Into the Northumberland Hills

Into the Northumberland Hills

Wine of the WeekOak Heights 2006 Cabernet Franc, Ontario ($19.95, 88 points)While there are vineyards at this impressive new winery in the Northumberland Hills, winemaker Mike Traynor has sourced cab franc (80 per cent) and cab sauvignon from the excellent Watson Vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake for this label. (Southbrook Vineyards has made great Watson cab franc in the past.) Traynor has done a great job making Ontario cabernet franc the way it should be—without over-oaking or heavy extraction. I tasted it three times over the weekend, charmed by its bright raspberry-currant fruit, gentle tobacco, spice and overall ease. But it has substance too; it handled Thanksgiving turkey. Drink now to 2011. Available only via

One of the great advantages of Ontario’s expanding eastern wine regions is that you don’t have to take the QEW to get there (although during rush hour the 401 bottleneck at Salem Road in Ajax is no picnic either). Hundreds of GTAers ventured east on Thanksgiving weekend to the annual Taste festival in Prince Edward County. Living in Belleville, I only had to dip into the county after doing Saturday morning chores, and there I found a vibrant food and wine love-in underway in Picton’s Crystal Palace. It was a great show, but this year it was not all about Prince Edward County.

Right at the crossroads of this culinary gallery stood a banner for Oak Heights Estate Winery, which was pouring a label I’d never seen before. There was a buzz because earlier in the day a blind tasting panel (comprised of food and wine media from Toronto and Ottawa) had awarded the 2006 cabernet franc first place in a pairing competition. The wine was poured with lamb ravioli by Angeline’s of Wellington. So, I pulled up to the table to taste and to ask questions of the young woman, assistant winemaker Lauren Horlock, who was pouring. Some of the details that follow are from a visit made the next day en route to Thanksgiving dinner with my father in Peterborough.

Oak Heights opened on July 21 in a hamlet of the same name, west of the artisan community of Warkworth (also the home of a discreetly hidden penitentiary), in the achingly picturesque Northumberland Hills. For readers whose easterly field vision ends at the DVP, this is way east—northeast of Cobourg and south of Rice Lake. While it’s not as far east as Prince Edward County, it’s easily en route (17 kilometres off the 401), if you’re dawdling to the county some weekend.

The winery is the vision of Brampton-based Ian Fraser, an oenophile who purchased the property in 2000 after visiting California, Burgundy and Australia. It was a gutsy move—aside from a handful of hobbyists, no one has grown grapes commercially here due to the high altitudes and distance from any possible moderating lake effect. Fraser is banking on hill and forest protection and will be hilling up the vines in winter. And, as expected, in such a marginal region, the vines are mostly hardy winter hybrids.

Fraser has scooped up Mike Traynor, a young, entrepreneurial Niagara College oenology grad, who helped establish Huff Estates in Prince Edward County and Willow Springs in Stouffville. Traynor is assisted by fellow Niagara College grad Lauren Horlock. I am impressed by the textural finesse and balance they are achieving, even if the fruit is a bit tart from the homegrown sites.

Equally as impressive is the winery tasting room, complete with ultra-modern tasting bar, horizontal bottle displays, Riedel wine glasses, table service and a great view over the vineyards, pond and rolling hills. Patrons can tote picnic lunches made on the spot onto the deck and down to the pond. A music trio was there on Sunday. Not a marketing leaf is left unturned. Northumberland County has suddenly arrived.

Other Wines from Oak HeightsOak Heights 2006 Covert Hill White ($12.95, 86 points, winery only) This is the first commercial wine I have tasted grown from vines in the Northumberland Hills. Made 100 per cent from estate-grown vidal it’s a dry, lean, slightly green version with some pear, celery and a touch of leesy peppery character. A gentle spritz lightens the palate, acidity is racy and the concentration and length are good to very good. I am reminded of German sylvaner. Nicely textured with good length.

Oak Heights 2006 Covert Hill Red ($12.95, 84 points, winery only) This aromatic hybrid blend combines chambourcin and marechal foch from estate vines in the Northumberland Hills with some baco noir from Prince Edward County. Very lifted peppery, leather, wild currant, raspberry, rhubarb and bramble aromas are similar to some southern French reds. Mid-weight with too tart acidity, which is massaged by a gently creamy texture. Virtually no tannin. Light with 10.8 per cent alcohol. Good length. Good winemaking here; just needs more ripe fruit. Watch out in 2007.

Oak Heights 2006 Chardonnay ($17.95, 81 points, winery only) From very young estate vines, this chardonnay has been aged eight months in Canadian oak barrels. Indeed, every barrel in this new winery is Canadian oak, a gritty decision until they can prove that it can be seasoned like the best French and American. The result in this very tender, light chardonnay is an overt, resinous, bitter character. Maybe richer fruit and better seasoned wood in 2007 will get it closer to what they’re after.