By Nancy Truman
Full confession: I love the wines from “The Bench” on the Niagara Escarpment.
At least twice a year, I make the hour-and-a-half trek west from Toronto to the region to sip and buy new wines and old favourites. Prince Edward County was barely a blip on my radar until early this summer when an acquaintance, Erin Bury, along with two friends launched County Wine Tours, a sip and cycle tour.
Erin is no stranger to nascent businesses. Early in her career, she was part of the team that launched Sprouter, a web start-up that connected entrepreneurs with each other. She also grew up visiting Prince Edward County before it was a wine destination, and believes she has a nose for good wine. The region she has chosen for her tours certainly has a history of it.
I was impressed by the fact that the winemakers here aren’t shy about borrowing from their Niagara peers.
Two hours east of Toronto, Prince Edward County had a successful commercial wine industry as far back as the mid-19th century. All that ended, however, when the County voted to go “dry” at the start of Prohibition in 1916. Its regeneration took root in the 1990s, with the seeds of Waupoos Winery — widely considered Prince Edward County’s oldest — being sown in 1993. Waupoos opened for business 16 years ago and today boasts nearly 20 acres of 12 varietals.
On an overcast Tuesday, our group — my friend and I, a couple from Quebec City celebrating their anniversary and our local guide, Erin’s father, Henry Bury — headed out on the sip and cycle tour from County Wine Tours’ storage locker at Wellington Store & Lock in Wellington, Ont.
The tours typically include a visit and tasting at four of six participating wineries, all chosen for their proximity to each other and the Millennium Trail. It’s a fairly easy 18-kilometre ride, with just a few rough patches along the trail and one small hill to tackle on a country road. Of course, how difficult the cycling gets will depend on the amount of wine you consume.
The biggest takeaway for me is something you cannot get by driving around to wineries in your car. It is the opportunity to spend an afternoon bonding with people who share your passions for wine and cycling. (To wit, I recently spent an afternoon tasting wine and cassis on Isle d’Orleans, Que. with that couple from Quebec City.)
Just how nascent this industry is became clear shortly into the tour. But I was impressed by the fact that the winemakers here aren’t shy about borrowing from their Niagara peers.
At Trail Estate, our first stop, much to my surprise I discover the wines on the tasting menu are made not from the grapes just outside the window, or even PEC-sourced grapes, but rather from Niagara fruit. This is the case for much of Prince Edward County, where “yields are a lot lower than Niagara in part because of cold-kill; and in part because vineyards in the county generally are run by winery operators, or soon-to-be wineries, leaving very few grapes for sale,” says Alex Sproll, partner and sales and marketing director at Trail Estates.
According to Sproll, the bulk of plantings took place from 2003 to 2005, with many wineries opening around 2010. At Trail Estates, the original vineyard was planted with Baco Noir in 2003, before Sproll’s parents, German-born Anton and Hildegard, bought the property in 2011. The Sprolls planted additional acres of primarily Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling in 2012 and 2013, and began producing wine with the Baco Noir in 2013.
Sproll attributes the success of their small batch winery to winemaker and vineyard manager Mackenzie Brisbois, a Prince Edward County native who trained in Niagara, and gained experience in South Africa, New Zealand and British Columbia. “[She] has done a stellar job of this and embraced this, so I’d say the wines are now much more congruent with our goals in that we are now making genuinely interesting and great wines,” he notes.
Sproll contends that achieving these goals also depends on working with growers in Niagara, and in particular with partners who are equally committed and have great fruit and sites. Using Niagara grapes, he says, helps mitigate up and down years in PEC as they become established, and lets Trail Estate make wines in a terroir-focused way. This year, the Sprolls expect a solid harvest, making up about 25 per cent of its fruit. In the fall, Trail is releasing County Chard, Pinot Noir, Field Blend Skin Contact and Baco Noir from last year’s harvest — its first from the newer plantings.
“I think as the industry here is young, you’ll find many wineries thus far focused on better-known vinifera vines and finding the best way to get them to shine,” Sproll concludes.
416 Benway Rd., Hillier, Ont.
Standout wine: Chardonnay Musqué
Appellation: Twenty Mile Bench
This isn’t a typical oaked Chardonnay with pineapple and buttery vanilla flavours: The unique tangy grapefruit and mellow pear notes make for a delicious wine that pairs well with soft cheeses. Available online or from the tasting bar.
629 Closson Rd., Hillier, Ont.
Proprietor Deborah Paskus settled on the onetime family farm in Hillier Township five kilometres from Lake Ontario for its south sloping fields with good drainage and gravelly soil on a limestone base after studying sites for two years. In addition to estate-grown wines (70 per cent to 75 per cent), Closson Chase produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from the Niagara Peninsula. Its sun-splashed patio reached via a stained-glass archway, reminiscent of its maritime-inspired wine label, is a perfect spot to enjoy a Pinot Noir on a sunny afternoon.
Standout wine: 2014 Vineyard Pinot Noir
Appellation: Prince Edward County
Of the two Pinot Noirs on the tasting menu, I prefer the Vineyard’s subtle spice finish, which was served in a glass that allowed it to breathe. This wine is available at select LCBO stores in Ontario and at the winery or online.
561 Danforth Rd., Wellington, Ont.
Sherry Karlo and her late husband, master winemaker Richard Karlo, purchased the 38-hectare Stevenson homestead in 2005. Its ties to Niagara were strengthened in recent years, with winemaking now in the hands of Derek Barnett, onetime winemaker and business partner at Niagara’s Lailey Vineyard Wines (one of my favourites for red wines until it was sold). Karlo is certified vegan, meaning there are no animal proteins added to reduce tannins.
Standout wine: 2016 Gewürztraminer
Appellation: Niagara Peninsula
A good Gewürztraminer has a hint of rose petals in the mouth, as this one does. This wine is only available through the winery.
County Road Beer Co. at Hinterland Wine Co.
1258 Closson Rd., Hillier, Ont.
Standout beer: Cherry Gose
While not on the wine tour, we stopped for a tasting at this farmhouse brewery. A flight of four including a pale ale and a stout costs $10. We managed to coax our server into mixing up our four flights so we could try Cherry Gose, a refreshing sour cherry ale, and Biere de Mars (creamy lemon), both great choices for a hot summer day paired with a dish of warm black olives and a bowl of pretzels.
County Wine Tours
Sip & Cycle
What you get: all tastings (at least 12) at four wineries, one winery tour, bikes and helmets, a bottle of water and a snack.
Cost: $95 a person.
Participating wineries: Trail Estate, Hinterland, Lacey Estates, The Grange, Karlo Estates and Closson Chase.
What you get: Beer tastings at four breweries, transportation to the breweries (which are too far apart for cycling), a guide and lunch at a brewery.
Cost: $150 a person
Participating breweries: Midtown Brewery, Parsons Brewery, Barley Days, 555 Brewery, and County Road Beer Co.
Individual tours can be booked online up to 48 hours in advance; within less than 48 hours or for a private or custom tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in National Post 10/12/2017