Just a short drive out of Toronto is one of Ontario’s best cool climate wine regions, Prince Edward County. ‘The County’, as it’s lovingly called, was Ontario’s secret wine oasis. A not so much best kept secret anymore and for good reasons! The wines coming from here are phenomenal productions too good to be kept under the radar.
The County is sandwiched between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. There are over 40 wineries in this region making mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with some surprising productions along the way. If you have the chance to drive out and visit The County yourself, you won’t be disappointed.
Sitting on the south shore of Lake Ontario, the moment you cross over Carrying Place and into the County the soft rolling hills, bucolic landscape, and eighteenth-century barns set the stage and pace of what you are in for. Driving further into the County a quiet and beautiful community of rural towns and villages appears. There is truly a feel of rustic elegance in every shop, restaurant, and winery, that makes it an ideal place to get away from the city for a couple of days.
On my road trip to The County, I visited some of my must-see wineries and winemakers, touring 8 of favourites in 3 action packed days. Hopping from winery to winery, I wanted to taste the many winemaking styles found in Prince Edward County as this VQA is known for its range of winemaking styles and personalities. Winemakers push the envelope, be it by vineyard practises, planting unique grapes, intriguing winemaking techniques or never wavering from traditional methods.
I paid a visit to Casa-Dea Estates Winery, where VP of Sales, Paul Marconi, lives and breathes the County, pushing the boundaries with new grapes and unique wines made in this region.Then Karlo Estates, where I was greeted by Vintner Sherry Karlo and Partner Saxe Brickenden, a great team creating wine with a purpose, making vegan wines and internationally recognized wine projects.
At the southern tip of the County, Lighthall Vineyards was next, to taste with Owner and Winemaker Glenn Symons who is focused on classic wine making styles and an amazing sparkling program. He also makes his own cheese! Then heading north, over to the rolling hills in the town of Hillier for a couple of stops. Paying a visit to Stanners Vineyards where Owner and Winemaker, Colin Stanners, poured through his portfolio of artisanal wines that show creativity in the vineyard.
In Hillier, a short drive down the road from Stanners is Closson Chase Vineyard. As the temperature started dropping Operations Manager Erin MacInnis usher me inside, touring the winery and expressing the goals of Winemaker Keith Tyers. His wines capture terroir, that sense of place, in the bottle by making single vineyard wines. Next was another strongly terroir focused winey, Keint-He Winery & Vineyards. Owner Bryan Rogers’ winery sits right by the lake, his wines are classic, vineyard focused and made to just sit back and enjoy.
Just south of Hillier is Rosehall Run, Owner Lynn Sullivan and Winemaker Dan Sullivan have been making wine in the county from the beginning creating VQA wines in both Niagara and the County. Finally, my last visit was to Grange of Prince Edward County Winery, another estate that brought light to this wine region. Winemaker Maggie Granger, a county native, poured her full lineup of wines made from 100% estate grown wines with a very interesting twist.
Tasting through each vintner’s portfolio I became curious about their thoughts about The County. Each winery and the personalities behind it have played a role in making Prince Edward County the place it is today. While sipping on wine we discussed what makes Prince Edward County special, how this VQA region differs from Niagara and what their wineries are doing that we just have to know.
What makes Prince Edward County Special?
“Prince Edward County is special because it is so new, exciting and uncharted,” says Lynn Sullivan. There has been an explosion for new wineries and restaurants in The County in the last 20 years, but it is still a quiet region with more to discover.
“I think The County is the land that time forgot because the moment you go over the bridge at Carrying Place you can just completely feel all the stress falling off your shoulders…”, expresses Sherry Karlo, “There is beautiful bucolic architecture everywhere and everything is very authentic… Even though it is a small population base there are some of the best chefs, artists and musicians here. “
This rural place has drawn in some of the top talents in wine, hospitality and the arts. There is a feeling of endless possibilities and freedom to create that is palpable. “I really love it here,” says Maggie Granger, “not only growing up here, with the vines, but having seen other wine regions there really is a different feeling to Prince Edward County…part of that is being on the edge of the wine growing regions of the world. It is a big challenge and I think those challenges give us more ingenuity as winemakers and it makes the grapes have a bit of an edge to them… I think that is something you can taste and experience in the bottle.”
Winemakers here lean into the region’s strongly defined terroir. Paul Marconi doesn’t split hairs about this telling me, “basically, as an appellation it has been excellent for growing grapes. The calcium limestone beneath the soil gives the area credibility for producing a very good wine.”
“Prince Edward County as a new region is quite unique because of the climate and soils,” Glenn Symons informs me. The rolling hills across this appellation and changing soils create a myriad of microclimates. As a cool climate region, the County is one of the coolest wine growing regions in the county. Symons continues that, “we have got some crazy limestone soils here that really drive the minerality home, and the cool climate really emphasizes that minerality – especially in the chardonnays.”
Colin Stanners agrees, “We have a lot of fractured limestone here and rocks right at the top of the soil – that seems to be good for high quality wine. A lot of the best wine regions in the world have very, very rocky soils. The vines kind of have to struggle and that’s what we have here. It is what attracted me to the area.”
“The fractured limestone in Prince Edward County and the climate make it incredibly special,” adds Erin MacInnis, “a lot of people compare it to Burgundy, so we are producing some really high-quality Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and other varietals that are coming out for this region right now.”
The interaction of climate and land is important to any winemaker and forms part of theterroir in Prince Edward County. Says Saxe Brickenden, “ We have had visitors from Burgundy come and comment on the terroir and the limestone of the area, ours by the way is over 400 million years old. Even though we have only been growing grapes for 20 years here, we are a young wine region, but the terroir is coming through in the wine already.”
There is no shortage of love for “Everything!” in The County, Bryan Rogers adds, “we have a very similar type of limestone to Burgundy, and with all the kettle lakes that have formed in the area with the glacier that has receding you are getting 13-16 plus different soil types. If you are into geeky winemaking practices and terroir driven wines Prince Edward County is a great place to be.”
How does Prince Edward County differ from the Niagara VQA region?
Ontario’s south tip is dotted with wine regions from Prince Edward County to southwestern shores of Lake Erie. Each region is unique and showcases its own terroir, winemakers and grape varietals. Niagara has been a long-established region for Ontario, but Prince Edward County is growing quickly. Paul Marconi couldn’t agree more, “it is a different region, compared to Niagara,” he says. “The growth in this area itself, from the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s has made this area become more popular. This area is becoming one of the next capitals of producing fantastic wines.”
The differences in terroir and climate make these VQA regions stand apart. “Niagara is a little bit warmer than here,” says Colin Stanners, “since we are colder, we chose the varietals that are good for here like Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. You won’t find too many Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlots in the County.”
Bryan Rogers agrees, “Here we grow mainly what the climate dictates, you have to be very careful of the varietals that you choose. So, you get Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and you are getting a lot more terroir driven, artisanal, premium wine.”
Climate is a big deciding factor for wineries in The County, playing a major role in what can be grown. Glenn Symon elaborates expressing, “[Winemakers] are definitely on the cooler edge of things here. I think that our temperature and climate, in general, is more appropriate for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir across the board. Not to say that it is not in Niagara. Especially in the Bench, I think is fantastic for those two varietals. But the richness of the soils in Niagara really lend themselves better to grapes like Gamay, Riesling and certainly some of the Bordeaux varietals do rather well down there, that we can’t really do…. with some exceptions”
“From my perspective,” says Erin MacInnis, “we get quite a bit more acidity in our wine because of the cool climate we have here, opposed to a few degrees south in Niagara and I think that adds a complexity to the Prince Edward County wines.” But it is more than just climate, McInnis continues, “I also think that being a smaller wine region we have a sense of community that is smaller than Niagara has.”
This sense of being part of a smaller, more rural community is on many people’s minds in The County. “I think about that all the time,” says Maggie Granger, “because my clients are often coming to The County after having been to Niagara, I think one thing that is really different is the size and the scope of the wineries. We are a community of small artisanal winemakers. Most of the wineries are between 5 and 10 acres of vineyards, even wineries my size are quite boutique in the Ontario wine standard.” She continues, “we are all a bit experimental… we are trying to make something that is true to ourselves, unique and tells a different story.”
These rural and experimental vibes are felt by Sherry Karlo as well, “there are a lot of cowboys in the County, meaning there is a lot of experimentation and lack of pretense about what a wine should be.” She explains, “it is an interesting time to come to the County because it is like a birth of a new wine region. Because of that it is a great time to try things out, you are going to find some interesting experiments and some things that are absolutely spectacular.”
Lynn Sullivan echoed these sentiments, “there are amazing wine growers in both Niagara and Prince Edward County, but I would say what makes us distinct is the small family owned wineries; wineries are more boutique and there are no international owners. Most of us had never farmed or run a winery, so in some ways we feel like a gang of renegades producing wine on the cutting edge from a unique and special previously undiscovered wine region.”
What is happening now at your winery that we just must know?
Winemakers in Prince Edward County are certainly creating wines on the climatic edge. With vineyard techniques and winemaking practises that are pushing the creative envelope and putting forth some great juice. I loved everything I tried while on my trip to The County, but I needed to know what was up next.
“I love that question!” exclaimed Maggie Granger, winemaker at Grange of Prince Edward County Winery. “I hope I am doing everything with a bit of an edge and a bit of a story behind it. We have 60 acers of vineyards and seven varietals, from that I am trying to create a story of wines that are reflective of this cool, cool, cool climate region.” Her focus is on, “wines that are more natural and in a less interventionist style of wine making, with skin contact and no sulfur is really fun for me. I hope to showcase more wines like that.”
Glenn Symons’s Lighthall Winery has some interesting projects on the go as well. “Certain new varietals are coming on board as of the 2019 vintage, we have some county Riesling and Merlot, which will be rather unique to say the least. We are also growing Grüner, one of the only vineyards in the province to grow Grüner Veltliner. With the microclimate and soils here we find some great mineral expression in the glass, making a unique product for sure.”
At Stanners Vineyard, Colin Stanners says “our main focus is Pinot Noir in a fairly natural style, and I have been pleased the results from that.” He continues, “I also do a few different things for our Pinot Gris; I give it skin contact, so it comes out a nice coppery orange colour and has some different flavors, with mandarin orange type flavors in it than a usual Pinot Gris.”
Working at one for the first wineries in the region, Erin MacInnis is proud that Closson Chase stays vineyard focused. “We were one of the pioneers in the region. We respect the area and really want to showcase what the area has to offer, so we do our best to show what the land has to offer in the glass. We are really proud of what we do and try to do some very site-specific wines and just show the diversity of our land, our terroir and what we have to offer.”
Paul Marconi is excited about the new varietals that are coming on the Casa-Dea Estates portfolio. “We got into this business in 2009, and we have been growing ever since. It is a passion that the founder, Domenic Di Pietrantonio, always had and we try to challenge the marketplace by creating competitive wines. Making wines that are ideal to the consumer and serve as a reason for them to come to the county. We have now produced an appassimento style wine, and a new still wine – Pecorino. No one else in Canada grows that type of grape.”
“We are blessed with an amazing winemaker,” say Sherry Karlo and Saxe Brickenden of Karlo Estates. “Derek Barnett… has been twice honoured, being named ‘Winemaker of the Year’ by Tony Aspler and the Ontario Wine Awards and ‘Wine Person of the Year’ by the National Capital Sommelier Guild in 2015 just as he joined Karlo Estates. Derek is a rock star winemaker!”
With Barnett at the helm, “we are doing things that people rarely see on the market, especially with our production of hybrid varietals like Marquette and Petite Pearl, as well as the Frontenac family of Noir, Gris and Blanc and Traminate, a grape similar in taste to Gewürztraminer. Richard Karlo, my late husband, had put in place a legacy planting of unique hybrids… we either take non-traditional grape varietals and treat them with the respect of traditional winemaking, or we are using traditional grape varieties to produce wine in unique ways.” The most exciting project at Karlo Estates to Sherry is, “Sextus, it is our unicorn wine that has all six of the original Bordeaux grapes in one bottle. Made with our Estate Malbec, the only in Prince Edward County and our Carménère, the only in Eastern Ontario. ”
Bryan Rogers’ Keint- He Winery is focusing on that sense of place. “We are all very interested in where our food comes from these days and the story behind it, I don’t think that is more important than in wine, especially… making terroir-driven wines. You can get drastically different wine on properties that are abutting one another.” He recalls, “We used to do a terroir experiment using the fruit of Niagara and from our four vineyards here, in block specific releases. We found that when viticulturally practices are the same, the same vintage, the processing is almost identical, and you have the wine in the glass and you are tasting the differences. What you are tasting is that sense of place, and Keint-He is doing that well.”
“At Rosehall Run we have managed to satisfy a number of different wine drinkers,” says Lynn Sullivan. She is simply delighted that Rosehall Run has, “…some critically acclaimed and award-winning Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and sparkling wines.” But also, that, “Dan [Sullivan] has also created Pixie, a popular wine for people that just want something fun to drink…. a lot of people are just looking to have fun, have a good time and I think we have been able to do both of those things well.”
After leaving The County and saying goodbye to the beautiful surroundings and amazing wineries I feel my next visit back will be just around the corner. Head out to Prince Edward County on your next free weekend. Follow my route and check out these wineries and their noteworthy wine professionals the next time you are in The County. You’ll be hooked!