The County Wassails

The County Wassails

Last weekend the wineries of Prince Edward County were wassailing, reviving an English custom that is something of a post-harvest, pre-Christmas song and mulled wine fest. They have plenty to wassail about in 2007—the biggest and best harvest in the region’s short history, and its first harvest as an official VQA-designated vineyard area. The Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association estimates that over 679 tonnes of grapes were harvested in 2007 (about 600,000 bottles). On a global scale, this is less than a drop in the bucket; indeed, some international wineries make single brands that exceed this amount. But within a local context, it is five times the amount that the county harvested in 2005. And despite a drought summer that reduced quantities in Niagara, the county’s slightly more fluid season has exceeded 2006 by about 40 per cent. Not to mention that in both Niagara and Prince Edward County, grape quality for 2007 may be the highest yet recorded. With vines now buried under their earthen hills—to protect against the very cold winter Environment Canada is predicting—the wineries have time to catch their breath and celebrate the holidays. Here, some Prince Edward County wines recently tasted, which are newly released or still in stock. Order via the Internet or take a trip to the county; most wineries are open on the weekends leading up to Christmas.

$15 to $25

Black Prince 2006 Chambourcin, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($13.15, 85 points)
From a hybrid rarely seen nowadays that resembles pinot noir in terms of its lighter colour and fragrance. This is very pale. Soft raspberry and elderberry fruit on the nose, with wood spice and flora peony character. Mid-weight, sweetish, with firm hybrid acidity and soft tannin. Good

Sandbanks 2006 Cabernet Franc, Prince Edward County Ontario ($19.95, 87 points)
This shows bright and moderately deep colour. Lifted, uncomplicated, pure cabernet franc nose of raspberry-currant fruit that’s mindful of Italian sangiovese, with a touch of green tobacco and earthiness. Light to mid-weight, fairly sweet, supple and gentle with fine, slightly green tannin. Very good length. Enjoyable now through 2010.

By Chadsey’s Cairns 2006 Gamay Noir, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($20, 86 points)
From 100 per cent county fruit, this pale ruby red gamay has some of the rusticity often found in Beaujolais gamay. Fairly generous nose of sweet cherry-redcurrant fruit with some beet-like earthiness and a touch of vanilla sweetness on the palate. But there is no oak here; it’s all about the fruit. Light bodied with firm, mineral-driven, food-friendly acidity on the palate, a touch of earthiness and dry tannin. Good to very good length.

Black Prince 2006 Cabernet Franc Reserve, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($19.15, 85 points)
When matched with a toasted rosemary and garlic salt quail breast, created by Urban Pear restaurant at the recent Ottawa Gold Medal Plates competition, the pairing took a bronze medal. The wine hints at the floral sweet raspberry-sour cherry cab franc fruit common in county examples, but it is partially masked by some medicinal character, which should recede with age. There is tobacco and a spicy, cedar-oak complexity as well. Light to mid-weight. Fairly delicate style—supple with easy tannin, firm acidity and a gently dry, earthy, iodine finish. Good to very good length. Best 2009 to 2011.

Sandbanks 2005 Baco Noir Reserve, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($24.95, 86 points)
Pricey for baco but has proved popular. This wine has a deep black colour and a chewiness that most visitors to the county hope to find. Big nose that’s very toasty with gamy, leathery notes of coffee grounds, prune with some kelp-seaweed character. It’s quite full bodied, dense and tannic, with a strong earthy, black licorice finish. Quite tarry and dense. Very good to excellent length. Now to 2010.

$25 to $50

Huff Estate 2006 Lighthall Chardonnay, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($29.00, 89 points)
Quantity is increasing with this lovely, light, 100 per cent county chardonnay from a single vineyard near South Bay. Slim, poised and quite fine, with an elegant nose of apple, flint, butterscotch and citrus. Crisp but has some creaminess as well. Exactly the style to expect from the limestone-laced soils in this region. Very good

Norman Hardie 2006 Chardonnay, Ontario ($35, Not Rated)
This is chardonnay is sourced from Niagara fruit as opposed to Hardie’s now sold out county chardonnay. Bright, pale yellow colour. The nose is lifted with considerable matchstick sulphur from recent bottling, which should dissipate (will score it later). Smoky, nutty, custard character with grapefruit and green apple. Palate is gentle, texturally rich and smooth, with a green olive, slightly sappy and flinty finish. Lovely balance between acidity, alcohol and fruit. A touch of wood tannin (was aged in new 500-litre French oak barrels). Excellent length. Best 2009 to 2011.

Norman Hardie 2006 Pinot Noir, Ontario ($39, Not Rated)
Just bottled and released, this edition made from Niagara fruit shows pale, very bright ruby colour. Huge, lifted nose with a blast of cinnamon-heart candy, raspberry-redcurrant fruit and wood spice, but it’s also showing a bottle-shocked medicinal/iodine character at the moment (will score it later on). Palate is disarmingly gentle and smooth upfront, with fine acidity and firm, dry young tannin. Mineral, iodine and very spicy finish. Excellent length. Best 2009 to 2012.

Closson Chase NV Assemblage Pinot Noir, Ontario ($40, 91 points)
The difficult, rained-upon, 2006 pinot crop was bolstered by the more full-bodied 2005 to create this vintage-blend wine. Colour is deceptively pale given the flavour explosion that follows. Texture is lovely—very gentle, silky and a touch sweet. Lifted nose of sour cherry, cranberry and strawberry fruit with gentle oak spice. Light bodied, soft and tender. Excellent, surprising length. Drinkable now, but it should hold through to

Over $50

Closson Chase 2005 Iconoclast Chardonnay, Prince Edward County ($65, 92 points)
The most expensive white yet produced in the county, it’s excellent indeed. I encountered this wine during the Ottawa edition of the Gold Medal Plates competition, where it was paired with a melt-in-your-mouth ginger-lacquered fillet of B.C. black cod by chef Matthew Carmichael of Restaurant 18. The pairing took the silver medal. Tasted later solo, the wine showed lavish aromas of butterscotch, peanut brittle, peach, mandarin and cedar. It is full bodied (13.7 per cent alcohol), sweet, satiny and incredibly polished and poised, with outstanding length. Obviously coddled by winemaker Deborah Paskus, who first showed the potential of low-yield Ontario chardonnay with the Temkin Paskus chardonnay over a decade ago in Niagara. Five cases remain of only 45 cases