the low down
This island-like region between Toronto and Kingston (south of Belleville) is enjoying a wave of excitement thanks to the influx of winemakers, chefs, organic farmers and artists. But it’s still a work in progress.
Being surrounded by water and cut off from the rest of the province has given “˜The County’ (as it’s known) its own identity. It looks and feels a little different, with some of the pastoral feeling of New England. Winding roads encircle and criss-cross the area so you never have to come and go the same way. Cut off from highway traffic, The County is considerably quieter and slower-paced than Niagara.
Sandbanks Provincial Park is probably the best known feature and main draw, attracting a large percentage of summer visitors from Quebec and elsewhere. The three major towns, Wellington, Bloomfield and Picton, are well kept and almost devoid of sprawl or trash. Manufacturing industry is non-existent so the region is committed to the land for survival, making the present food and wine industry a natural fit. Because most of the food and drink players started more or less at the same time, there seems to be a nice all-in-it-together spirit that has moved everything forward in a cohesive, well-planned fashion. Farmers, wineries and restaurants are members of the Taste Trail, which is sign-posted around the region. So simple, but so effective. Taste! is the brand as such and is showcased with a big bash each September at the Picton fairgrounds.
The wine thing started because someone noticed a lot of the County’s soils were shallow dirt and gravel on top of limestone ““ just like in Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir. But there is one problem ““ winter. Growing vines in the County is certainly testing the limits of what’s possible in Ontario winemaking. The solution seems to lie in burying the vines under hilled-up earth at the end of the year and unearthing them in the spring. It’s a huge job but it may be essential. To boost sales, some wineries supplement local production with Niagara grapes. When visiting, look for the “˜100% County’ sticker to help distinguish local efforts. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris have done well so far and Pinot is coming on strong, as long as you’re happy with a light, elegant style.
carmela estates Hillier
Big red barn-like building with lots of pretty flowers and garden ornaments. One of the largest operations, serving food indoors, or on the patio. The 07 Estate Pinot Gris ($19) has very pure mineral flavours and the 07 County Gewurztraminer ($19) is a delicate refresher. Large selection of mainly average quality wines.
norman hardie winery Hillier
Norm is the rock star of County wines. A terrorist~ winemaker in search of an hour of glory. Well-traveled, well-connected, highly motivated and with a windswept appearance that suggests he just got off a surfboard. He brings a lot of passion and energy to the local scene and he’s starting to show that there’s magic in his limestone hill. Expect a small, modern winery in a rustic setting. Not a cute flower or shrub in sight. All wines are strictly premium. The 07 County Pinot ($35) is lean and elegant with lots of charm and the 07 County Chardonnay ($35) is rich with sports car zip and tightness. Both of these wines are on the elegant track ““ which is where local wine should be headed.
rosehall run vineyards Hillier
The winery is not much to look at, but owner Dan Sullivan is one of the County’s best. And his wife Lynn runs a hospitable retail shop. Excellent white and red blends under the Sullyzwicker label ($16). The 06 Cab Franc ($19) is quite light and tart ““ great daytime or refreshing red. Chill lightly. If you visit over Christmas you can check out the wonderful 07 Pinot, Cab Franc and Chardonnay. Prices not yet established at press time.
by chadsey’s cairns winery Wellington
Toronto transplants Richard Johnson and Eva Zalnieriunas did the career change thing and selected a charming old farm setting ““ with great mature trees, and grazing sheep ““ for their winery and vineyards. Shades of stepping into an English country village. It even has its own cemetery, and of course, a story about the character Chadsey. Very committed, hands-on folks and a lovely setting. I enjoyed the crisp,
zesty 07 Riesling ($19), the off-dry, very spicy 07 Gewurztraminer ($20) and the light, tart and rustic 06 Gamay ($20) ““ all~ grown out back.
sandbanks winery Wellington
Small, kitchen-door operation close to Chadsey’s Cairns. You can’t miss the brightly coloured flags. Québécois Catherine Langlois planted her vineyard six years ago and is producing very good Vidal, Riesling, Baco and Cab Franc. The 07 whites are wonderfully refreshing ““ check out the delicious Muscat-style Dunes Vidal ($14). The reds have an appealing rustic, bistro quality. I like the 07 Baco ($15) and 07 Cab Franc ($19). Harvesting parties are a lot of fun here ““ get on the email list. The colourful abstracted image on the labels was painted by Catherine’s mother Rita, an artist from Quebec City. Entertainment at the tasting bar is sometimes provided by spirited daughter Ã‰lise.
the grange Hillier
Million dollar renovation of a monster old barn, located by a pond and surrounded by beautiful, rolling vineyards and countryside. Huge tasting bar and inviting shaded patio overlooking the pond. I think this would be many people’s idea of how a winery should look. It’s picture postcard perfect in all seasons. Robert Granger detailed the restoration, and now daughter Caroline runs the show. Jeff Innes makes the wines. The 07 Riesling ($16) is very dry and refreshing and the 06 Gamay ($15) is a refreshing, light red in the café style. The rest of the wines are hovering around okay at best. One of the few wineries that charges for tasting even if you purchase several bottles.
closson chase Hillier
Named after the road intersection of its location. Why not! Another barn conversion but with more of an artistic aesthetic. Interesting use of many materials ““ very playful. Confident and assured too. Big gardens with a novel, modern take on a farm fence. The crossroads location and the colourful buildings give this place the feeling of a French village. Wish I could move the clock forward five years and taste Pinot from the huge vineyards beside the winery. A movie maker, an actress, an TV maker and a lawyer are some of masterminds behind this interesting operation, where the focus is seriously high-end. Winemaker Deborah Paskus (ex-Tawse Winery in Niagara) is hired to deliver. Currently you can buy a delicious 07 Estate Non-Oaked Chardonnay ($23) and a super-sexy Beamsville 06 Chardonnay ($42). The 07 Estate Pinot is coming soon. Open May 24 to Thanksgiving.
sugarbush vineyards Hillier
New kids on the block Robert and Sally Peck have a back door family operation similar to Sandbanks. Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to tastetheir wines.
huff estates Hillier
Larry Huff is a local but you’d never think so from the look of this ultra modern concrete and glass winery. A very smart place that has the added feature of a twenty room luxury inn. Catch a tasty lunch here (limited menu), live jazz on Sunday afternoons and also check out the wonderful Oeno Gallery on site. Huff brings a refreshing modern touch to The County and it’s a great spot for a patio lunch under the bright yellow awning. I’ve found the staff to be friendly and informative, and young French winemaker Frederic Picard is not afraid to produce light wines with pure expressions. Try the zesty, spicy 07 Pinot Gris ($19) and the delicious off-dry 07 Riesling ($16). The 07 dry Rosé ($17) is one of Ontario’s best. First Frost 07 Vidal (500ml/$19) is a tasty, tropical-fruit-style, off-dry sipping wine.
black prince winery Picton
Don’t be put off by the 60’s Scarborough bungalow exterior. It’s better inside than out, and the view from the back terrace could be in a painting ““ and you might be pleasantly surprised by the wines. Manager Geoff Webb has created a sort of co-op place where other small producers can get started. Such as Bella Vigne, with its 07 Leon Millot-Foch ($16) ““ light with a gulp-me, Valpolicella feeling. Great local flavour. The Black Prince wines are low-alcohol and some have beautiful pure flavours. Such as the fresh ‘n fruity 07 Merlot ($16), the very pretty 07 Un-Oaked Chardonnay ($15) and the exotic 07 Vidal ($14). Black Prince 07 Cab Franc ($16) is a gutsy wine for burgers and the 06 Pinot ($16) is also rustic in style. A mini Barolo. My favourite is the humble 06 Chamborcin ($13) which comes very close to a light Pinot. Black Prince winery is located on the main drag going into Picton, and as far as I know this is the only winery in Canada located opposite a
Canadian Tire Store. Can’t beat that for a Saturday outing.
waupoos winery Waupoos
Ed Neuser’s handsome limestone winery and restaurant have a lovely lakeside setting. It appears on the cover of many Ontario wine brochures. Waupoos is apple growing area but Ed branched out into wine about five years ago. Winemaker Amy Mumby produces a huge range of local and Niagara blends in all styles and shapes. The sweeter, Germanic styles show best. Lovely restaurant setting.
county cider company Waupoos
Situated up on the hill overlooking Waupoos bay ““ this is a must visit. Grant Howes starting making British-style dry cider in 1996 and a few years later he planted a vineyard. Now with the help of winemaker Jenifer Dean he has two drink businesses on the go. Two things to enjoy on the patio outside the renovated pig barn. Actually there’s beer and wine too. “We’re a cornucopia of drinks” says Grant. Another attraction here is the wood-burning pizza oven. And I should mention the gorgeous lake view. The very refreshing draft cider is available at several bars in The County (as well as Kingston and Toronto) and the bottle version is at LCBOs. Delicious Ice Cider too. I haven’t tried their wines of late.
long dog vineyards South Bay
Long Dog is 100% local. And fiercely proud of it. Owner James Lahti (with partners Victoria Rose and Steven Rapkin) is convinced his limestone soils are capable of producing great and distinctive wines. “The vines in my C block only grow three feet tall, just like in Burgundy.” James comes from farming blood in his native Finland and if anyone is going to coax wine out of the County, my money is on this guy. Pinot and Chardonnay to date have certainly been impressive. Greatness will take a little more time. The 06 Chard ($30) has flavour, vitality and charm. Well-mannered with an elegant feeling. A copy book Ontario white wine, and certainly one of the County’s best. Pinot Gris ($22) is always good here ““ refreshment plus, and another hit is their Gamay/Pinot blend called Tumbling Stone ($25) ““ a daytime gulper in the Beaujolais spirit. Yummy. The 06 Pinot Noir ($36) is light but drinking beautifully. When released the 07 Pinot should be sexy, expressive, and expensive ““ just what Pinot is all about. Say hi to the long-haired dachshunds, of course! Their names are on the labels. One of the delights of visiting Long Dog is the adventure of getting there. After endless turns you start to lose all sense of where you
are headed. And will you ever find your way back out? Pure County.