By Rick VanSickle
WELLINGTON, Prince Edward County — We meet at the usual spot, a non-descript parking lot in Ajax, as we transfer our bags and boxes into Rick Bates’ super big pickup truck.
We’ve made this trip before; four guys in search of the very soul and personality that makes Prince Edward County (PEC) in south-eastern Ontario one of the most rewarding wine destinations in Canada.
I’m riding shotgun for the drive to PEC and I find it a challenge to keep Bates focused on the highway in front of us. He’s a retired police officer (also an ardent fan of Ontario wines, who knows a lot more about them than I ever will), but I am certain a little refresher course on highway driving would be of some benefit for all of us (but I can’t say anymore than that as we made a pact: What happens in this truck, stays in this truck).
Michael Di Caro, a wine and food writer for Spotlight Toronto, and Suresh Doss, publisher of the food, wine and lifestyle website SpotlightToronto.com are in the back filing stories and tweeting/instamgramming/texting/etc. with wild abandon and seemingly oblivious to the wild gesturing and meandering approach our driver takes. No worries, he’s trained for this sort of thing, right?
In all fairness, Bates is the perfect guide. He’s travelled the road to PEC so often that his truck is programmed to practically drive itself. I don’t know why he even uses the GPS, because he does the opposite of what it says to do anyway.
We have a loosely drawn up plan for two days in PEC, a plan that usually falls apart after the first stop and deteriorates after that. PEC is not the sort of place that does well with agendas, order and neat little packages. It’s a spontaneous journey; make all the plans you want but it will never work out that way. People are late, wineries open and close at the whim of whoever is staffing the tasting room (which is usually the owner/winemaker), and you get lost, a lot (and I’m certainly not blaming Bates here, because he probably gets lost a lot less than I would if I were driving).
It is part of the beauty of this pastoral wine destination, the still wild and emerging nature of casual encounters and gorgeous wines in tank, barrel and just-bottled new releases that will be gone by mid-summer. You get what you get on any given day.
So, this is Part I of our journey, such as it was, to Prince Edward County, Spring 2014.
Cruising into the heart of Prince Edward County, our first stop is according to the Bates’ master plan. We are thirsty and the fine bubbles at Hinterland are the perfect cure to quench our thirst.
Like so many PEC wineries, the owners of Hinterland are there to greet us. Vicky Samaras and partner Jonas Newman welcome us warmly into the Hinterland tasting room and production facility in Hillier.
This is no five-star resort, it’s a working winery with a small space carved out for those who want to taste an array of terroir-driven sparkling wines.
Jonas and Samaras planted their vines in 2005 and the objective was always to make consistent quality wines vintage after vintage. But the one consistency about Ontario summers, they quickly found out, is that summers are inconsistent.
“What we have found is that the soil and climate in Prince Edward County produces grapes with the kind of ripeness suited to making balanced and elegant sparkling wines.”
And, so it is … all fizz, all the time, made with the best varietals matched to the best soil and climate over several different styles from Charmat to traditionally made. It’s what they do and they do it well, quickly shoring up a reputation for sought-after sparkling wines in Ontario.
While Hinterland only makes sparkling wines, winemaker Newman does make some non-sparkling wines with sommelier William Predhomme under the North Shore Project banner (Syrah from Lake Erie North Shore) and his own Terra Lemnia wines from the Greek island of Limnos.
The red grape called Limnio (which means “of Limnos”) is indigenous to the island and was written about in the Iliad by Homer over four thousand years ago.
The white grape, called Muscat of Alexandria, has been grown on the island for over a century. The Limnio thrives on the rugged hard to access terrain of the east side of the island and the muscat is grown on the west side. Newman has coined the phrase “the Valley of the Muscat” which is an area around St. Demetrios where one can see a dramatic valley under the muscat vine.
Recommended wines from Newman’s various projects:
Hinterland Whitecap 2013, Hinterland Rose 2011, North Shore Project Syrah Rose 2013 and Terra Lemnia Muscat of Alexandria 2012.
When Hubbs Creek owner and winemaker John Battista Calvieri says he’s “trying the garagiste approach” to wine making, he’s not joking. As we arrive for a quick tour inside his winery, it is all there in front of us: Tasting room, barrel room, tanks … the whole shebang. It is typical of the Prince Edward County style; high quality wines made in tiny quantities with uncompromising details.
It’s not surprising that Calvieri’s most prized piece of equipment is a new (well, new to him) narrow tractor capable of navigating down the medium- to high-density, tight rows of vines he chooses to plant. He makes us walk around the tractor to admire its compact frame and the zoomy modifications he’s made to his new baby. He is very proud papa.
As he is with his small collection of wines, mostly Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and rose, that started arriving on the scene last year to critical acclaim (and sold out quickly).
Hubbs Creek is located on a 500 million-year-old geological formation known as the Lindsay formation from the middle Ordovician period. The soil is stoney (limestone fragments) and calcareous by nature. It varies in depths anywhere from 18 to 36 inches and lies on a fragmented limestone bedrock. The soil in which Hubbs is located is locally known as Hillier clay Loam. It has a high lime content that is ideal for growing and making Burgundy style wines.
In the spring of 2002, over 3,000 vines of various Pinot Noir Dijon clones were planted. The vineyard spacing for the first planting is 4 feet between the vines and 5.5 feet between the rows. This planting is considered high density.
In the spring of 2003 2,500 more Pinot Noir vines were planted using various clones along with 1,200 Pinot Gris vines. Another 1,200 Pinot Gris vines were planted in 2004.
Recommended wines from Hubb’s: Hubbs Creeks Pinot Gris 2012, Hubbs Creek Pinot Noir Unfliltered 2011, Hubbs Creek Rose 2013.
Keint-he Winery & Vineyards wasn’t on our original agenda for this trip, but knowing that winemaker Ross Wise had recently joined the team, in what has been a bit of a revolving door ay the winery in recent years, we decided to pop in and see if we could taste the new releases.
The name of the winery is derived from a native word. Keint-he was the name of one of the four Seneca villages in this part of eastern Ontario. The Senecas were one of the five tribes of the Iroquois. The word Keint-he was later francocized into, Quinte and used in English names such as, the Bay of Quinte.
Ross, who splits his time between Keint-he in PEC and several wineries in Niagara, is an accomplished winemaker with a passion for terroir-driven, cool climate wines, and has a special place in his heart for Pinot Noir. With a Bachelor of Viticulture (Charles Stuart University) and an Advanced Diploma in Oenology (Hawkes Bay), Ross has worked with wineries such as Felton Road Winery in New Zealand (internationally famous for their Pinot Noirs), and Grove Mill, in Marlborough, one of the most notable Pinot regions on earth.
Keint-he is rooted in the pursuit of making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that have international character, applying the Burgundian model of viticulture to the County microclimate.
Both Pinot Noir (from PEC and Niagara) and Chardonnay form the basis of the portfolio at Keint-he where 28 acres of estate grapes are under vine. They also produce small amounts of Riesling, Vidal, Pinot Meunier, St. Laurent, Gamay and Syrah.
Recommended wines from Keint-he: Keint-he Portage Chadonnay 2012, Keint-he Hillier Blanc 2011, Keint-he Portage Pinot Noir 2012.
Note: See Rick’s Picks for some reviews of the wines recommended above.
Note: Part II will be in the June newsletter.