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Prince Edward County (August 13, 2010)

The fastest-growing wine region in Canada is not the The Golden Mile in the Southern Okanagan or the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, but Ontario's Prince Edward County.

In 2006 when I published The Wine Atlas of Canada there were fourteen wineries operating there. Today there are thirty-one and more will be opening their doors this year. It's not too much of a stretch to think of "The County" (that's what locals call it) as Sonoma to Niagara's Napa. This pastoral region is less developed and less sophisticated but more rural and bucolic than its established neighbour to the west. However, I think a more apt comparison might be to Burgundy – yes, that Burgundy – because Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two varietals that work best in the County's limestone-laced soil.

Wine Touring in Prince Edward County

Six wineries not to miss

Norman Hardie Winery
1152 Greer Road
Wellington ON K0K 3L0

Rosehall Run Vineyards
1243 Greer Road
Hillier ON K0K 3L0

The Grange of Prince Edward
990 Closson Road
Hillier ON K0K 2J0

Closson Chase
629 Closson Road
Hillier ON K0K 2J0

Long Dog Vineyard & Winery
104 Brewers Road
Milford ON K0K 2P0

Recently, I spent a day blind-tasting Prince Edward's wines with seven other judges for the Artevino Wine Awards, the region's annual competition. I was struck by the quality of the sparkling wines produced here. Since all the wines were served blind I could only assume that they must be from wineries such as The Grange of Prince Edward, Huff Estates and Hinterland. You would expect the white wines from a cool climate region to be fresh and lively but the reds were a revelation, too, since it is harder to ripen Pinot Noir here, let alone Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, than it is in the warmer climes of the Niagara Peninsula. That May 10th evening after the tasting the temperature plummeted and the vintners had to resort to unusual strategies to protect their budding vines from the possibility of frost damage: they set alight bales of hay to raise the temperature in the vineyards and, for those who could afford it, hired helicopters to hover over the vines to create a thermal inversion that would disperse the cold air at ground level.

The area was developed for wine-growing in the mid-1990s by vintners like Geoff Heinrich and Dan Sullivan, both passionate evangelists for Pinot Noir. They and their colleagues tapped into an agricultural tradition that dates back to the settlement by Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. The early pioneers cleared the land and planted barley and hops. A testament to the wealth of those industrious nineteenth-century farmers who supplied American breweries with their hops and malted barley are the fieldstone farm houses and solid brick homes of Picton, Wellington, and Bloomfield.

When the Americans introduced tariffs against these products in 1880, the local farmers turned to green peas and other vegetables suitable for canning. A thriving cheese industry developed because the region could sustain animal feed crops as well as fruit orchards. Even grapes were grown. As early as the 1870s, there was a winery in the town of Hillier whose wines were good enough to take a gold medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Today Hillier is the epicenter of the region's burgeoning wine culture.

Like Pelee Island, Prince Edward County might seem an unlikely wine region – an island, formerly a peninsula, that juts out into Lake Ontario mid-way between Toronto and Kingston. The dredging of the 8-kilometre Murray Canal between 1882 and 1889 effectively cut off the County from the mainland, creating an island of 250,000 acres with an estimated 800 kilometres of shoreline. The land here is essentially a large limestone plateau, rising to its highest point at 150 metres above sea level. The presence of upper-bedrock limestone soil has attracted wine growers who seek to produce the wine lover's Holy Grail – Pinot Noir. The limestone, threaded with shale and clay, makes for good drainage. Much of the county has a shallow soil depth before you reach bedrock, but relatively low rainfall, coupled with the ameliorating effects of the Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario, make it ideal land for growing orchard fruits, tomatoes, corn, peas – and wine grapes.

Still, it's what's above the ground that will intrigue the wine traveller. This is a landscape of undulating pasture land and charming villages with stone farm houses, pioneer barns, and handsome Victorian mansions. The shoreline culminates in one of the greatest natural beach areas in Canada, Sandbanks Provincial Park, beloved of campers and day trippers. The major cluster of wineries is in Hillier Township, where the surface gravelly clay-loam soil, reddish brown in colour, is high in limestone fragments and well drained as a result. The climate here, and in Athol, North Marysburg, and Hallowel, is moderated by the large bodies of water that surround the County, but the temperature is, on average, lower than that of the Niagara Peninsula. The last spring frost can be as late as mid-May, as I experienced, and the first frost in mid-October, giving Prince Edward a slightly shorter growing season than Ontario's other viticultural regions. Winter is the enemy here, and, to protect the vines against polar temperatures, the growers have to bury their vines. They use a trellis system that allows them to lower the bottom wire so they can "hill" up by back-hoeing to cover next year's canes with earth. In the spring they uncover them, a laborious and difficult procedure, but this method allows them to save at least 50 per cent of their buds. Given the difficulty of raising wine grapes in this climate, the growers share a kind of messianic quality, a pride and a loyalty to their unrelenting soil, similar to what you find among Quebec's vignerons.

Prince Edward County created an agri-tourism infrastructure even before it had a critical mass of wineries. They have a winery route, a taste trail, and events such as the Taste of the County that include restaurants, cheese producers, organic growers, and lamb, beef, and pork producers. The whole idea is to draw tourists into the area – and they will come to taste the wine and dine in the restaurants that have attracted celebrity chefs from Toronto such as Jamie Kennedy and Michael Potters. Altogether, Prince Edward County is poised to become a fine wine region that will make an international statement with its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and its champagne-style bubblies. Make the trip down there; it's well worth the effort.




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