Prince Edward County: Canada's unlikely wine capital

They say a fool and his money are soon parted, but a fool and his vineyard … that's a story worth telling. "Racoons are a problem," says Dan Sullivan, lifting his hat and giving his mop of straw-coloured hair a scratch. "We've had to build four miles [6.4 kilometres] of electric fence just to keep 'em out."

Sullivan, along with his partner Lynn, started Rosehall Run in Ontario's Prince Edward County (PEC) in 2001, when the local wine industry was just beginning. "The soil is so dry the early settlers called this patch 'Hungry Point'," he says, pouring me a 2013 unoaked chardonnay of the same name. 

Racoons and dry soils aren't Sullivan's only worry, there's also snow to deal with. "During winter it can drop to minus 24 degrees," he says. "So we bury the vines under mounds of soil to stop them freezing." 

And if that's not tough enough, each spring the vines have to be dug up again. By hand.

These hardships have been documented by Geoff Heinricks, pioneer of the area's winemaking, in his 2005 memoir A Fool and Forty Acres: Conjuring a vineyard three thousand miles from Burgundy.

Today, Prince Edward County is full of pioneers like Sullivan and Heinricks, many who've escaped the rat race in search of a more meaningful lifestyle, others descendants of United Empire Loyalists, the group that fled the United States for British North America (now Canada) at the end of the 18th century after the American Revolution. 

I've arrived in Prince Edward County, a scrap of an island clinging to the eastern edge of Lake Ontario, via the Loyalist Parkway and free car ferry from Glenora. Driving through the daisy chain towns of Picton, Bloomfield and Wellington gives the instant feeling of laid-back island culture. With 800 kilometres of shoreline the county is dotted with leisure boats and beaches, bright tugs and boutique inns, all interspersed with rolling hills and country lanes. From humble (some would say foolhardy) beginnings the region is now a Designated Viticultural Area with about 40 wineries. 

Following the success of the wineries a rash of breweries, distilleries and cideries​ has popped up, alongside artisan food producers, farmers' markets and cooking schools. To those in the know, particularly the young, hairy hipsters from Toronto, PEC is the latest foodie hotspot, with dedicated "taste" and "art" trails. 

I start at Sixty-Six Gilead, a handcrafted distillery making a range of spirits using ingredients similar to those that would have been available during the time of the Loyalists. Owners Peter Stroz​ and Sophia Pantazi, both radiologists from Toronto, collect fresh botanicals to produce their authentic blends of whisky, rum, vodka and gin. "We pick lavender and juniper to create our Loyalist's gin," Stroz says. "The process is equal parts art and science." 

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Tastings include a crimson rye whiskey, which has been aged in pinot noir barrels and a Duck Island rum, but it is the Canadian pine vodka I fall for, spiced with local pine needles collected on the property. "Breathe it in," Stroz says, holding the glass close to my nose. "The scent reminds me of hot August nights in the forest."

From here we drive to the Drake Devonshire, a newly opened boho-cool restaurant and design hotel on the water's edge. An offshoot of Toronto's hip Drake Hotel it combines a locally driven menu created by head chef Matthew DeMille, with a killer location, an ever-evolving art collection and a line up of performance and cultural events. 

The sun is shining as we enjoy a farmer's brunch platter on the back deck overlooking the lake. "Gorgeous day," the bearded waiter says. "But you should see it in winter, when we light fires on the beach and watch the ice floes drift by."

Set back from the lake on a clay limestone hill we find the winery of Norman Hardie, one of Canada's star wine growers. After earning his sommelier qualifications in Burgundy, Hardie embarked on a six-year journey working on cool climate varieties across South Africa, Oregon, New Zealand and California, before discovering the perfect climate and calcareous limestone he was looking for was right on his doorstep.

Assistant winemaker Katie Worobeck​ leads us through a tasting of a 2013 County chardonnay, a Calcaire 2014 and a 2011 pinot noir, each reflecting the French notion of "terroir". "We may not be one of the world's great wine regions yet," she says. "But we're working on it."

With her confidence and vigour, Worobeck is typical of the people drawn to the county. An energetic group of trailblazers, of people willing to take chances, to make mistakes and to live in harmony with the land. And there's nothing foolish about that.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

keepexploring.ca

ontariotravel.net 

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies daily from Sydney to Toronto via Vancouver; see aircanada.com. Prince Edward County is a two-hour drive from Toronto, or three hours from Ottawa.

STAYING THERE

The Drake Devonshire offers a range of rooms including a two-bedroom loft, an A-frame owner's suite, plus creekside, balcony and courtyard guestrooms. A petite "Stargazer crash pad" starts from $C279 ($280); see drakedevonshire.ca.

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Destination Canada and Ontario Tourism.

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