innovative techniques to create wines from only the finest Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris grapes with the top examples from the single vineyard estate vineyards.

An early advocate for sustainable practices, Closson Chase crafts quality wines that reflect each individual vintage, capturing the distinct qualities imparted by the soil and climatic variations of the year.

Here’s what I liked from the four recently released Chardonnays, three from the County and the fourth sourced from Niagara.

Closson Chase Unoaked Chardonnay 2022 ($32, 91 points) — The grapes are sourced entirely from the estate’s South Clos vineyard. It was whole cluster pressed, cool fermented in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation. This has a fresh, saline opening on the nose with crisp apple and pear and subtle floral accents. It turns richer on the palate with stony/flinty minerality followed by yellow apple, pear, lemon zest, peach, and mouth-watering acidity through a lifted finish.

Closson Chase The Brock Chardonnay 2021 Niagara ($26, 92 points) — The Brock was sourced from the KJ Watson Vineyard in the Niagara River sub-appellation in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The fruit was destemmed, whole berry pressed, and it was 50% fermented in stainless steel and 50% fermented in French oak barrels. A very different expression of Chardonnay than the three County Chards. It has a ripe nose of pear, apple, quince, floral notes, subtle citrus, and integrated spice notes. It’s ripe and juicy on the palate with poached pear, sun-drenched apples and peaches, a subtle reductive note, lemon pie, and oak spices all nicely balanced and vibrant through the finish.

Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($35, 93 points) — This is sourced entirely from estate vineyards — 25% Churchside, and 75% South Clos. It was whole cluster pressed, fermented, then aged in French oak barrels, less than 10% new, and underwent full malolactic fermentation in barrel. Such a profoundly fresh nose of saline and oyster shells with apples, bergamot, white flowers, Meyer lemon and elegant spice notes. It’s vibrant and pretty on the palate, a bit more delicate than the South Clos below, but the stone fruits are on the ripe side, with stony/flinty minerality, a silky texture and a long, fresh, lifted finish. Really nice Chardonnay.

Closson Chase South Clos Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($45, 94 points) — This single-vineyard expression of Chardonnay was whole cluster pressed, fermented, and aged in French oak barrels, 20% new, with full malolactic fermentation in barrel. Love this nose of saline, crushed limestone, pear, lemon tart, bergamot, and seamlessly integrated spices. It has an elegant and creamy texture on the palate with notes of poached pear, warm apple pie, lemon zest, flinty/stony notes, toasted spice accents and a lifted, vibrant finish. Distinctly County Chardonnay at its finest.

Get Closson Chase wines here.