By Rick VanSickle
PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY — It’s just nearing dusk on a late spring day deep in the heart of wine country in Prince Edward County. Our motley crew pulls up to the home of Bruno Francois and Jens Korberg for a previously arranged gathering.
There is already the smell of burning charcoal in the air as we are welcomed for a “bite” to eat and chance to taste some new and old (well, old is a relative term in the County) releases from The Old Third. We were not expecting the royal treatment and an evening of memorable County home cooking and an endless stream of bubbles, cider and Pinot Noir from two of the most hospitable hosts in wine country. But that is exactly what we got.
The Old Third has built its reputation on finely crafted, highly stylistic estate Pinot Noir made with precision and uncompromising techniques from the remarkably unique County dirt.
Francois has proven to be a skilled tactician with the fickle Pinot Noir grape with only five vintages under his belt.
The Old Third conducts its business out of its cathedral-like barn, built in the 1860s and restored in 2006. It currently houses the winery and tasting room and is immaculately outfitted to leave visitors with that peaceful easy feeling.
But on this night, our wine crew, including Michael Di Caro, Suresh Doss (both from SpotlightToronto.com), and Rick Bates, ace navigator and knowledgeable aficionado of Ontario VQA wine, and myself, it’s not just the Pinot Noir we are in awe of. It’s the whole package, and what a package it is.
So, this is Part II or our journey to Prince Edward County with stops at The Old Third, Exultet, Norman Hardie, and Stanners.
Our crew never misses a stop at The Old Third and when partners Francois and Korberg suggested we drop by to taste some new wines and perhaps indulge in the entire vertical of Pinot produced there it was simply a no-brainer. We bolted.
Our hastily put together cheese tray was a bit of an embarrassment compared the feast we were about to embark on at their winery home.
The centerpiece of the evening’s meal was a massive hunk of Triple A beef perfectly grilled on the BBQ with a charcoal base and three-year-old Pinot Noir vines for a flavourful accent paired with every vintage of Pinot the winery has produced, including the first, not-released-to-the-public 2007 vintage made unoaked.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We were first directed across the street to Old Third winery below the tasting room to taste what Francois had percolating in barrels. He didn’t make a traditional Pinot in 2012, due to late frost that wiped out most of the crop, but we had a taste of the “vin gris” he made from the grapes he did harvest. It’s a lightly pressed white Pinot with an unctuous feel on the palate with aromas of lilacs, pear and vanilla. A very different wine that will excite wine lovers.
The components for the 2013 Pinot Noir, still in barrel, showed great promise despite the crappy spring with lots of earthiness, wild herbs, cherries and anise flavours slowly emerging.
Back at Korberg and Francois’ house, the meal’s side dishes were created before our eyes in the expansive kitchen. While Korberg meticulously blanched the frites, Francois treated us to the first cider produced by The Old Third called Golden Russet Cuvee Yquelon 2013.
The apples were sourced from a nearby orchard and were hand sorted. The cider is méthod traditional, so the second fermentation was in bottle. The cider was hand riddled, hand disgorged and topped with a natural cork.
It is simply delicious with a lively mousse and interesting apple-pear and toasty citrus notes.
Next Francois disgorged a bottle of his latest sparkling wine called The Old Third À la Volée that is made with 100% Pinot Noir. This version spent 18 months on the lees and The Old Third plans to release two more versions, one on the lees for 24 months and the final release at 48 months. It is a thrilling sparkling with toast, brioche, citrus, lemon drop and laser sharp acidity.
Our evening ends with a grand dinner in Francois and Korberg’s magnificent dining room. Their farm house has been lovingly restored to its original design with modifications by designer Korberg to give the home more symmetry.
Our meal is centred on that hunk of beef cooked over Pinot Noir vines. We dive into it as we taste through the entire vertical of Old Third Pinot Noirs. They are developing beautifully, none of them showing signs of age, and all have that vein of minerality crucial for Francois’s vision of terroir-driven Pinot. These are never heavy, but finessed and focused showing the County fruit in all its elegant glory.
Blessed be the Chardonnay
We are up bright and early the next morning, a miracle considering the younger of our crew went to bed about the time the sun was rising, for stops not far away from where we are staying in Wellington.
We get a first-hand lesson in the County laissez–faire attitude when it comes to opening and closing. The sign may say open at 10 a.m. but actually BEING open at 10 a.m. is another matter entirely.
Our first stop was a bust, so on we travelled to Exultet Estates.
Located in the most southern portion of Prince Edward County, a centuries’ old farm, once the site for a dairy operation, cheese factory, and apple orchard, has been resurrected to a new life, enriched with flowering grapevines and aging wines. Reuse of the former 1870’s Royal Street Cheese Factory at the winery has allowed for minimal impact to the environment, while at the same time preserving a piece of rich County heritage.
The vineyards were first planted in 2004 are nurtured on limestone rich soils within view of Lake Ontario. The hand-tended and hand-picked fruit is grown with organic materials when possible and minimal chemical use.
There to greet us is owner and winemaker Gerry Spinosa, riding a big high these days after his Blessed Chardonnay won Best Oaked Chardonnay over $20 at the Ontario Wine Awards for the 4th year in a row.
We get a taste of The Blessed and are blown away by the aromatics of pear-vanilla, minerals, apple-toffee and the lovely generous fruit and spice on the palate. It has weight yet is perfectly balanced by the acidity.
Spinosa also poured us his delightful Pinots, The Beloved 2011, cruX 2011 and regular cuvee Pinot Noir. All of Exultet’s Pinots are made in an elegant style with intense fruits that dance lightly on the palate. Such balance and complexity of flavours. Exultet has quickly emerged as an important PEC producer.
In search of the mighty Gris
We pile in Bates’ big pickup truck and head for Hillier to the family-run Stanners Vineyard. There is always a buzz this time of the year in anticipation of Stanners releasing its highly unusual skin-contact, amber-hued Pinot Gris, a sought-after wine that sells out as soon as it is made available for sale.
Stanners is a small boutique winery that opened in 2003 dedicated to producing premium Pinot Noir. Cliff and Dorothy Stanners work side by side with their son Colin and daughter-in-law Mary Macdonald.
Cliff and Colin were both research scientists. Colin has a PhD in physical chemistry and Cliff a PhD in cell and molecular biology.
Cliff Stanners welcomed us to the winery and we enjoyed both the estate Chardonnay 2012 and Pinot Noir 2011.
And, after a bit of prodding, Cliff gave us a sneak peek at the 2013 Pinot Gris that was still in the process of being made. This version has an even deeper orange-amber colour than previous vintages with strong aromas and flavours that are sure to excite fans of this style of Gris. There is even some tannic structure to go with all those lovely flavours.
Norm’s place, where everyone knows his name
You cannot go to Prince Edward County without visiting Norman Hardie Winery. In so many ways, Hardie embodies all that is good in the County. He has built up a reputation in PEC that has enabled so many others to follow in his footsteps.
Built on a clay limestone hill, Hardie’s passion for fine wine is put to the ultimate test.
The well-known winemaker works with a combination of Prince Edward County and Niagara fruit, a clay-and-limestone combination he calls magical. “These mineral driven sites are ideal and allow me to craft Pinot noir, Chardonnay and other cool climate varieties of exceptional quality and elegance. My wines tell a story of place developed from my passion and experience,” he says.
As we drive up to the winery unannounced, Hardie and his crew are busy getting the facility ready for his fans who will flock here soon enough to enjoy his wines or pizza on the patio.
He takes as much time as we need to taste through the new wines that are either already on shelves or soon will be.
I loved the Hardie Calcaire, a fresh blend of Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Melon de Bourgogne that shouts out for summer sipping with a healthy supply of oysters at the ready.
But central to his portfolio are the Pinots and Chardonnays. Both the County Chardonnay 2012 and County Pinot Noir 2012, both unfiltered, are at the top of their game and represent the best of what winemakers can do with these two grapes in PEC.
NOTE: See some reviews for these wines in the June edition of Rick’s Picks.