Locals Drink Local: The Hidden Gems & Must Try Wines of Prince Edward County

There was a great advertising campaign in 2017 for the high-speed Eurostar train that connects London to Paris. The message read: “Ask a local, not your phone.”

The campaign encouraged travellers to ditch their technology and tap the local knowledge and passion of the community.

Paris isn’t in the cards for most Canadians living a post pandemic existence – but, hey, who needs France when you’ve got Prince Edward County!!

PEC Opens - visitthecounty
Visit the County. Photo credit: @visitthecounty
Cathy Doyle - Lighthall Vineyards
Deliciously rustic. Photo credit: Cathy Doyle

No one would ever describe the County as glamorous – or glitzy. But real, honest, and genuine? For sure. Quaint, rustic, down-home and authentic? All of the above.

And that – wine lovers – is why locals stay and visitors visit. Talk to a local and you quickly learn this thriving agriculture and culinary community is filled with caring, community-minded people who want their neighbours and the local economy to succeed. “We all cross-promote and support each other here,” is the County mantra I heard over and over in my research.

“Is this part of the ‘talking points’ for all small business owners in the County?” I ask Duarte Da Silva, Director of the Prince Edward County Wine Association. “Nope,” he laughs, “It’s pure County DNA. It sounds cliché but everyone feels like we’re in this together. We all support each other, organically. In Prince Edward County, the locals are locals because of their shared values.”

canoe on beach
Sandbanks Provincial Park. Photo credit: @visitthecounty
dogs at Three Dog Winery
Two wine-loving dogs at dog-friendly Three Dog Winery. Photo credit: @visitthecounty

And lucky you….these locals are only too happy to share a few gems – like the best cycle trails, beach destinations, farm stands and food trucks. They know the dog-friendly wineries, the most exciting wine and craft beer producers and the patios with the best views of the lake.

Want a flinty, fresh apple, zippy Chardonnay with the signature limestone character that Prince Edward County is quickly becoming famous for? Or an elegant, beautifully perfumed Pinot Noir, packed with red-fruited raspberry/cherry aromas and sweet wood spice?  Or perhaps you’re on the hunt for a crisp mineral-laced Pinot sparkler, or a fun, fruity, floral Rosé?

Ask a local.

The County may not have the glamour of French wine estates but what it does have is exceptional wine and food, and a community of forward-thinking artisan producers who respect the terroir and potential of the land.

You can read all about the growing wine industry and bottled optimism in my first post on the County here.  If there’s one message from my deep dive into the wines of Prince Edward County, it’s the ‘greater good’ attitude that prevails: respect the land, celebrate the bounty and promote ways of living that ensure a sustainable future.

Who doesn’t love value-driven wine!

There’s never been a better time to #supportlocal #buylocal and #drinklocal. With that in mind, I’ve asked a few folks to weigh in with their Prince Edward County wine recommendations. Pack your face mask and sanitizer, and park your phone. It’s time to discover some of the local gems!

map PEC
Map Credit: Vaughangroup.ca
Carson Arthur
Local luminary and nature lover Carson Arthur in his garden centre on Wilson Road in PEC. Photo credit: Carson Arthur Garden + Market

Carson Arthur’s Wine Picks: Domaine Darius and Redtail Vineyards

Carson Arthur is equal parts celebrity and gardening guru.

The PEC resident is one of Canada’s  go-to gardening experts having hosted  Homes to Win, Green Force and Critical Listing – all on HGTV – and the Room to Grow series on the Discovery Channel and Global. He’s a celebrated author and fixture on County radio station CJBQ, where he hosts the 8-10am morning gardening show Take it Outside.  Six years ago, he decided to shift focus from landscaping to helping people grow their own food. “All the research indicates young people want to be more self-sustaining. And that was before the pandemic!” he exclaims. “I’ve worked with Century 21 and their research shows buying a house used to be all about LLL – location, location, location. Now young homeowners care more about community, having a garden and growing their own food.”

With an eye on that farm-to-table future, in 2019 Carson opened  Carson’s Garden + Market – a garden and outdoor lover’s refuge on Wilson Road, north of Wellington. The store focuses on environmentally-friendly living and growing food and vegetables. Because the County is all about eating and supporting local, Carson added a patio and invited food truck owner Kyle Jones of Flossie’s Sandwiches to set up shop outside the market.

Carson, Flossie's and Gillingham
The Wilson Road Team in PEC: Gillingham Breweries, Flossie’s Sandwiches, Carson’s Market + Garden drinking Domaine Darius (no doubt). Photo Credit: Carson’s Garden + Market

Now, with newly opened Gillingham Brewing Company short steps away, garden centre customers can enjoy an original triple mix: Carson’s Garden Market, a scrumptious Flossie’s sandwich, and a chilled Gillingham beer.

Carson’s favourite Prince Edward County wineries are – not surprisingly – in his hood.

Just down the road from Carson’s Market is Domaine Darius, a laid back, low-pretension winery run by winemaker Dave Gillingham and his wife Joni (and yes, parents to the Gillingham Brewing Company brewmasters, Andrew and Christine Gillingham). The winemaking Gillingham’s moved to the County in 2014 from Newfoundland buying 50 acres on Wilson Road. Dave, a grandmaster amateur winemaker (the highest ranking you can get) and professional Canadian wine judge – has been making wine for over 40 years. Carson says Domaine Darius’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are ‘knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark’ personal favourites.

Domaine Darius
One of those hidden gems in the County. Photo Credit: Domaine Darius
Carson selections
Carson’s faves: Domaine Darius Rosé and Gewürtz and Redtail Gamay Rosé. Photo credit: Carson Arthur

“They have very loyal customers and I know during Covid they’ve been doing a lot of curbside pickup,” says Carson. A quick call to winemaker Dave confirms they’re open for sales, but the tasting room remains closed.  “We may open our gardens to ‘by the glass’,” he says.

With only 5.5 acres of vineyards and small-batch production, Carson says customers need to move fast on these wines. “You’ve gotta try the Gewürtz,” raves Carson, who studied wine in France. “It’s pure summer…. fresh, fragrant and spicy with that delicious County minerality.”

Further west in Prince Edward County, nestled between Hillier and the town of Consecon, is Carson’s second recommendation – Redtail Vineyards. “Lee Thomas Baker is one of those young winemakers who’s putting his own spin on things,” says Carson.

Baker has plenty of cool climate viticulture and winemaking experience and a passion for minimal intervention winemaking (see his latest Act Natural release). He’s worked at Malivoire, Rosewood, and Lailey Vineyards in Niagara. Most recently he was at Burgundian-focused Keint-he Winery in the County.

Redtail 2020 Lineup
Redtail Vineyards. Photo credit: @redtailvineyards
Lee Baker Redtail Vineyards
Viticulture Manager, Head Winemaker and Super-Dad Lee Baker hauling Burgundy-esque ‘fractured’ limestone and shale rock out of newly planted Redtail Vineyards. Photo credit: @redtailvineyards

In 2019 he moved to Redtail, where he dropped a bomb on his new Dutch bosses. Several years of neglect (transitioning to new owners) and water-logged fields, meant they’d need to rip out all the vines and replant the vineyard. With another 20 acres to be planted on a newly purchased property close to Hillier, Baker will be a busy guy.

Lee Baker has no estate fruit from his PEC vineyards to make wine (for now), but he’s been busy managing collabs, sourcing fruit from Niagara growers and working with a local cidery, Fieldbird.  According to Carson, collaboration is the lifeblood of the county. “You support your peeps,” he says. “That’s the County way. People here work really hard and we all want them to succeed.

“I really love his Redtail Gamay Rosé,” says Carson. “It’s the perfect bbq wine for ribs and chicken. And cuz he’s a big sustainability guy, his whites – Pinot Gris and Act Natural Pinot Gris –- are perfect patio sippers.”

Geoff Craig’s Wine Picks: Trail Estates, Morandin Winery, Lighthall Vineyards & Exultet Estates

Geoff Craig covid consumption
Geoff  Craig and Susan Jackson Craig at their Smith’s Bay cottage in the Waupoos wine district enjoying a mid-day glass of County Chard. Photo credit: Geoff Craig

Geoff Craig spent his youth camping at Sandbanks Provincial Park and attending Queen’s University in neighbouring Kingston, so he’s always been – as he describes it – rooted in the community.

When he decided to move to the County, his first impulse, err…instinct, was to buy a winery.  “After getting sound advice from Norm Hardie, I realized a complete lack of vintner experience and other winemaking skills, and a strong desire to avoid financial doom, necessitated a change of direction. So instead I invested in a lovely property on Smith’s Bay near Waupoos, and perfected the cultivation of poison ivy.”

The recently retired Chief Marketing and Development Officer for the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Toronto has been riding out the pandemic in the County with his wife, Susan, and two daughters.

Geoff says there are many things about PEC that he loves: the natural harvest from the land (wine and food), the young entrepreneurs working on establishing new businesses, and the overall kindness of the true locals who generously share their local stories and goodwill. “It’s just a different vibe out here,” he says, “especially without the tourists!”

Since moving to the County, he and his wife Susan go out of their way to support the local economy. “Basic things like haircuts, winter tire changes, concerts at the Regent to supporting local artisans – art, sculpture, pottery, and local restaurants (especially in the off-season) and events – local fish fry, volunteering to sell pies for charity. Then there’s the flowers, produce, farm-fresh eggs (the only way) wine and beer. The bounty of the county is fantastic and it dictates what’s for dinner during harvest season.”

Geoff says during their 3-month Covid lockdown they’ve had the pleasure of home delivery from local wineries and breweries. “I’m embarrassed how my consumption has changed (ahem: increased) but I’m proud that it’s almost 100% local. We have also signed up for CSA’s (community supported agriculture) where we’ll pick up a weekly bundle of local veggies and flowers from different vendors. A local start up (Locazoa) is building the digital platform and delivery service to help the growers connect with consumers.”

Geoff Craig PEC pics
County faves. Photo credit: Geoff Craig

And his favourite wines?

“I lean towards Chardonnay – not the oaky, buttery bombs that can overwhelm – but County Chards that have a style that’s minerally, flinty, citrus-crisp with nice acidity.”

“And Pinot Noir which apparently leverages the limestone terroir and cool climate here that’s similar to Burgundy. I’m also cheering for the emerging Pinot Gris since Alsatian Pinot Gris are at the top of my list.”

Geoff cautions that PEC wines are not inexpensive. “But it’s worth it when you hit on ones you like and recognize you’re supporting your neighbours who operate in a very high-cost growing scenario.”

“I’ve decided to recommend two wineries and give high praise to two others – all for Chardonnay. The first is my current rave – Trail Estate Chardonnay Vintage Two Unfiltered 2017 who have now twice delivered cross County to my doorstep.  So much for appropriate aging. This is an award winner with great structure and acidity. The challenge is to keep the second case I bought for aging quarantined from the corkscrew!”

“My second choice is a hidden gem and an up-and-comer-winery Morandin Wines. I was very taken with the 2016 County Chardonnay. It’s been awhile since I tasted it and I’m getting thirsty just thinking about it!”

chris morandin
Chris Morandin of Morandin Wines shadowed Norman Hardie for years before stepping into the limelight with his 2016 vintage.

A relative newcomer, Chris Morandin planted grapes in 2009 and was originally selling them to Norm Hardie. Everything he did was to Norm’s exacting standards. In 2016, he sold half his grapes and used the other half to make his own wines. And it was a winner, scoring 92 points from David Lawrason. “The wine has great structure, citrus, apple, and like the Trail a hint of oak. I tried to buy some of their Pinot, too, after having it in a restaurant but it was sold out!”

Geoff’s other choices are on the east side of the County, so much closer to his Smith’s Bay home.

“First there is Lighthall Vineyards which not only makes a great Chard but the tastings are paired with their homemade cheeses making for a fun and delicious experience! I’ve had all of their Chardonnay bottlings, so the picture I’m sharing is of their Pinot Noir, which I also highly recommend.”

“My final choice is Exultet Estates who consistently make small-batch exceptional wines. They have perhaps the most humble tasting room, which belies a great family making exquisite and sophisticated wines. Their wines are a real treat and can rival the best in the County, but get your wallet ready!”

Hops & Heifers Wine Picks: Norm Hardie and Huff Estate’s Canned Wines

 To be honest – and no offense to Carson – the most interesting and hospitable celebrity in the county may be a water buffalo named Julius.

Hops and Heffers
Rod Hadath gets licked by a super-affectionate Julius on the Hops & Heifers Water Buffalo Safari Tour in the County. This is a definite “not-to-be-missed” local gem. Photo credit: hops & heifers
Julius and Lauren
Julius the snuggly water buffalo….Lauren’s turn. Photo credit: hops &heifers
Hops & Hiefers WB rides
A happy customer sits on a mud-caked water buffalo. Photo credit: hops & heifers

Julius is the resident bull at Hops & Heifers, a water buffalo rearing and hops growing farm in the County. Owners Rod and Lauren Hadath offer intrepid, hour-long safari tours of their 100-acre farm from the back of a vintage safari truck. Guests are invited to pet or ride a (mud-caked) water buffalo – or, they can admire the herd from a distance. Before guests pet the buffalos, they have to be lured from their mud ponds, where the buffalo like to chill.

To be clear, these are NOT the famed/ferocious African Water Buffalo, Lauren assures me. These are kind, extraordinarily affectionate creatures. “Mostly, they’re like dogs,” she laughs. “They just want to have their bellies rubbed.”

The couple moved from Niagara and bought Rod’s grandparents’ farm six years ago as a way to keep it in the family. Today, they pasture between 40 and 50 female ‘river’ buffalos year-round so they can be milked for their delicious cheese. “Our herd originates in Italy where 80% of their milking herds are water buffalo.” So all that rich, delicious mozzarella and ricotta cheese we love? “Yup, it’s probably water buffalo. It’s richer and higher in fat than traditional cow’s milk,” explains Lauren.

Hops & Heifers has partnered with the Ontario Water Buffalo Company in Stirling. Located just north of the County, they raise some 700 male ‘swamp’ buffalos, producing high-protein natural meat products including steaks, roasts, sausages, burgers, jerky and more. “We call them our mother-ship”, says Lauren. “Everything we know about water buffalos we’ve learned from them!” Rod and Lauren’s girls are ‘milk and pet’ only. They sell the cheese and meat from a small store in their home and use the water buffalo tallow and milk to make all-natural soaps.

And because everything in the County is a virtuous circle, it’s worth noting the water buffalo’s food – aka spent brew mash – comes from (drumroll) Gillingham Brewing, and the meat and cheese is served up at – you guessed it – Flossie’s Sandwiches.

Lauren says the hops part of the farm is still a work in progress. “It’s an incredibly labour-intensive process to plant and grow hops and it usually takes three years to grow a good crop. This is year three for us so fingers crossed. Last year was too dry to get much of a crop but we were able to sell the oil for hop-scented soaps, lip balm and body butter.”

Huff Estates canned wine

So what local County wines do these busy farmers drink and recommend?

“I’m the wine-lover on this farm,” says Lauren, “and I have three go-to favourite producers. The first is Norm Hardie’s Riesling. It’s amazingly rich, and delicious. I also really like their Pinot Noir but I like it best when someone else is serving it.  In general, I prefer white wines, but if I’m going to drink red, that’s the one. Another favourite is Hubb’s Creek Pinot Grigio – it’s really citrusy and refreshing.”

“My all-time favourite – and this sounds super non-classy – is Huff Estate’s wine in a can. The reality of our weekend safari lives is we’re always on the move. With a can I can throw it into the cooler and I’m not drinking a whole bottle.” Her go-to can is Huff Estate’s ‘Unwind White’. “It’s a fun name and it’s actually really good. The All Day Rosé is also pretty yummy,” she says. “For busy people and light drinkers, I think canned wine makes a lot of sense.” Lauren says she tries to buy local with all her products. “I think that’s what makes this community so special. Everyone supports each other. It’s pretty cool to see.”

Cathy Doyle and Graham Rose
Cathy Doyle and Graham Rose – Wellers Bay residents and local wine-lovers pouring for the neighbours. Photo credit: Tom & Chesia Livingston

Cathy Doyle ‘s Wine Picks: Stanners and Lighthall Vineyards

Cathy Doyle has been my wine-loving sidekick through a few wine courses and harvests (Paso Robles and Bordeaux). She and her husband Graham Rose bought a cottage on Wellers Bay, just outside of Consecon in 2011. “I wanted a fuller out-of-town experience than just being AT the cottage,” she says. “The cycling opportunities, the community in PEC and the wine industry were all really attractive to me.”

As a teenager, Cathy had a friend with a cottage on East Lake, so she knew the County from frequent visits. “Dances at Martin’s at the Outlet, fries from The Tambo on West Lake Road, farm stand vegetable pickups, the Mushroom Factory, Emerg at Picton General (lol), strawberry socials at the church in Cherry Valley, visits to Picton for the laundromat, fries at Sandbanks Park, the dunes at West Lake.  I remember driving through Wellington, on the way to the cottage and thinking…..what a hick town! Not anymore!”

Cathy and Colin - stanners
Stanners Vineyard’s super-fan Cathy Doyle and Winemaker Colin Stanners.

Cathy’s top wine pics include Stanners Vineyard and Lighthall Vineyards.

“I’ve always had really knowledgeable pourers when I’ve brought guests to Stanners for tastings,” says Cathy. “It’s always either Mary, or her husband Colin (the winemaker) which is a great benefit. We’ve all been to wineries where someone reads a script which is not helpful.” Cathy is a huge fan of Stanner’s Pinots. “They’re really excellent. They’ve won so many awards. I’ve also happily bought their County Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.”

An added bonus? “I can bike there on the Millennium Trail which now runs across the island. I bike out Stinson Block to Consecon, hop over 33 onto Lakeside, then take the trail east over Consecon Lake (my 2nd favourite part of the trail) to Station Road. Their winery is just west of where the trail crosses Station Road.”

Cathy Lighthall copy
Lighthall Vineyards – in Cherry Valley/South Shore region. A bike-ride away. Photo credit: Cathy Doyle

Lighthall is another favourite winery.  “We learned about Lighthall from friends of friends who are SERIOUS wine people. Lighthall is on the other side of the County from us but a bike-ride away.”

Her Lighthall favourites?

“I love their Chardonnay. The Ramirez Chard is toasty apple on the nose. Lots of acidity and lemon lime flavours. It’s really nicely balanced. 2017 was a flood year, but it was saved by an outstanding September.”

“The bubbles are also nice!  The Fence Pinot Noir Rosé is an excellent summertime quaff.  And I like the Progression because it comes in a ‘Halfsie’.  Excellent to keep in the fridge for spontaneous small celebrations – which have been few and far between the last few months, BTW!.”

Cathy Lighthall
The Progression Halfsie – a Vidal sparkler made using the Charmat Method. Photo credit: Cathy Doyle

Cathy is also a fan of Lighthall’s sheep cheeses which they pair with their wines (maybe call ahead to confirm but for those counting – that’s two recommendations for LV cheese!!).  Owner, head wine-maker and head cheese-maker Glenn Symons buys the sheep’s milk from farmer Stan Sabina who has over 225 ewes at his Phillipson Road property. Lighthall has added a commercial kitchen, storage area and aging room, so Glenn can make sure they have 4 -5 cheeses on hand at all times. You can expect brie, washed-rind, blue, pressed manchego, and feta cheese – “it makes for some really fun and tasty pairings” says Cathy.

Jacqueline Thompson
Jacqueline Thompson (far right) and friends in the ‘before times’ at Waupoos Estates.

Jacqueline Thompson Recommends: Sandbanks, Huff Estates, Waupoos & By Chadsey’s Cairns

Jacqueline Thompson is my financial advisor. In 2015 she sold her Toronto house, downsized to a small condo and bought a property on a scenic, rolling country road just outside the County hub of Picton. She’d been visiting friends in the County for years and knew this was where she wanted to be. “I fell in love with the people, the pride of community and the area’s natural beauty. “I knew this was the right place for me,” she says.

Jacqueline describes herself as a social drinker “I don’t drink wine with dinner – I save all my wine occasions for drinking with friends,” she laughs. She wants readers to know she is definitely not a wine expert. “For me, County wine is about the experience. I honestly don’t go out much once I arrive here but I have a few favourite spots when friends visit for the weekend.

Sandbanks line-up
Sandbanks offerings. Photo credit: Sandbanks Winery

At the top of her list is Sandbanks. “It’s a really friendly place with popular, easy to drink wines – especially their whites,” she offers.  They have a great outdoor setting for wine tasting and a really fun vibe.  I always take guests there as a starting place for the good times to begin.”

She’s also a big fan of Huff Estates.  The owner, Lanny Huff was a chemical engineer before starting Huff Estates in 2004. Like so many properties in PEC, Huff Estates was originally a hop farm. These days the 38 acres is divided into two vineyards and both have the famous limestone-bedrock and clay-soil combo that the County is famous for.

“They have really excellent Rosé,” says Jacqueline. “I normally grab a bottle or two on my way into town. It’s my go-to wine.” Beside the winery there’s the Oeno Gallery. “They have fabulous grounds with modern art installations. Their restaurant is also airy and modern and they have a great inn.”

Huff Estates
Everything’s coming up Rosé at Huff’s Estates. Photo credit:elizabethingold
Waupoos Water View
Waupoos is one of the few County wineries to feature an onsite restaurant. Their farm-to-table menu sources herbs and vegetables from their four-acre garden and all meat comes from their neighbours’ farms. Photo credit: Waupoos Estates Winery

If she really wants to impress her guests, Jacqueline heads to Waupoos Estates. “They have the best view of all the wineries.  It’s fun for wine tasting and everyone enjoys the breathtaking view of Lake Ontario.” Waupoos Estates are the County’s true pioneers. They planted their first grapes in 1993 and opened the winery for tastings in 2001. Located on a stunning 100-acre waterfront property the winery is named after the small town, an ancient Ojibwa name that translates to “running rabbit”.

Chadseys view
A lovely view of the vineyards at By Chadsey’s Cairns. Photo credit: By Chadsey’s Cairns

Jacqueline also recommends By Chadsey’s Cairns, a glorious property and farm that includes a historic apple house, barns looking onto the lake and picnic tables under shady trees. “It’s a small, quiet and intimate winery.  They have some very unique wines with a higher price point.”  She says her clients stay at the bed and breakfast year after year. “And for wannabe winery owners, it’s for sale! But maybe we should discuss your finances first,” she cautions.

Final Note: If you decide to visit, please be sure to buy wine. With COVID limitations set at 10 guests, no-one should be leaving empty-handed. There is no better way to thank a wine maker then to walk out with their product in your hands.

Feature Photo: Buying County wine for my Toronto Neighbours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s