Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Report from: Terroir, Prince Edward County - May 19, 2007

“Terroir”, is the French word that describes that “je ne sais quoi” aspect in a wine that is imparted to it by the soil in which it is grown. Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator magazine, an American publication, took the French term and gave it an English equivalent definition “somewhereness”. Of late the term “Terroir” has been used by the folks out in Prince Edward County (PEC), namely those foolhearty growers who brave the vine-killing minus 30 degree winters, to explain why they carry on their practices in such a harsh winter climate; a climate that forces them to bury their vines in November and burn bales of hay in May to avoid frost and winter damage. Their “Terroir” is something the PEC winemakers and growers are fiercely proud of, in fact, in the new PEC winery touring map, the Terroir is something that is highlighted and explained in some degree of detail for each vineyard and winery, complete with colour coded legend. So it is not surprising that the new vintages festival in PEC is called “Terroir” – a celebration of the region’s wines paired up with foods of the county. The soil is so highly regarded and revered here that a painting was on display, at the entrance to the event, depicting 15 different soil types from 15 different vineyards around the county.

10 of the 12 PEC wineries participated in this year’s event, though the 2 missing are notable in their absence because they are the fiercest of all advocates of the Prince Edward County Terroir: Rosehall Run and Long Dog Winery.

The day itself began, and ended, with another of the proud advocates of terroir: Norm Hardie, who is not only one of the growers and winemakers of the county, but one of the driving forces behind this year’s event. He even made reference to the event’s missing winemakers: “I would have loved to have Dan (Sullivan, winemaker of Rosehall Run) and James (Lotti, winemaker of Long Dog) here, but there’s always a bit of politics, even at these events.” It’s because of Norm’s love and passion for winemaking that he is such a good representative for county wines and the new breed of winemaker setting up shop here. So upon my arrival at Terroir, the Norman Hardie Winery booth was my first stop.

Norm was pouring his two signature wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both from the ’05 vintage. I find it funny that a guy who promotes the terroir of PEC uses mostly Niagara fruit in his wines; but at this point it’s a waiting game for Norm. His vines aren’t mature enough to produce the kinds of wines he wants to make, so to make them he has to go outside the county for his fruit while he waits for his own vines to come of age. Though he will never give up his Niagara fruit, “the weather is just to unpredictable”. On the plus side, he is making county Cab Franc, Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay. Norm’s a well traveled man, having worked harvests in New Zealand, South Africa, France amongst other places, and now Prince Edward County – seems a world of difference, but Norm’s happy here and he’s making standout wines. The ’05 Pinot Noir ($39) is made from Vineland Bench fruit and has notes of strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb and beet root on the nose; earthy-rhubarb and red fruit in the mouth, with a good tannin seam running persistently through it.

Moving away from Norm I visited Huff Estates. Now I don’t want to give away too much here because I am preparing an article for my newsletter about this winery … let’s just suffice it to say that Huff Estates is one of those wineries that is going to help put PEC on the map. Consistently, over the past few years, they have delivered quality wine at good prices. The wines on display today were the ’05 Gamay ($14.95), the ’06 Unoaked Chardonnay sur lie ($15.95), the ’04 Merlot Reserve ($24.95) and the ’06 off-dry Riesling ($14.95). The real standout for many visitors to the festival – and from my vantage point, the most talked about wine – the 2006 South Bay Rose ($14.95). This blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, spends 3-5 hours on its skins before being pressed. The fruity nose comes off like a Sauvignon Blanc, though there are some hints of raspberry and strawberry as well; but the citrus and grassy notes on the tongue are uncanny and that seam of acidity – wow! Looking for a rose to pass the summer away – this is it.

Another winery that is doing wonders for the county’s reputation is The Grange. Their winemaker, Jeff Innes, shuttles between PEC and Niagara (making wine for Rockway Glen), so he has experience in two of the three Ontario wine regions (now all he needs is a job out in the Lake Erie North Shore area and he’ll have all the bases covered). The Grange wines are consistently getting better and better, testament to that is the fact that they were the first PEC winery to have their wines on LCBO shelves (the 2004 Cabernet-Merlot). The Grange focuses on good wines at a variety of different price points, starting from the reasonable ($13.95) to Reserve ($29.95+). Today it was mostly about whites, as both the 2006 Pinot Gris ($16.95) and the ’06 Sauvignon Blanc ($16.95) were poured. The Gris, which comes from 5-7 year old vines, has good apple and pear on the nose with hints of citrus; the mouth retains the apple flavours, but the pear drops off, giving way to peach, orange blossom and melon with a nice lengthy finish. The Sauvignon Blanc comes from younger vines in the Niagara area (though the Grange has planted some of their own just recently): citrus, gooseberry and lime get up in the nose, while citrus, lime and grapey gooseberry greet the palate with a good lasting finish. A decidedly good first effort with this grape for The Grange.

Finally, one of the newest kids on the PEC block is making some real standout wine, with some unpredictable grapes. I’m talking about Catherine Langlois of Sandbanks Estate Winery (see Newsletter #38). Today she had quite an array of wines at her table, the usuals: Riesling and Vidal, and the unusual: 2 Bacos and a Foch. Her 2005 Reserve Baco ($24.95) had the distinction of placing second during the OntarioWineReview Baco Reserve Challenge, and is truly a standout. A more restrained Baco, made in an easy drinking-style with less of the usual leatheryness of most Bacos: cherry, cinnamon, white pepper and truffle greet the nose; while sour cherry mixed with good spiciness and oaky flavours define the palate. During the challenge we poured a barrel sample and I see the finished product is even better than I remember … kudos to Catherine for making a very accessible and tasty Baco. If she keeps this up she just might rival Henry of Pelham for “Ontario’s best” status.

Two other Sandbanks wines were of note this aftrenoon, her 2006 Riesling ($15.95) with it’s apple, pear and peachy nose, followed up by the same on the palate with a zingy lime finish … a pleasant dry Riesling. Also her well-priced 2005 Winter Harvest Vidal ($14.95 – 375ml) – this wine was hardly the sweetie you’d expect, ranking only a 4 on the sugar code, but plenty of sweet fruit both on the nose and in the mouth, it makes for a delicious, light dessert wine.

As mentioned the day began and ended with Norm Hardie … after Terroir a BBQ was held back at Norm’s winery for all the staff, helpers and workers who made Terroir a rousing success. Norm beamed with pride as he delivered his thank you speech to all in attendance. As the evening wore on, and the wine and beer flowed, Norm Hardie visually relaxed (you could see the tension dissipate from this shoulders). Later, as he stood behind his tasting bar, cracking open another of his fabulous Pinots he looked at the four of us huddled around him, and before pouring, with bottle in one hand and screwcap in the other, he said, “If you’ll allow me to pontificate for 45 seconds,” no one interrupted and he continued, “you know what the secret to a really good Pinot is?” We all looked on listening intently, while he paused dramatically. “Good fruit,” he finally said, “good fruit, good wood, good balance and fine tannins … its all about the tannins.” And with that he poured us each a glass from the bottle he held in his hand, and we toasted the successful conclusion of Terroir, with good fruit, good wood and fine tannins.

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