On the Road with the Grape Guy

Report from - Taste!, Prince Edward County - Oct. 7, 2006

03 Jan 2007
On a beautiful fall afternoon, we traveled to Picton to check out the 5th Annual Taste! (a celebration of regional cuisine) Event. Prince Edward County has come a long way in the last few years. It has suffered some debilitating set backs, with freezing cold winters (-30 C) that killed many of their young vines resulting in many years of short crops. But persistence and patience has paid off and a majority of the wines shown at the event this year were a far cry from the wines I personally tried, and despised, just 2 years ago … those wines were barely passable, and some barely drinkable. 2 years ago I learned to spit wine properly in Prince Edward County. This year there was no spitting, just pure enjoyment, as “The County” finally begins to emerge from the shadows and begins to show that wonderful potential everyone was hyping about a few years ago.

This event is held at the Picton Fairgrounds at the east end of town. Spread out over the fairgrounds and inside the “Crystal Palace” pavilion. This year, 44 booths set up throughout the venue, with a variety of local foods, beers, wines and other things you’d expect to see at these events being showcased. The restaurants and boozeries paired foods with complementary drinks, and competitions were held to see who’s pairings worked best. A live band played in the main pavilion, adding atmosphere to the joint. I was told by Bob Tompkins, owner of Carmela Estates, that this year the weather finally co-operated, “in past years we’ve had nothing but rain and cold weather.” This year, 16 degrees, clear blue sky, and the sun shining down greeted the visitors to Taste! The weather pretty much encapsulates the way growers and owners are seeing the future of Prince Edward County; a new found vigor and hope – with the ’06 crop looking very good. Are the wine-Gods finally smiling down on them? As David Lawrason, of Wine Access Magazine, stated during his awards presentation, “after some harsh winters, the future looks bright for this bountiful harvest year.” Here’s looking forward to more great wines from Prince Edward County.

Below you’ll find a short list of some of my selections from the day.

Red Wine of the Day: Bella Vignes 2005 Leon Millot-Zweigelt.
From a winery barely in existence, Bella Vigne is from Del-Gatto Estates, and is sold through Black Prince Winery in Picton. Bella Vignes is run by Pat Del-Gatto, a third generation winemaker, who has been making wine “since I was 9, I started by helping my father.” Made from a French hybrid grape, Leon Millot, which is considered by Pat to “be the best of it’s three siblings” (Marechal Foch and Lucy Kuhlman); and Zweigelt. This particular blend won’t be seen, from this particular winery, for at least a few years, because after the vintage Pat pulled the Zweigelt out of his vineyard – but he is planning to plant more. This year he reports that his crop of Leon Millot “is looking very good”. 60 cases of the ‘05 were made and it has a beautiful nose and taste of red ripe cherries. The winery itself is currently under construction and should be ready in about 2 years, though the history of the Del-Gatto’s in the area goes deeper than that. For the past 5 years Del-Gatto and his wife have settled down in the County and been growing vines, after having shopped the world looking for the right place to plant roots. “We just fell in love with the area and the soil,” Pat told me, “we’re happy to be here.”

White Wine of the Day: Carmela Estates 2005 Terroir Twist.
“Norm Hardie will always be my winemaker,” Bob Tompkins told me, as I tried this Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling blend. Turns out the 2005 short vintage was even worse down in the county, so their winemakers had to get more inventive with their wines. Because there wasn’t enough grapes to make individual varieties of these wines – Norm blended them all together to make this unique wine. “We didn’t want to buy grapes” (besides in that vintage who was selling), “so we had to make due with what we had. And we wanted something all county.” Delicious and fruity with just a hint of sweetness – and if you pay careful attention you can pick out the influence of each individual grape.

Other wines of note from the day:
Domaine Calcaire Hillier Pinot Noirs were impressive, especially the 2004 Closson Pinot with notes of strawberry and earth on the nose and earth and fruit on the palate … “it’s not ready for release yet,” owner Dan Taylor told me, “because it’s still way too tannic.” But once you get through those chewy tannins you really see where this one is going. I know I’ll wait with baited breath on this one.

Norman Hardie 2005 County Cabernet Franc … a wonderful edition to Norm’s repertoire … keep your eyes open for my review in the newsletter.

Rosehall Run has a trifecta of great wines out right now. Their 2004 Top Barrique Chardonnay, made from 24 year-old vines grown in Niagara is dreamy, elegant, fully oak integrated and has wonderful flavours – look for a full review in the upcoming months. Their 2004 Buckthorn Red is 100% Zweigelt, grown in the county and is a light easy drinking affair. And the 2005 Sullyzwicker, this time 75% Riesling and 25% Ehrenfelser, all county grown, is even better than last years version.

Finally, two other wines that made the hit list … Sandbanks 2005 Cabernet Franc still shines (see newsletter # 3Cool and Huff Estates now sold out First Frost, their take on a late harvest Vidal is, or should I say, was, wonderful. Let’s hope we see it again next year.

The Irish Rovers said it best: “Wasn’t that a Party?” and yes the county had themselves one heck of a party, for good reason … and it’s about time. I am not quite yet ready to throw the mantle that has been bandied about for a few years now, lauding PEC as “the next big thing” – but I do think they are getting ready to take it. I for one am not on the bandwagon, but I won’t let it pass me by either. See you next year, same weekend, same place.

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