Harvesting in Prince Edward County, just in time for new rules on Ontario wines

I’d call that an auspicious sign. Just as I was heading to the vineyards of Prince Edward County to harvest chardonnay at Closson Chase, on Tuesday evening, the Ontario government came out with new rules governing VQA and Cellared in Canada wines.

These new rules give a push forward to VQA wines by introducing financial support – with revenue generated from a new tax on Cellared in Canada wines. They also increase the amount of Canadian wine that will have to go in the CiC bottlings, from 30% to 40%, before cancelling the content requirements by 2014. In the meantime, the grape pricing and marketing mechanisms will be reviewed, all in the hopes that by then, growers will be turning more and more towards producing grapes for VQA wines, with different varieties and better quality.

Although it will have to be seen how all this plays out over the next five years, it is a move in the right direction, and a clear signal to everyone that the future of the industry is in VQA, 100% Ontario wine, rather than in the vague and deceptive Cellared in Canada category.

I’m very happy to hear that, especially since that will allow me to concentrate on actual Ontario (and Quebec) wines for the rest of Regional Wine Week.

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As I’ve now started harvesting chardonnay with the whole team at Closson Chase. The grapes went through a tough late season, with very frequent rain causing an onset of botrytis that has rotten a number of bunches. The fruit that is healthy (and there is still plenty of that) tastes grate and is ripe, with yellow skins, brown pips and brown (or browning) stems. Sugars won’t be as high as, say, in the gorgeous 2007 vintage, but the phenological ripeness, which determines a lot in the flavor profile of the grapes and wines, is clearly there.

I’m very glad to get the chance to work alongside Deborah Paskus, one of Ontario’s most solid and experienced winemakers. I interviewed Deborah in January for an En Route magazine article on Canadian winemakers, tasted some of her wines, and got into a very stimulating e-mail conversation about winemaking that eventually led me to visit Prince Edward County in July. The conversation led to a business association, as the wine import agency I’m associated with in Quebec, Insolite Importation, will bring Closson Chase wines to the Quebec market. And in that context, here I am to learn more about growing grapes and making wines with someone who really knows her stuff.

Just read what Jancis Robinson recently had to say about Closson Chase chardonnays:

There’s a highly successful unoaked Chablis style called Sans Chêne as well as regrettably small volumes of an oak-aged bottling. We have served them blind to wine professionals with top white burgundies and, quite literally, amazed and astounded our friends.

You can also check out Beppi Crosariol’s September Globe and Mail article on Prince Edward County, where he reviews two of Deborah Paskus’ chardonnays, and writes about the fact that the County, as a winemaking region, is now coming of age, as vineyards are starting to mature and winemakers are getting a better sense of their terroir.

I certainly agree. While my preference and affinities go with Deborah Paskus’ work at Closson Chase, I have liked a lot of what I tasted in July (and again in September) in various other wineries. One of the very best wines I tasted was Long Dog’s 2007 Otto Riserva pinot noir, a gorgeous, young and elegant red with lots of bright red fruit, good balance and a mineral backbone brought forth by the beautiful limestone that makes Prince Edward County soils so great for wine growing.

There were a lot more. Like By Chadsey’s Cairns’ 2007 Chenin Blanc, which had the lanolin and stone fruit profile typical of that great Loire grape, on a bracing acidity that will surely temper itself well over the years. Norman Hardie’s mineral riesling and refreshing Melon de Bourgogne, Rosehall Run’s lovely Sullyzwicker rosé and very good pinot noir, Sandbank’s fresh and aromatic vidal or Huff Estate’s pleasant whites also easily come to mind.

I’d go into more detail, but I gotta run, now. The press awaits at Closson Chase, as we will start pressing the grapes picked yesterday. I’ll have more to report on that tonight. And more on Prince Edward County wines in general.

EnRoute in the vineyards of Canada

Since last spring, I had been impatiently waiting for the publication of an article on Canadian wines in EnRoute, Air Canada’s on-board magazine. I had reason enough to be impatient, since I started working on that project all the way back in January.

The article showcases six Canadian winemakers (plus five tasting notes of wines from other producers) from Coast to Coast : two from British Columbia, two from Ontario, one from Quebec and one from Nova Scotia. Selecting those producers from some 400 active wineries was far from easy – another list could probably have been just as valid. The selection provides a good portrait of the diversity of Canadian wine: there really is something for everyone.

Researching the piece allowed me to discover an unexpected level of diversity, and some little-known treasures of canadian viticulture. Like the sparkling wines of Nova Scotia – the closest thing to champagne I’ve tasted outside of Champagne. Or the pinots and chardonnays of Prince Edward County, the fastest growing vineyard in Canada, located southwest of Kingston, on the shores of Lake Ontario. Although I already had a good idea of the potential of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley or Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula – and had started taking a closer look at the best estates in Quebec, I was happy to discover just how much wine production keeps progressing all over Canada.

All this just encouraged me to keep going, and so in the last few weeks, I went to visit vineyards in Prince Edward County and Niagara, tasting over 200 wines in a few days through the cellars and vineyards. I’m hoping that I’ll also make it to British Columbia and Nova Scotia in the near future.

I found those visits even more encouraging. Prince Edward County, though its production is uneven – like in any emerging wine region – is already showing some distinctive character, and the best wines show remarkable finesse, elegance and mineral character. In the Niagara, I found solid, distinctive wines all over the place, with serious exploration of terroir at vineyards like Tawse, Hidden Bench and Le Clos Jordanne, creative exploration of winemaking and varieties at Creekside, Ravine, 13th Street, A Foreign Affair or Malivoire, precise, elegant work at Lailey and Southbrook, to name only these few. Beyond cabs, merlots, chardonnays, rieslings and pinots, I also tasted melon de bourgogne, chardonnay musqué, zweigelt, shiraz and even a bit of savagnin. There is less cookie-cutter winemaking, and more and more specific character and quality available.

I’ll write about that in more detail over the coming days. But at least one thing is clear : it isn’t all icewine, and it sure ain’t Baby Duck no more !

Tasting note : three wines from Ontario (Niagara and Prince Edward County)

Every time I go on vacation in Ontario, I quickly head to the LCBO to get my hands on some local wines. Since I started writing about wine, about 12 years ago – a column on Canadian wines and spirits for a magazine -, I’ve always been interested in finding out more about the wines produced in this country. And since only a small proportion of wines from the ROC make their way to Quebec, it’s always a treat to get my hands on some cuvées I’ve never tasted before.

On a quick stop by the Vintages store on Rideau Street, in Ottawa, I picked up three bottles :

  • 2006 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot by Southbrook Vineyards, Niagara Peninsula
  • 2007 County Pinot Noir by Norman Hardie, Prince Edward County
  • 2006 Old Vines Chardonnay by Lailey Vineyard, Niagara River

Three very different cuvées, all pointing in different directions. A good thing : there is clearly something for everyone in Ontario wines.

The Southbrook Triomphe, produced by a winery that was recently certified biodynamic, scored very well at dinner with a classic lasagna. Expressive, with ripe fruit, good structure, balance and a smooth mouthfeel, with a touch of spice. Clean and neat, it felt uncluttered and easy going. It just drank itself, and thanks to a reasonable alcohol level (under 13%) that kept it fresh and open, it left us wanting more.

The following evening, the Hardie pinot didn’t fare quite as well, however. After hearing a lot of great things about Prince Edward County – one friend even wrote me that the Niagara was being completely overrun by PEC, a much superior region, according to him – and having tasted the excellent pinots and chardonnays made by Deborah Paskus at Closson Chase (I sampled them for an En Route piece on Canadian wines that will be published in the August issue), I was happy to get the chance to taste more.

The wine, clear and bright red, had some fresh cherry aromas, with some earthy notes, but felt a bit thin, when you moved from aromas to flavors. Now, I’m very pro-Burgundy, and find warm climate pinots often tiring, with their dark colors and jammy, spicy flavors. But this just didn’t have the intensity and amplitude you’d want from a pinot – especially one selling for 35$. Mind you, it didn’t have any striking flaws, either – no green flavors, no rough tannins, no off taste or aromas. It just didn’t show enough of its good things for me.

The last wine tasted was the Lailey chardonnay, which showed a very pleasant nose, with lemon, toasted almonds and toasted bread with a dab of butter and herbs, and maybe a bit of pear. The mouthfeel was expansive, substantial but still fresh, thanks to a nice amount of acidity and a twist of lemon rind giving it just enough bitterness. Flavors matched the aromas, and rolled around smoothly to a fairly long and silky finish. My only regret is that a rather nice mineral component seemed a bit smothered by the toasty and fat elements of the wine. But since everything else about this light-gold colored wine was so great, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.

After this first stint in Ontario, this week, I’ll be returning a couple of times in the coming weeks, including stops in Prince Edward County and the Niagara region. Expect more notes to come as these trips unfold.