In a perfect world (audible sigh), I’d be lounging on an outdoor patio chair at (say) Waupoos Winery, in Prince Edward County (PEC) with a beautifully chilled Rosé, enjoying spectacular views of Lake Ontario with friends and family. We’d laugh, we’d high-five, and we might even steal a sip or two from each other’s glass (GASP).
On my way home, I’d likely pop into one or two of the 40 odd cool-climate wineries scattered across the County to pick up a vibrant, high-energy “County” Pinot Noir. There’s a good chance one of those stops would be The Old Third, a stunning, old country barn that doubles as a winery, producing one of the most splurge-worthy, aromatically intense pinots anywhere. A second stop might include Keint-he Vineyards where I’ve enjoyed a healthy selection of their mineral-rich, Burgundian-styled Pinot Noirs.
The good news: this ‘perfect world’ scenario is inching closer.
After 90 days of pandemic-induced shutdowns, Prince Edward County’s wineries are open and welcoming guests. Like wine regions around the world, the County is grappling with Covid-19 physical distancing protocols and headcount restrictions. But most patios and tasting rooms, B&B’s and bike rental services are up and running.
According to Duarte Da Silva, Executive Director of the Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association (PECWA), it’s not a minute too soon.
“We didn’t lose any wineries which is a huge relief, but it’s been a rough few months,” he concedes. “Winemakers in the County were hit with a triple whammy: they’d just come out of a long cold winter where there wasn’t much revenue. Then we lost spring revenue which is used to pay for our seasonal workers. And then our temporary foreign workers were banned. It’s been a multi-pronged impact to the bottom line of these small businesses because we are still expected to take care of the vineyards, pay workers and pay our excise taxes. And there’s still wine in the production facilities that needs to be finished, produced and bottled. So all those costs are still there.”
The silver lining in all of this?
The County ‘community’ – a word I hear a lot of – has really come together. My weeks of lurking County Instagram pages (research!) shows a creative and heart-warming mix of collaborations, digital skill sharing, online store support, with the 25,000 locals buying and promoting local.
“Everyone wants everyone to succeed,” says Laura Hayes, Director of Sales at Redtail Vineyards. “This is an amazing farming community and people here support each other. Folks in the restaurant trade came out to help us when we couldn’t get our foreign workers. We’re all in this together.”
You’re going to want to visit. Trust me on this. But if it feels too early you can still order County wine online.
This 2020 pandemic has taught us a LOT of things. Most importantly, the importance of supporting local businesses. For those of us in southern Ontario, these wineries are our neighbours. We want them to survive and prosper. And by all accounts, Prince Edward County is just getting started.
An Overnight Sensation: 0 to 40 wineries in 20 years
“We get just shy of 1 million guests coming to Prince Edward County each year,” says the affable Duarte da Silva. “But to keep us humble I still talk to people who say Prince Edward County? Where is that? …do you mean Prince Edward Island?” he laughs. “Here in the County, we live in this bubble where we think everybody in the world must know us now, and aren’t we great. But a reality check is a healthy thing. It reminds us we still have work to do.”
According to Duarte, there isn’t one particular thing that ignited Prince Edward County’s wine scene. But a trip to the region in a typical spring, summer or fall confirms things are a happenin’ here. The wineries and restaurants are packed, chefs and sommeliers are moving to the County, and new vineyards are being planted. Some call it ‘the Drake effect’. Not the “You used to call me on my cell-phone” hip-hop artist Drake who lives in Toronto, but the hip and happenin’ Drake Devonshire Hotel that ported its successful hotel business model to the County in 2014.
“It’s been a bit of a perfect storm here the last few years,” admits Duarte. “Some call us an overnight-sensation but for the last 20 years, winemakers here have been working really hard to produce world-class, cool-climate wines….wines that could be put up against any international region.” Duarte says a few years ago, the quality of wine hit a certain level and critics noted the similarities with Burgundy limestone. “And then we started to get all this press, and international recognition. And that ties to a lot of the hospitality things going on in the County including the Drake Hotel opening up here.”
Duarte estimates the County reached a ‘tourism’ critical mass about five years ago when there were enough wineries to make it ‘a destination’. And then craft breweries opened up and cideries, with distilleries and meaderies following suit. “The folks at the Drake recognized the county had a lot going for it, and a lot of potential. There’s a thriving art scene and amazing nature here. And you have to remember, people have been visiting Sandbanks Beach since the 1800s and folks from all over Ontario and Quebec have been camping here for decades.”
Prince Edward County also has the distinct advantage of being the new kid on the block. The Niagara wine region with its 60 wineries has been around for 40 years. “I think people are saying let’s try something new and different. And we have a very different vibe than Niagara. And really, for people in southern Ontario, they have two amazing wine regions within a couple of hours so it’s an embarrassment of riches.”
Why Prince Edward County Wines are so Damn Good
Wine is all about geography, and if you’re schooled in the relationship between limestone soil and crisp, mineral-rich wines, then you’re no doubt aware of the cool-climate vinous treasure that is Prince Edward County.
“The County” – the handle used by the locals – is located two hours east of Toronto and three(ish) hours south west of Montreal and Ottawa. Do the math and it all adds up to 10 million people within easy reach! PEC is one of the world’s newest wine regions, having achieved its appellation or VQA (Vintner’s Quality Alliance) status in 2007. Prince Edward County is also the coolest of Ontario’s grape-growing regions, both from a temperature and – many would argue – an experiential perspective.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Cab Franc are the most common vines in the County chosen for their ability to thrive in low heat accumulation environments (Growing Degree Days) and in the short growing season. Hybrid grapes like Marquette and Frontenac can also be found, as can Vidal which is used for sparkling and sweet wines.
What makes PEC so darned intriguing to grape growers and wine critics alike, is the fossilized cocktail of porous limestone, shale and sandstone that feeds and nourishes the grapes. It’s the same underlying bedrock that contributes the elegance and delicious mineral backbone to the wines of Chablis, Champagne and Burgundy.
The Trenton limestone plate – as it’s called by geologists – is the result of retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Covered by Laurentide Ice Sheets, this east-west limestone band makes up a significant part of the famous Canadian Shield.
As they melted, these glaciers littered the landscape with ancient sea beds filled with billions of fossilized shell creatures. If you visit Stanners Vineyard in the south-west corner of the County (award winning Pinot anyone?) you’ll see fossil samples on display and on all their packaging.
For nerdy rock types (like moi), the true magic of County limestone is that its ‘fractured’. “So, it’s not a solid plate of limestone,” says winemaker Colin Stanners. “We’d never be able to farm that. The broken or fractured limestone and shale rock combination gives us excellent drainage and allows grape vines to weave their way deep into the limestone.” Of course, it’s that iconic limestone foundation that gives Burgundy wines their distinct minerality. And while County vineyards are still young (most are only 10 -15 years old), what excites winemakers is the prospect of aged vines and the stunning aromatics, delicacy and concentrated flavours that are produced as vines grow deep into the bedrock.
You’ll find most vineyards in the County in the western Hillier district where a red-tinted clay and sandy soil covers the limestone & shale bedrock. Officially branded ‘Hillier clay loam’, this dirt is anywhere from a couple of inches to a couple of feet deep, with limestone pebbles, rocks and boulders a distinct part of the mix. Those rocks provide the same heat-retention and heat reflection benefits as the famous ‘galets’ in the Rhone Valley (Châteauneuf-du-Pape). But rocky vineyards also wear out tractor tires, bend heavy equipment and can take their toll on human ankles and joints. Grape growers in the County know this shallow clay loam is the dream environment for forcing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay roots deep into that spongey alkaline limestone, but it also makes planting a vineyard a punishing proposition.
Limestone, Latitude & Lakes (LLL)
In addition to limestone, the other defining characteristics of County wine include the influence of latitude and lakes.
Prince Edward County is genuine cool-climate viticulture. It sits at 44 degrees latitude, the same latitude as Burgundy and Oregon. The growing season is short and hot, allowing perfect ripening conditions for classic cool-climate grapes. Wines here guarantee razor-sharp acidity with light-weight alcohol. County wines also age quite well because they have that key ingredient: acidity!
County winters – not gonna lie – are debilitatingly cold for grapevines (and humans), and require a labour-intensive ($$$) vineyard insulation process called ‘hilling’ (fall) and ‘de-hilling’ (spring). Growers regularly lose vines to this mechanical process, which is another calculation to be added to the cost of PEC wine.
Still, if it’s going to be cold, it’s better to be close to a lake…..
With its 800km (500 miles) of shore line, the influence and micro-climate created by Lake Ontario is significant. Prince Edward County’s 125 square miles of land mass is full of glacially carved inlets, bays and sandy indentations. Like an irregularly shaped puzzle piece, it juts into Lake Ontario making it a ‘peninsula’ in most geography reference books. Locals, however, prefer to call it an island which it technically became when the Murray Canal was cut through the land to connect the Bay of Quinte with Lake Ontario.
Whatever the descriptor, the moderating effect of Lake Ontario, plays a major role in tempering the extremes of the County’s continental climate. Most County vineyards are located in areas that receive maximum benefit from lake breezes, creating pleasant temperatures on hotter days and cooler temperatures at night. The ‘lake effect’s’ increased air flow also keeps frost at bay in the spring and extends the growing season. Some say it mitigates the cold winters, but I’m still waiting….
Together, these conditions translate into some amazingly fresh, steely wines that are brimming with fresh acidity, decidedly lower in alcohol (yes!!) and packed with fruit and mineral goodness.
A Weekenders’ Culinary Paradise
But, hey, if rocks and minerals aren’t your jam, perhaps the County’s farm-to-table food culture is.
While Ontario residents are all abuzz about the proliferation of County wineries, PEC’s roots are in family farms.
The United Empire Loyalists who settled the County in the late 1700’s paved the way, profiting from the sale of barley to Americans during and after the War of Independence (1776-1783). Between 1882 and 1996, farmers prospered by selling their fruit and vegetables to canning factories earning the County the moniker ‘The Gardening County of Canada’ (there were over 75 different canning factories operating here!). Many of these 477 family farms have been passed down through generations and it’s not unusual to find young 4th and 5th generation artisan farmers putting their own unique and Instagramable spin on the County farm.
In their latest incarnation, County growers are setting up shop in farmer’s markets and roadside stands across the island. They’re partnering with chefs, restaurants and wineries to create a dream culinary destination that celebrates all things local. Mobile “takeout cuisine” abounds (putting them ahead of the pandemic curve!) in the form of food trucks and pop-up eateries, celebrating the County’s bounty, culture and diversity.
What’s exceptionally cool is the cottage industry, start-up gusto that’s taken root in the County. Young farmers with an entrepreneurial bent are tapping a deep need amongst young millenials to be self-sustaining, environmental stewards. Carson Arthur – the County’s gardening guru and owner of Carson’s Garden & Market has been tracking this trend and you’ll meet him in my next blog post.
Creative food and wine entrepreneurs are launching gorgeous online lifestyle magazines or leading tours and corporate retreats. Still others hosting culinary and canning workshops, or inviting ‘locals’ to help plant and weed gardens in return for food-in-a-basket. Why not get your hands dirty and play a role in a small farmer’s success?
There is definitely something special here. The more I research this slice of heaven, the more potential I see. Of course, in a typical summer, the County would host a series of summer festivals to celebrate “island life” and the food, wine and farming culture that’s the backbone of this community.
But the summer of 2020 is far from typical.
“We generally host three large community events,” explains Duarte da Silva. Terroir which kicks off the summer-growing food and wine season happens in early June, and had to be canceled. Taste which celebrates the summer bounty is scheduled for August 29 and our hugely popular Wassail is in November. For Taste and Wassail, we’ll have to wait and see. We don’t know if there will be a second wave so we are kind of flying by the seat of our pants.”
Who to Visit?
You won’t find much in the way of County wines in the LCBO (provincial monopoly stores) and some of the larger wineries have a presence in other Canadian markets. With an average production of only 4,000 cases most wineries prefer to hang onto their profits, and sell out of their cellar doors (DTC). A few of the regional LCBO outlets (Picton, Wellington, Rossmore) stock a more generous supply through the LCBO’s direct delivery program.
So which wineries should you visit? A study of the 40 some-odd wineries in the area shows an interesting mix of players.
There are the tried and true, terroir driven, Burgundian-focused, heavy-lifting pioneers who trusted in the early soil analysis data and saw gold in ‘them thar hills’. Except in this case, the gold was limestone and the promise of superbly elegant, Burgundy-styled Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Many would count Norman Hardie, Lanny and Catharine Huff and Carolyn Granger among those early pioneers. Dan Sullivan at Rosehall Run, too. The late Richard Karlo, Debrorah Paskus and the early investors at Closson Chase, Hubbs Creek’s Calvieri family, Stanners Vineyard and of course Richard Johnston and Vida Zalnieriunas at By Chadsey’s Cairns. All were sentient, eager participants in the Prince Edward County wine dream that author and renaissance man Geoff Heinrick wrote about in his memoir ‘A Fool and Forty Acres’. Together, they drank the kool-aid – ok, flinty chardonnay – learned on the fly and watched their shared vision come to fruition.
At the other end of the continuum are those wineries pushing the envelope: a collection of playful, innovative vignerons with an entrepreneurial spirit and a young crowd of followers. Their most ardent supporters include the weekend cycling crowd who want new, fresh, unique styles of wine. They’re more experimental in their buying and want a healthy blend of intelligent, sustainable viticulture and experiential learning. Skin contact, Pet Nat, all day Rosé? Bring it on! Wineries like Trail Estates, Lighthall and the newly invigorated Redtail Vineyards come to mind. I’d also add pioneers like Grange, Closson Chase and Karlo Estates to the list who have mastered the art of event management and brand reinvention.
The third pillar is a collection of wineries focusing on hospitality. My heart goes out to many of these ‘estates’ who’ve lost so much of their seasonal revenue with the COVID-19 cancellation of weddings and corporate gatherings. These wineries have creatively combined the County’s food-to-table legacy with quality winemaking. Huff Estates, Waupoos, The Old Third, Grange, Hillier Creek, Sandbanks and Casa Dea have all helped put the County on the tourism map.
So – over to you. It’s time to start planning your wine outing to the County! Don’t forget your face mask and hand sanitizer!
I’ve asked some County locals to weigh in on their favourites….which is my next post. Stay tuned!!
Feature Image: Waupoos Estates Winery. Photo credit: Waupoos Estate Winery