Special Report – Prince Edward County

A Quarter Century In: Prince Edward County & Its Quixotic Wines

By John Szabo MS

In 2017, we bought a derelict 1870s farmhouse in the hamlet of Rosehall in Prince Edward County. Another fool and his four acres. But what “good bones”! What potential! A raw structure with old charisma and new potential, at least for anyone blinded by a vision and in complete disregard of fiscal prudence. But as we settled in to rebuild, living the nightmares we had been forewarned of by countless wise people, I realized I was not the only fool in town. The house is in the heart of PEC wine country – one of the reasons I chose it, naturally – and all around me were equally foolish people, blinded by a quixotic quest to make wine against all logic and financial odds.

The farmhouse before with me in my mask.

Indeed, winegrowing in PEC seems as ill-advised as renovating an old house. The smart thing to do is bulldoze and start anew. In the case of making wine, it’s not to start in the first place, or rather move somewhere else like Chile or California or even Niagara. What made the PEC wine pioneers even more questionably sane than I was the absence of any grand winemaking past to fuel dreams of a renaissance. At least we knew the house had once been the swankiest in Rosehall, built by George Raynor, owner of one of the County’s first gristmills. But PEC had no wine history, no track record, no roadmap to follow, just some sketchy climate data, promising rocks, and a plausibly charming rural landscape.

Two and a half years later and my acute pain is nearly ended; the house completely re-done and comfortably livable. And a quarter of a century since vines were first planted, the County has proved its potential to make fine wines, comfortable on the table with the finest in the land. And there’s so much more to come. I’m awfully glad both I, and the visionaries with their vines, persisted; the results are worth it.

Rosehall farmhouse in November 2019.

And what better way to warm up the house than with a comprehensive survey of the state of PEC wine. A tasting in late January of over 70 wines provided insight and opportunity to put together this special PEC report, along with a PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide. And if you want to experience PEC wine country first-hand, I’ve got a home base for you. Literally! Check out the Rosehall Farmhouse.

PEC tasting at the Rosehall farmhouse.

(Photo: https://lifeaulait.com/)

Jump to:

Quixotic Wines
How The County Kept Its Quaintness
Understanding PEC Wine Costs
Are The Wines Worth It?
Top Grapes
Touring PEC
PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide

Quixotic Wines

It has been just over a quarter of a century since wine grapes were first introduced in Prince Edward County, in 1993. Waupoos Winery, and shortly after Geoff Heinricks’ Domaine La Reine, had embarked on a quixotic adventure, forging into the literal unknown; long term success with grape growing even in the much warmer Niagara Peninsula had not even been established definitively at the time. Prince Edward County was not yet on, but rather beyond, the edge of probable triumph.

It’s this sort of idealistic, somewhat stubborn spirit that has guided the County’s nascent wine industry from the beginning. Slowly but surely, a motley collection of amateur winemakers, ex-sommeliers, artists, and also locals and non-County folk with no previous connection to wine, came, or returned home, to PEC to plant grapes and hope for the best. Easy commercial gain was not the motivation, but rather a mélange of local pride, a desire to forge something new, explore unchartered areas and create something genuinely unique. With a splash of naivety and pie-in-the-sky thrown in, they fashioned an unlikely industry for the benefit of wine drinkers.

Then, as now, there was little flash. Wineries remain mostly unshowy, some little more than a converted barn with a couple of stainless steel tanks and some old barrels. But the earthbound, back country feeling is the County’s greatest charm; Napa North it is not. But tourism is up incalculably. While reliable numbers are hard to come by, the Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce draws conclusions from ever-increasing provincial park visitor statistics. Some 400,000 people came through the gates of Sandbanks alone last year, a number that has grown by three percent annually. Serious dining options are multiplying from Picton to Bloomfield to Wellington, run by ex-big city chefs, looking for a slower pace. But most telling perhaps is the registered rental vacancy rate: just 0.8 percent, or virtually zero. Don’t show up on a summer’s long weekend and expect to find anywhere to stay.

How The County Kept Its Quaintness

The early winemaking adventurers must have been viewed as only slightly less mad than Englishman Guy Salisbury-Jones, who first planted grapevines at what would become Hambledon Vineyard in England, in 1951. Such places were not on the world wine map. But we’ve seen how global warming has had some localized positive effects; vineyard acreage in England has risen exponentially of late to reach an impressive 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) (a little less than Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé combined), farmed by some 400 growers, with production increasing nearly 15 times between 2008 and 2018 to over 15 million bottles.

Yet despite similar warming averages, development in the County has been much slower, for several reasons. Out-measured excitement (hopefulness?) for the first few acres planted by the mid-1990s led to a brief flurry of enthusiasm around the turn of the century, when By Chadsey’s Cairns, Casa Dea, Long Dog, The Grange of Prince Edward, Rosehall Run, Karlo Estates, Closson Chase, Huff Estates, Hubbs Creek, Norman Hardie, and Stanners, among others, broke ground for vineyards. Acreage in this period increased from nearly nothing to over 300 acres in just a few years.

Geoff Heinricks, now retired from the wine industry, but one of the earliest winegrowing pioneers and perhaps the loudest voice sounding the clarion of potential, chronicled the beginnings of the industry in his aptly entitled book A Fool and Forty Acres.

But vineyard expansion soon slowed to more of a trickle as reality set in. Another small burst towards the end of first decade of the 20th century added to the tally (The Old Third, Hinterland, Lacey Estates, Keint-He, Hillier Creek, Exultet, Morandin, Traynor ++), and today, there are some 800 acres planted, shared by nearly 40 wineries, with annual production reported at about 380,000 bottles by the VQA, a minnow compared to the size of the English wine industry.

The major difference between Prince Edward County and Southern England, is, of course, winter; summers are more than adequate to ripen grapes. In fact, during the growing season, PEC racks up an average of 1365 growing degree days (GDDs), a crude measurement used in viticulture that sums up the average daily temperatures above 10ºC (April to October), the temperature at which vines become active, and a rough guide as to which varieties will ripen reliably. England, by comparison, counts barely more than 800 GDDs on average, at the edge of viable winegrowing (Niagara, is actually quite warm at 1590 GDDs).

But what this measurement fails to indicate is just how cold it gets in the County during winter.

Without a Gulf Stream to warm her shores, temperatures in PEC during January-February regularly reach negative double digits. Winter lows of course have no effect on grape ripening, but they certainly have an effect on vine mortality. Anything much below -22ºC or so is enough to kill a grapevine, or seriously reduce its fruitfulness in the following season, both sub-optimal outcomes for a winery business. Such lows are not uncommon in PEC.

Understanding PEC Wine Costs

The first hard lesson learned by County growers was that, in addition to planting the right, winter-hardy varieties (merlot, sauvignon blanc? Forget it. Riesling, chardonnay, or pinot noir? Far safer bets), labour-intensive measures also had to be taken to protect the vines in winter. Burying vines was the eventual solution. It’s relatively easy to hill up vines in the autumn after harvest with a tractor (provided that there is enough dirt between the rows to do so, but that’s another story). But it’s the de-hilling in the spring that causes the most aggravation. It’s all hand work; mechanically removing dirt from around the canes that will bear the summer’s fruit can cause physical damage, slicing off buds or snapping entire canes, thus severely reducing yields. Even spring hands, careless from the cold, can do damage.

Timing has to be just right, too, which is not a simple calculation. De-hill too early and you run the risk of losing vines/fruitfulness to one last unwelcome polar vortex. Too late, and buds may have already started to burst under the dirt, making them especially fragile and easy to knock off. Even with extreme care and some luck, the net result is that average yields in PEC are pitifully low; two tons per acre is considered an abundant harvest. Even in England growers can expect closer to 4 tons, while in Niagara, 10 tons is not a stretch for more commercial wines.

Yet overall farming costs per acre (yearly pruning, sprays, handwork, etc.) are no lower than anywhere else, in fact, they’re much higher than the average, despite the low yields.  All of this makes grapes in PEC particularly expensive. And herein lies the real cause of the region’s arrested development: it’s tough to make money.

England has answered similar financial challenges by betting the farm on emulating champagne both in style and price. The situation in PEC is even more extreme; you can’t produce inexpensive, County-grown wine. Even poor-quality wines are expensive to produce. (Be sure to check the label – most inexpensive wines sold in the County are made from grapes grown outside the region, labeled as VQA Ontario not VQA Prince Edward County, or not even VQA at all).

One relatively new technology appears to have the potential to be a game changer: geotextiles. Essentially blankets for vines, geotextiles have been used in Québec for at least a dozen years to solve the puzzle of their even colder winters and make growing vinifera viable. The tech is starting to spill into PEC. Vines must still be trained very low to the ground, but instead of burying the following year’s fruiting canes, the entire vine is instead put under a tent-shaped textile fastened to the ground. The system takes advantage of geothermal warmth (residual ground heat), and eliminate wind chill, keeping temperatures above the fatal zone.

Geotextile-protected vines at Hinterland (Feb 2020)

PEC growers who have trialled the textiles have reported higher yields (30-50% more by some accounts), as well as a jump start on the growing season. It seems the textiles create a greenhouse effect as spring temperatures start to rise, thereby lengthening the effective growing season. Geotextiles are currently still quite expensive, about $5-6k per acre I’m told just for the material, so few Country growers have made the full investment. But increased yields should offset the capital investment, and perhaps even increase profitability.

Yet at least for now, no major champagne houses, nor large-scale grape growers, nor exclusively profit oriented wine companies are looking at the County as a region to exploit. Vineyard acreage looks set to continue to bubble up slowly, driven by small scale, passionate, quixotic winegrowers who believe that the hardships and low profitability are worth it.

Are The Wines Worth It?

And are they worth it? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. At least from a wine consumer’s perspective. Financial challenges do not mean that quality potential is not high. If it weren’t, everyone would have packed up and gone home long ago. It’s by now quite well established that, at the top end, PEC produces some of the most extraordinary wines in Canada. And in time, the region will surely take on a worldwide reputation that far outweighs the miniscule production.

The advantages of PEC include, ironically, that genuinely cool climate, a status chased by so many other regions around the world today. Only a handful of places can develop fully ripe flavours at low potential alcohol and high acids – it requires a very specific set of climatic circumstances that PEC has. And naturally imposed, low yields help promote that full ripening, a feat that would be near impossible with larger crops, while also leading to wines of unexpected density and extract.

And then there’s dirt, or rather, lack of it. The County is essentially a limestone plateau that juts out like a virtual island into Lake Ontario. During the last glaciation, retreating glaciers managed to scrape off virtually all of the “overburden” as geologists call it, the superficial topsoil, leaving a thin veneer of calcareous clay over pure fractured limestone bedrock. Just ask any farmer who has ever tried to scratch a living from the shallow soils, barely more than 12 inches in some parts. Meagre soils are another factor contributing to low yields (and also why high-density vineyards, with narrow distances between rows, are impractical in many parts of the County – there’s not enough dirt available to scrape up to cover vines in the winter).

County vineyards, low-trained vines, stony soils

All in all, the confluence of poor, stony soils and cool, razor’s edge climate seems to create magic, here as it does in other parts of the world, like, for example, Chablis, or the Mosel Valley, or parts of the Wachau in Austria or North Canterbury in New Zealand. Quality is not uniformly excellent. Many wineries are under-funded, garagiste-style operations, lacking the proper resources to tease out the best from what is an otherwise extraordinary place to make wine.  But those who are on the right path are proving that, quixotic or not, the wines are a more than worthy addition on the worldwide table of fine and distinctive wines.

Prince Edward County: Top Grapes

The numerous challenges in PEC mean that the range of successful varieties is limited. The single most consistent grape yet planted is chardonnay, hands down the calling card of the County. Whether as a still table wine, or even more so as a traditional method sparkling, it’s the grape to bet the farm on, the most regular and reliable variety.

There are several eloquent arguments for pinot noir, which at its best is truly excellent: pale, transparent, fragrant, as savoury as it is fruity. But it’s a much more challenging variety to grow and transform into wine, and results are more mixed. Pinot has a more comfortable place in sparkling wines alongside chardonnay.

Pinot gris is my dark horse; the few examples made are invariably interesting wines, hinting at greatness, or at least uniqueness, often quirky. There’s more to discover with this variety I’m sure.

Cabernet franc, that fine, fragrant, cold hardy variety likewise seems at home in some County corners, capable of delivering that rare style for which the Loire Valley is revered. And beyond these, a few outliers – melon, chenin blanc, gamay and syrah, for example, add to the County repertoire with flashes of brilliance, while vinifera crossings like baco, vidal, frontenac, marquette and others, though winter hardy and higher yielding, and requiring fewer sprays, continue to divide both winemakers’ and wine drinkers’ opinions.

PEC Sub-Regions

Prince Edward County became an official VQA appellation in 2007, an important milestone in regional development and recognition and a logical first step. But it’s a large region, stretching roughly some 50 kilometers from east to west and north to south, and evidently not all areas are equally suitable for wine growing. It’s still too early to talk about sub-regions, but over the last quarter century spatial patterns of success have started to emerge, at least if concentration of wineries is meaningful.

The majority of wineries are in the west end of the County around the town of Hiller in Hillier Ward, which also gives its name to a particular local soil type favoured by many growers: Hiller Clay Loam (or as some prefer to call it, Hillier clay stone). There’s another cluster at the other end of PEC down in Cherry Valley and South Bay, and out on Cape Cressy past Waupoos, where soils are on the whole deeper and more sandy.

But proximity to the lake is a more important factor. Too close is not good; it’s simply too cold. Even into late August the waters of Lake Ontario are chilly, and the winter wind chill by the Lake is merciless. Keen observers driving around the County in late May will also notice that lilacs nearer the lake bloom a good week-ten days later than those further inland, a delay reflected in the vine’s growth cycle as well. And while no point in PEC is very far from water, the most inland areas receive less fall frost protection afforded by the moderating effect of the lake. A few kilometers from the lake (3-5?) seems to be about right, which explains the abundance of wineries in the area of Hiller, especially along Closson Road. Hillier Ward is the most promising front-runner for future sub-appellation, but more patterns will emerge in time.

Touring PEC

Wellington Beach

You’ll get the most bang for your time sticking to the west side of the County around Hillier, where almost half of the region’s wineries can be reached within a 15-minute drive. Winery density is also one of the reasons why cycling tours are very popular in the summer. Greer, Closson and Danforth Roads can be downright congested with bicycles in July and August. But it’s the correct speed at which to enjoy PEC wine. Need a bike? Keith Tyers, winemaker at Closson Chase, and his wife rent cruisers right in the heart of the action on Closson Road: http://www.clossonroadcycles.com/

The wineries down by South Bay (Lighthall, Exultet) are conveniently located on the way back towards Picton after a day at Sandbanks Provincial Park.

Use the buyer’s Guide below to plan your tastings. And for a great general resource on wine touring in PEC, visit the Prince Edward County Winegrowers’ Association website.

PECWA Wine Map (click to download)

PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide

The following wines are recommended based on a large (but not fully comprehensive) tasting of nearly 70 PEC wines in late January. Notably absent were The Old Third (sold out), Lighthall, and Exultet, but overall it was a solid representation of the state of the County.

Click here for the full list of all wines reviewed. Remember to click  [x] Show Wines With Zero Inventory, as these wines are NOT available through the LCBO.

Click on ZERO inventory

PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide: Sparkling

93 Rosehall Run Stardust Brut Cuvée 2011 $49.95

Classic traditional method bubbly (55% chardonnay and 45% pinot noir), dry and richly flavoured, expansive, with impressive length and depth, and barrel ageing complexity. I’d cellar this another 2-3 years for full development. One of the County’s best.

93 Hinterland Les Etoiles 2015 $43.00

Still some time away from prime drinking, but this is top notch traditional method bubbly. The palate is intensely, impressively flavoured, with abundant toasty-yeasty flavours, ripe citrus and lemon curd, pear custard and green apple. I like the way this drives through the mouth; bright acids are moderated by the merest suggestion of sweetness. Excellent length. Give it another year or three in bottle for the maximum expression.

92 Huff Estates Cuvee Peter F Huff 2016 $40.00

A blanc de blanc with pale copper-gris tinge sets up a complex, very mature style featuring plenty of toasty character and predominantly dried yellow fruit on an impressive, expansive palate. Dosage is noted, and comes across on the higher end of the brut scale (though just 9 grams according to the technical sheet), but there’s ample depth and substance to absorb it. ready to enjoy.

PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide: Chardonnay

93 Trail Estate Chardonnay Vintage Two Unfiltered 2017 $35.00

A classic, highly flinty chardonnay here from Trail Estate, distinctive, but attractive. I love the mix of citrus and smoke, the sapid onion soup, the combination of herbs and leaves in the vegetable spectrum. But really the palate shines with its salty-acids tastes, the clever CO2 residue, the umami that demands additional sips. There’s genuine concentration and density, from low yielding vines, and great length. Top notch. Drink 2020-2025.

93 Hinterland L’Imparfait Familia Ramirez Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 $40.00

A new addition to the Hinterland lineup, made in partnership with Dave MacMillan of Joe Beef in Montreal, this minimal intervention chardonnay was made from fruit farmed by the Ramirez Family at their home vineyard in Hillier in prime grape growing country. It has a slightly hazy appearance thanks to no fining or filtration, and the nose is very fine, fresh, citrus-driven with minimal wood impact, and lightly reductive-flinty character in the best quality sense. Crunchy, crackling acids drive across the palate, creating a saline impression. Length and depth are impressive. Drink 2020-2025.

93 Closson Chase Churchside Chardonnay 2017  $44.95

The palate here is thick with extract, ferrying genuine density from low-yielding vines, and length is excellent. I love the mix of citrus and lemon curd with that subtle old cinnamon-oak flavour. Acids are comfortably ripe although crunchy and fresh, and lees play their role of tempering and moderating the limestone sizzle. Excellent length. Drink 2020-2027.

93 Norman Hardie County Chardonnay Unfiltered 2017 $45.00

Quality wood, quality reduction… this is professionally made wine in the best sense, ambitious. With this 2017, Hardie is absolutely back on track, arguably his best County Chardonnay to date. I find it exceptionally well balanced, neither overly flinty-reductive nor oxidative, finding an ideal milieu. Even after two weeks in an opened, mostly consumed bottle, it has barely moved, speaking volumes for its potential longevity. Drink or better yet hold into the early twenties for maximum complexity, or cellar deep into the late twenties.

92 Huff Estates South Bay Chardonnay 2017 $30.00

A slightly cloudy appearance (unfiltered), leads into a terrific nose with high complexity, and a palate that delivers equally high intensity flavours. This is a finely crafted chardonnay with a long life ahead of it, irresistibly sapid and saline, driving additional sips, expressing this cool climate and stony soils of the County to a “T”. Drink 2020-2026.

PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide: Pinot Noir

93 Stanners Vineyard The Narrow Rows Pinot Noir 2017 $45.00

Produced mainly from the oldest vines on the Stanners property planted in 2005, in particularly high-density plantings, hence the “Narrow Rows”. The tightly spaced vines allow less airflow, resulting in slightly higher canopy temperatures and more disease pressure, also a challenge to hill up in winter (there’s simply not enough soil between the rows to easily cover the fruiting canes). But the challenges appear to be worth it. This is a fine, perfumed example, savoury, earthy, fresh but darker fruit scented, very spicy, old wood-inflected, nicely complex. And the palate really shines with its perfectly pitched, mid-weight balance, firm but fine tannins, and very good to excellent length. There’s an attractive, smoky drift here, added to the saline twang that drives additional sips. A fine representation of County terroir. Drink 2020-2025.

92 Trail Estate 2018 Pinot Noir Vintage 3 Unfiltered $55.00

Evidently serious wine here off the top, aged in a mix of barrels (a quarter each of new, 2nd, 3rd fill and older neutral wood), it shows a mix of dark berry fruit and plenty of smoke, spent coffee grounds, and some swarthy underlying black tea and vegetal character. The palate offers resistance and density, light but very tightly woven tannins; the finish bleeds into bitter chocolate tones, but all in all the ensemble flows seamlessly. Very fine length. Give it another year in bottle before enjoying, then drink 2021-2026. Tasted January 2020.

92 Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2017 $45.20

A typically light and delicate, silky, beautifully transparent County pinot here from Hardie, from a vintage that is proving to be far better than first expected, after a challenging season. But tough vintages highlight both the top vineyards and the most competent winemakers, evident in this detailed and finely crafted example. Cellaring into the mid-late twenties should be risk-free.

92 Closson Chase South Clos Pinot Noir 2017 $49.95

Fairly deep colour in the County pinot spectrum, this has ripe, concentrated fruit to match. The palate is succulent, quite dense, saline, saliva-inducing; a sheer pleasure to drink. Length and depth are really quite excellent. Lovely, dusty texture, a wine of terrific finesse, fully umami-driven. Drink 2020-2025.

91 Rosehall Run JCR Pinot Noir 2017 $39.95

Produced mostly from Rosehall Run’s North Block, the oldest pinot planted in 2001 and 2002, this is a light, delicate pinot, accurately representing the region, with less oak and more transparent, savoury fruit than earlier vintages. The palate is suave and silky, with light, silky-dusty tannins; concentration and low yields are evident. Drink 2020-2025.

PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide: Other

90 Grange of Prince Edward Estate Grown Pinot Gris 2017 $27.00

With its deep orange colour, this skin contact pinot gris also delivers an intriguing, tonic mix of cold vegetable bouillon, iced tea, dried lemon and papaya, not typical flavours to be sure, but certainly intriguing. You’ll have to embrace bitterness to fully appreciate it; it’s a gastronomic wine high on the umami spectrum, also lightly astringent. The saline twang on the back end really brings it home. Don’t expect anything remotely similar to mainstream, pinot gris, but embrace its idiosyncrasies. Drink 2020-2023.

90 Stanners Vineyard Pinot Gris Cuivre 2018 $28.00

Three days of skin contact before pressing and fermenting give this wine its copper tinge (cuivré), almost rosé in colour. The nose is still quite reduced, (cabbage, onion skin), but the underlying fruit, lightly dried, yellow and orange, has much to say. Be sure to carafe before pouring, or consider cellaring another 2-3 years. Drink 2020-2023.

PEC Wine Buyer’s Guide: Top Value

91 Casa-Dea Chardonnay Reserve 2017 $26.95

Perfectly dialed reduction gives this a fresh mineral oil profile, an essence of liquid limestone that rides over properly tart citrus fruit, even though fruit is very much a minor feature. The palate is crunchy and tight, with palpable chalky texture and saliva-inducing acids, while the depth and length are certainly impressive. This is very solid wine, with an almost painful level of mineral intensity. I’d tuck this in the cellar for another 1-2 years at least. Drink 2021-2025.

90 Keint-He Portage Pinot Noir 2016 $25.00

This is a very pretty, light, delicate pinot, very fresh, pure red berry scented, engaging, drinking well now or hold short term. Serve lightly chilled.

89 Traynor Pinot Noir 2016 $25.00

A dark, swarthy, earthy, herbal pinot noir, with bitter black tea, truffley flavours, light but grippy tannins and tart acids. It’s not an “easy” wine, but represents the territory well. Turns savoury-umami-driven on the finish in a good way, and opens nicely in the glass. Carafing recommended. 11.4% alcohol. Drink 2020-2024.

89 Casa-Dea Dea’s Cuvee 2017 $20.95

Pure County chardonnay and pinot noir made sparkling in the Charmat method (cuve close, like Prosecco), Dea’s cuvée delivers a mix of tart red fruit and rhubarb crumble, cherry compote, crushed dried leaves, and similar in an oxidative expression with fine complexity in the category. I like the flavour expansion on the back end, and especially the seamless effervescence, nicely melded in the dry ensemble.

88 Karlo Estates Winery Property Grown Marquette 2018 $24.00

One of the more successful hybrids in the County, this Marquette has a bit of an Italianate nature, northern Italy-Piedmont in particular, with its gently lifted, shoe polish, zinc oxide character, and firm-fresh black berry/black cherry fruit reminiscent of barbera and dolcetto. It’s marked by the high acid, low tannins of the variety, and while depth and length are ultimately merely good, there are plenty of reasons to pull this out at the table – a versatile, gastronomic wine. Drink 2020-2023.