John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: Prince Edward County April 2016

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The annual County in the City tasting brought the best of Prince Edward County to Toronto on April 14th, featuring mostly a mix of the very promising 2015s, that is, the few drops that survived the yield-crippling (but paradoxically quality-improving) May frost, reportedly the coldest May 23 since 1961.  Many excellent 2014s were brought out for the first time, a vintage that looks to have produced the finest wines yet in several growers’ portfolios.

The Vintner’s Quality Alliance now counts 31 registered VQA wineries currently operating in the County (although adherence to the VQA is not obligatory and so the actual number of commercial wineries is higher), up from 26 the previous year. This shows that the PEC wine industry continues to inch onward and upward. In fact, a shortage of grapes is becoming a more familiar refrain, and not just in very low-yielding vintages like 2015.

It’s clear that the region’s unsympathetic climate is a grand challenge for winegrowers – there’s no easy route to financial success, and the top wines are necessarily costly. If you’re thinking it’s time to buy land and plant a vineyard in the County to sell grapes for profit, you’d better check those numbers again, carefully. Yet the results of what makes it to bottle are promising enough, and in many cases are already more than good enough, to justify such a tenuous existence. I can only hope that more people will take up the challenge to exploit one of North America’s best, if least profitable, terroirs. Didn’t somebody say that nothing worthwhile is easy?

During this latest snapshot, by no means comprehensive, of the state of PEC wine, I was happy to see the established names continue to deliver exceptional wines. No doubt they’ve been spurred on in part by increasing competition; a clutch of relative newcomers is now knocking at the door, broadening the range of wines worth tracking down. And while chardonnay and pinot noir remain the flagship grapes, I’d like to throw pinot gris into the ring, clearly another grape to watch in the County. The number of VQA-approved pinot gris’ jumped to 15 labels in 2014, still a relatively small number of wines (just over 100 VQA PEC wines were produced in the same year), but confidence in the grape appears to be growing, and the results are highly encouraging.

Here are some recommended current releases by grape.

Chardonnay

2014 This marks the first vintage for which new winemaker Keith Tyers was in full control, and he appears to have dialled back ripeness and barrel influence in the Closson Chase 2014 Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay ($28.95), favouring a more chiselled and tightly wound style, and less of the cream-custard-style of earlier vintages (also abetted by the cool 2014 vintage). This is terrifically lean, tight and stony, and I like the way this comes together on the palate, allying firm acids with citrus and green peach/pear fruit, and just a light delicate touch of caramel wood spice on the finish which will surely fade into the ensemble in short order (this spent just under a year and a half in barrel, of which less than 10% were new). Best after 2017.

Closson Chase

It’s fantastic see Lighthall Vineyards come on so strong in 2014, with a string of great wines across the board at attractive prices. The Lighthall Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay (25.00) is pure, fresh and stony; if ever there were discussion about the Chablis-like expression of chardonnay from the county, this could be cited as evidence. I love the crunchy citrus fruit, the grapefruit flavours. Enjoy now or short term hold.

2014 is likewise a breakout vintage for winemaker Colin Stanners, having rendered his 2014 Chardonnay ($30.00) from estate fruit into a marvellously chalky, reductive, Puligny-like pure expression of limestone, with no holds barred and no concessions to easy commercial appeal. The palate is tight, even with a touch of residual sugar, but it works here in the rivetingly acid milieu. This could use another 6 months to a year in cellar to flesh and round out. Distinctive, and very promising for the future of this site.

Keint-He continues to sharpen it’s range of both PEC and Niagara wines under winemaker Ross Wise, and this first release of the 2014 Greer Road Chardonnay ($30 est.) is a fine and crisp, crunchy and lively, very fresh expression, very transparent. Wood sticks out a little for now on the skinny frame, but cellar for another 6 months for better integration.

Pinot Gris

PEC pinot gris is gaining in popularity, at least in terms of the number of labels, and Lighthall enters the ring for the first time with the Lighthall Vineyards 2014 Pinot Gris ($25), a real cracker, produced from fruit grown at Huff Estates. It’s open, fragrant, lightly honeyed, barely off-dry on the palate, but with a real sense of stoniness and saltiness, a fine addition to the growing County lineup.

2015 was the first County vintage for former Lailey (Niagara) winemaker Derek Barnett, and it’s great to see such a confident hand at the helm at Karlo Estates after the untimely passing of Richard Karlo. The Karlo Estates 2015 County Pinot Gris ($29) is a very strong release, crafted in somewhat of a richer, fuller, Alsatian style relative to other examples. It’s off-dry and apple-flavoured, quite densely packed (though with only 12% alcohol – still generous for PEC). I like the sense of stoniness allied to ripe fruit, the generous proportions, and the solid length.

County Pinot Gris

The most intriguing and experimental version goes hands down to Stanners Vineyard 2014 Pinot Gris Cuivré ($25), a wine crafted in a style that approximates the ancient, ‘farmhouse’ approach regaining popularity in northeastern Italy known as ramato (‘coppered’ in Italian) or cuivré in French. Skins are soaked for 24 hours before pressing and fermentation, just long enough to give this a distinct copper hue. It’s the second vintage in this style for Stanners, and the result is a pleasantly lean and bright wine, with deceptive length that hangs on and on. Don’t expect opulence; this is more about freshness, and the light, tacky, textural experience from tannins extracted during the maceration, more grippy than rosé, and just on this side of a light red. Stainless steel ageing preserves the fruit and spice, and florality of the variety. It’s an intriguing wine worth tracking down; be sure to carafe before serving to give it air (and not too chilled either).

The most patio-sippable version comes from Huff Estates and their 2015 Pinot Gris ($20), a crisp, clean, fresh, citrus-scented version, closer to pinot grigio than pinot gris in style. It’s an easy-drinking, bright and fresh, aperitif style wine. 

Pinot Noir

Norman Hardie rarely misses a beat, and his 2014 County Pinot Noir Unfiltered ($39 est, not yet released) emerges here with supreme grace, with fine-grained, delicate texture, seemingly light but anchored on solid base of impossibly ripe fruit at just 10.9%. I love the length, the absence of any wood flavor, the terrific mineral saltiness. It’s really in a class of its own.

Frédéric Picard at Huff Estates made a very convincing and competitively priced 2014 Pinot Noir ($25) from estate fruit and vineyards in South Bay, easily the best yet from the Huff. It’s clearly genuinely concentrated and ripe (even if still light in the County style), with finely integrated wood influence (fermented and then aged in 3000l oak foudres) and plenty of succulent red fruit and spice. It’s great to see such quality at the price; just hope it can be maintained, even if that’s wishful thinking.

Lighthall Vineyards winemaker Glenn Symons has likewise upped his game with the 2014 Pinot Noir ‘Quatres Anges’ ($30), the fifth reserve pinot produced at the estate, and by all accounts the best. He describes the 2014 growing season as “perfectly balanced with epic, unequalled ripening, allowing the fruit to fully express itself”. My translation of that from the glass is a light, fragrant, leafy County pinot, really well-pitched, with delicate tannins and silky texture. It’s filled with grace and charm and ready to enjoy this summer.

Glenn Symons - Lighthall Winemaker

And establishing the growing consistency of their range, the Stanners 2013 Pinot Noir ($35) is also worth a look. It’s likewise a pinot for fans of pale and delicate reds, yet this slim wine (11.5% alcohol) nonetheless carries a solid freight of flavour, based on faded floral/pot pourri, dried red fruit notes, sour and fresh. Tannins are ultra-fine and soft, while acids are balanced-bright, sufficient to drive saliva. Only resinous wood notes (from less-than-stellar barrels?), lets the expression down somewhat. Drink now with a light chill.

That’s all for this report. See you over the next bottle.

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John Szabo MS

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