The County – Southern Ontario Wine and Food Culture Comes of Age

by Wade Rowland – Part 1

Country fields – Prince Edward County Ontario Canada
Prince Edward County is a pastoral setting
Somewhere in your mind you already have a picture of Prince Edward County in Southern Ontario. Miles of cedar rail fences enclosing fields of corn and wheat, or grazing cattle. Winding roads that crest gentle hills to disclose panoramic views of Lake Ontario, or one of a dozen bays and inlets that cut deep into the peninsula. The sand dunes and beaches of the Sandbanks Provincial Park – home of the largest freshwater sand dune system in North America. Picturesque farm houses and weathered barns built a hundred and fifty years or more ago. Sugar bushes and apple orchards. ³The County,² as it’s known to locals, is everyone’s idea of an idyllic pastoral setting.

Charming villages – Wellington, Bloomfield and Picton – that dot the peninsula at buggy-ride distance from one another were built by the original settlers, who were mostly refugees fleeing the American Revolutionary War to take up generous land grants north of the border, where the Union Jack still flew. They’re know here as United Empire Loyalists, and they were a welcome infusion of know-how, grit and wealth into the sparsely-populated British colony known as Upper Canada.

The County and its people have had their ups and downs over the last three hundred years, but perhaps the most damaging blows were struck in the 1960’s when big agribusiness moved in an in the name of efficiency and the almighty dollar all but wiped out a thriving and diversified artisan-based agricultural industry. Kraft elbowed out local cheese makers; Aylmer’s did the same to local canners.

But today, with the help of the federally-funded Agricultural Adaptation Council, a renaissance is underway in this historic corner of Ontario just two hours east of Toronto. Grape growing has come to Prince Edward County, and with it wineries and a burgeoning food culture based on locally-grown meat, poultry and produce. (More accurately, grape-growing has returned ‹ we’re told a County vintner won a prize at the 1860 Chicago World Fair, as did local hops and barley growers.)

Fine restaurants are springing up all over the peninsula. It’s all reminiscent of what happened in that other Ontario wine district, Niagara, half a century ago. But here, everything benefits from the steep learning curve endured by the early wine industry at the southern end of Lake Ontario, where they’re now regularly winning international awards.

The soil in Prince Edward County is remarkably similar to the soil in Burgundy. You’d think nothing would grow on land that looks for all the world like an undeveloped gravel pit, but the calcareous limestone shale is interlayered with clays and other glacial soil deposits, making it ideal for grape vines, holding water through the hot and dry County summers.

Winters are of course harsher than they are in Burgundy (or Niagara, for that matter), despite the mitigating ‘lake effect’ – Lake Ontario almost never freezes and thus moderates winter temperatures along its shores. But cultivation techniques adapted from long Niagara experience seem to have solved that problem. Roots mounded in a few inches of soil and vines trained low to the ground have survived even the exceptionally fierce winters of the past two years. Early frost damage to grapes can be can be staved off with powerful, diesel-driven wind machines, and these are becoming a feature of the County landscape.

And when spring arrives, that ideal soil, and the sun beating down on the sloping fields, produces fine crops of cool-climate European vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc. The wines being made here are distinctive – more subtle than the big-bodied Californians or Chileans or Australians, and more akin to those of France.

As Prince Edward County’s grape-growing acreage expands, more and more of the wines being produced here are able to bear the PECWA (Prince Edward County Wine Growers Association) seal, indicating one hundred percent County grapes were used in their making. Since 1999 more than six hundred acres of vines have been established, and there are now seven wineries open for sales and tastings.

Our weekend excursion took us to three of these new wineries, with a stopover at one of the county’s cosiest small hotels, in the pretty lakeside village of Wellington.

About The Author

Christine at World Travel Guide. Traveling is my passion.