Critical Mass: The Wines of Prince Edward County, Ontario

Explore the County with a WineAlign curated case of 12 different bottles that narrate the current and future story of PEC.

By John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association.

Curated Mixed PEC Case

This past March WineAlign partnered with the Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association to organize a comprehensive tasting of current releases of 100 percent VQA wines from the Ontario wine region. From this tasting, 12 wines were selected by the WineAlign Crü to reflect the current state of PEC wines — and this case is now available for purchase (The 12 bottle case costs $559 plus delivery).

Conduct your own virtual tasting tour of the County or tune up your palate for your next in-person visit with this collection of top winery addresses. From world-beating bubbles, to sharp and saline, genuinely cool climate chardonnay, and fragrant and floral, ethereal pinot noirs, the County has finally reached a critical mass of serious producers and quality wines. PEC has been dripping with potential since first explored for grapevines in the mid-1990s. We’ve observed how the County evolved from a backwater of largely mom-and-pop operations struggling to tame the wild and uniquely challenging winegrowing conditions to a region of hardened, savvy, confident vignerons, many now with a couple of decades of history in the wine library.

Re-focussed specialization, a fine-tuning of techniques, and a shift from running on passion and a prayer to operating a business is well underway.

Read on for a report on the state of PEC wines. Or skip to the List of PEC Wines included in this special box and order one for yourself.

Report: The Wines of Prince Edward County Reaching Critical Mass

By John Szabo MS

The things I’ve learned:

Don’t try and move wet soils.
You can’t build it strong enough for County dirt.
It always rains in the first week of October.
Don’t turn your back on downy mildew.
Don’t turn your back on weeds.
Listen to the guys that are in the vineyard every day. 
Volatile acidity never blows off, no matter what people say.
Sales are hard work.

–Jonas Newman, Hinterland Wine Co.

“If I could do it again, I would be an expert from the start instead of a beginner,” says Tim Kuepfer of Broken Stone Winery, which he established in 2009.

His comment reflects tongue-in-cheek on the steep learning curve of making wine in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. But the curve has been successfully flattened over recent vintages. The challenges of winegrowing in this marginal area have stretched patience and pocketbooks since the first grapevines were planted in the mid-1990s. Growers have faced known unknowns — and unknown unknowns — as abundant as anywhere I’ve seen on the planet. But the patent quality of a recent lineup of wines tasted at WineAlign headquarters vindicates the Quixotic folly of the early pioneers and reflects a maturing industry growing in confidence and competence. It now appears sufficient wineries have moved beyond the beginner stage to collectively produce a critical mass of quality wines, enough to put PEC firmly on the map of established regions in Canada. And the next steps are fine-tuning techniques, re-focussed specialization, and continued exploration of sub-regional differences, all the while shifting from running on passion and a prayer to operating a business.

“We have weathered the storm as far as getting open and stable,” says Jonas Newman, who, along with partner Vicki Samaras, launched the Hinterland Wine Co. with the 2007 vintage. “We have made a bunch of good wine and a couple bad ones, but we no longer run on passion and enthusiasm, but rather professionalism and discipline.” Specialists in sparkling wine, Hinterland has doubled down this year on equipment to improve efficiencies and quality consistency, such as an automated riddling cage, a semi-automated bottling line that cuts bottling time by two-thirds, and a press that doubles current pressing capacity. “There are a million micro things that can make the difference.”

But says Newman: “Perhaps the most exciting piece of equipment is our new disgorging line. It will help not only our wines, allowing us to work with much finer precision and offer a higher guarantee to our customers, but we also hope to offer custom disgorging for other wineries who make sparkling on a smaller scale, and encourage other County wineries to make traditional method wines. And, hopefully, further the conversation about sparkling in Prince Edward County and Ontario in general.”

Newman feels strongly that the County is uniquely suited to making sparkling wine and would love to see more wineries doing it. “I also believe that Ontario sparkling is one of the last great wine values in the world.”

Others, like Burgundy-born winemaker Frédéric Picard of Huff Estates, which opened its doors at the turn of the century, are supportive of the sparkling wine argument: “I think I was right to work on sparkling right from the start,” he says. “I would do it again.”

But there are eloquent arguments for other styles, still other avenues to explore, albeit within a narrow range of possibilities imposed by climate. Kuepfer is moving from what he describes as the experimental phase of the winery to “a more stable phase where we specialize in doing a few things very well.” For Broken Stone, this means a focus on premium pinot noir and chardonnay, varieties proven over the last 20 years, along with an evolving traditional method sparkling program.

This sort of specialization makes sense from multiple perspectives, both commercial and production, and it’s an approach advocated by many.

“We are fortunate that in PEC we can’t grow any varietals we want,” says Dan Sullivan of Rosehall Run, whose first bottled vintage was 2004. Unlike the rallying cry of so many other regions around the world that boast of their broad diversity of wine styles, PEC, by its cool, marginal nature, imposes focus and rigorous discipline on winegrowers. This in turn can lead more quickly to region-defining grape varieties and wine styles, such as exists in most classic Old World wine regions.

In other words, the more tightly defined parameters of possibility “have helped define who we are,” says Sullivan. Other varietal contenders, along with chardonnay and pinot noir (still and sparkling), include pinot gris, and perhaps even cabernet franc. But regardless of variety, County wines share many common features, chief among them are delicacy, freshness, low alcohol and surprising flavour concentration on such a light frame, contemporary features that are being chased in countless other regions worldwide with varying degrees of success. But in the County, these characteristics require no special effort.

Capital Intensive

That’s not to say that all is known — far from it — and that all wineries are operating to their maximum potential. Proper capitalization remains a barrier in some cases. Operating a winery anywhere in the world is a capital-intensive business, and the margins are slim, a fact that is especially true in PEC. In some years, for example, it can be three times more expensive to grow grapes in Prince Edward County than in Niagara, and roughly 15 times more than in places like Chile’s Central Valley.

“One thing that I didn’t fully realize when we decided to plant a vineyard in Prince Edward County is just how hard it is to grow grapes here because of having to protect the vines from the cold winters,” says Colin Stanners of Stanners Vineyard, established in 2005. “That requires a lot of extra work and [results in] bud and vine damage. We planned on being able to get three tonnes per acre, which is considered around the world to be a low yield appropriate for the highest quality wines. But we have been able to average only around 1.5 tonnes per acre. So, it’s a lot of work for little fruit.”

Huff Estates’ Picard agrees. “Vineyards are extremely expensive to run,” he says while pointing to other structural industry issues that have no easy fix. “We need more trained labor from the start to do it right. Having different people [seasonal migrant workers] each season is difficult to manage, even if we are very lucky to have them.”

To address low yields, several winemakers are using geotextile fabric — essentially blankets for vines — for winter protection rather than hilling up the ground around the vines. It’s a technique that has been in use in Québec for more than ten years and was first adopted in PEC about five years ago. It’s a lot of extra work but, according to proponents, is effective in increasing yields while also being better for vine and soil health since soils aren’t ripped up each fall to hill vines.

Newman reports a 30 percent yield increase on the rows he’s covered with geotextiles. “If we did have one regret,” he says, “we wish we had adopted textiles earlier. It has been a game changer for our yields, the health of our vineyard and our mental health.”  

Unlocking the Treasure Chest

With enough wineries past the painful start-up phase, the ongoing challenge will be fine tuning site, variety and, especially, technique in order to best express and celebrate the emerging style paradigms. “Each year presents an opportunity for exploration and experimentation — there are little learnings from the earth that only reveal themselves with time,” says Sullivan. “After nearly a quarter of a century we are just beginning to unlock this treasure chest.”

Keith Tyers, head winemaker at Closson Chase, has been with the winery since 2003. He feels there are plenty of nuances yet to be discovered. “Something I think we should explore more as a DVA [Designated Viticultural Area] are the different terroirs of the area,” he says. “How does fruit grown on Closson Road tell a different story from fruit grown along Loyalist Parkway, or Danforth, or Greer Road? We should champion the diversity of PEC,” he says, all the while focussing exclusively on chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris. On the more technical side, Tyers says there’s still plenty to explore in terms of clonal selections, especially for pinot noir, and choice of rootstock to manage PEC’s surprisingly dry summers, the second driest county in Ontario.

Premium: The Only Way to Go

Considering the high production costs, producing premium wine is the only viable strategy, as most PEC wineries have figured out. But high shelf prices must also be justified by high wine quality. No consumer, even one faithfully devoted to buying local, will pay high prices for mediocre wine over the long term, no matter how much time, effort and money it costs to produce. Better a top notch $40 bottle of wine than a poor $25 bottle.

And as quality has risen, so too is pricing slowly coming into line with what it needs to be to make the industry sustainable. “In the beginning we were very humble,” says Kuepfer. “We had so much uncertainty about whether people would even show up to taste our wines and felt certain that we wouldn’t be able to command ultra-premium pricing. But with our made-in-the-vineyard philosophy, at our [small] scale, and cost of production, producing premium wines is the only way to go.” Kuepfer’s words could equally have come from just about any PEC winegrower.

So, be prepared to spend $30 and up, as no winery in PEC currently has the economy of scale and climatic conditions to produce 100 percent PEC wine sustainably for much less. (And on that note, be aware that many PEC wineries subsidize their County production with fruit from Niagara, perfectly sensible from a business perspective in my view. But if you’re after pure PEC, look for the VQA Prince Edward County mention on labels or inquire at the winery.)

The good news, as stated straight off the top, is that a critical mass of wines is worth the money. And a vintage like 2020, described by many growers as one of those rare, near-perfect years — warm, dry but not too dry — coupled with much more consistent and confident, professional winemaking, has helped to raise the number of worthy, premium wines. And considering these wines are in a style range that few other wine producing regions in the world can match, they will find their champions.

Wine Included in the Curated Mixed PEC Case

Hinterland Les Etoiles 2018

Lighthall Vineyards Culmination Nature 2019

Rosehall Run Ceremony Estate Grown And Bottled Blanc De Blancs 2017

Huff Estates Buried Vine Pinot Gris 2021

Morandin Wines County Chardonnay 2020

Closson Chase Churchside Chardonnay 2020

Trail Estate Chardonnay Vintage Five 2021

Rosehall Run St Cindy Chardonnay 2020

Broken Stone Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2021

Stanners Pinot Noir 2020

Stanners Pinot Noir The Narrow Rows 2020

Stanners Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2020

This feature was commissioned by Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines — good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.