Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017
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Smalltown flavour

Savour the historic charm and regional cuisine of Ontario's newest wine region

It seems incredible that none of my travel-savvy friends in Toronto or Ottawa had heard about Prince Edward County, a lakeside region filled with historic inns, inspired restaurants and a spate of new wineries just a couple of hours from both cities. Every time I mentioned the County, someone would venture a comment about the beauty of the Maritimes.

This Central Canadian blind spot isn't so surprising when you consider that the sandy peninsula south of Belleville, Ontario was cut off from the rest of the province for almost two centuries. Until the main bridge was built in the 1960s, residents almost lived like islanders, connected to the rest of the world by two ferries.

As a result, communities here have developed a strong pride of place and connection to their heritage. Plenty of folks can trace their roots back to the original Loyalists who settled after the American War of Independence in the late 18th century, and many farms have been worked by the same families for generations. Picton, Bloomfield and Wellington have the unselfconscious charm of heritage towns that haven't been tarted up for tourists.

Which is not to say that residents aren't hoping that tourists will come.

This largely agricultural area has always relied on its unique limestone soil for success. It enjoyed incredible prosperity as the continent's prime producer of malting barley in the late 19th century and was one of Canada's major canning regions in the early 20th century. Today, the County hopes the slew of new wineries sprouting up will draw visitors.

The new Niagara?
The buzz around Ontario's newest wine region has been growing. On the heels of other Toronto transplants, celebrities like actress Sonja Smits and chef-restauranteur Jamie Kennedy -- whose Toronto wine bar could become a showcase for the area -- have invested in vineyards.

The industry has blossomed from 20 vine-covered hectares in 1999 to over 200 hectares and 10 wineries in 2004. Winemakers here are aiming to do more than produce qood-quality Canadian table wines. They have their sights set on nothing less than world-class boutique vintages which will draw collectors and wine lovers from around the world. It's a gamble, but these passionate pioneers are willing to bet that the region's unique soil and temperate weather can provide the right conditions.

The tiny peninsula supports two wine regions. Hillier, on the western end, has gravelly soil similar to Burgundy's. In the east, Waupoos' sandy loam slopes are closer to those of Germany's Rheinhessen. These distinct terroirs are perfect for cool-climate grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Reisling, Gamay, Vidal and Pinot Noir.

The pastoral inland wineries around Hillier range from the Victorian estate and restored barn-cum-tasting room at The Grange (990 Closson Road; tel: 613-399-1048; www.thegrangewines.com), to Huff Estates' (2274 Country Road 1; tel: 613-393-5802; www.huffestates.com) Napa-esque concrete building buried in a hillside.

The original pioneer in the County was Waupoos Estates (3016 County Road #8, Waupoos; tel: 613-476-8338; www.waupooswinery.com). Its first vines were planted in 1993 and the winery opened in 2001. This picturesque winery is also known for the excellent fare and fine views from its Gazebo restaurant.

Although most wineries have only released a couple of vintages, at a recent tasting all showed remarkable complexity and body. My greatest regret on the drive home was not having bought more bottles, since they're only sold at the wineries.

For those who want a guided introduction (and a designated driver) for a wine tour, the Waring House Inn's (Highway 33 at County Road 1, Picton; tel: 800-621-4956; www.pec.on.ca/waringhouse) certified wine steward, John Fricker, runs afternoon tours to three wineries and throws in a bit of local history along the way. For a quick overview, Fricker also offers guided tastings of local wines Friday through Sundays at the Waring House, where a flight of four local wines is under $15.

Haute Oats
Thankfully for wine lovers, County residents are as passionate about good food as they are about wine. Restaurants and bistros have put their own twist on fresh market cooking, and the town of Picton is already showing the unusually high concentration of fine dining that marks a rural destination as part of a foodie trail.

 

It's a testament to the area's promise that Chef Michael Sullivan -- previously of acclaimed restaurant The Fifth in Toronto -- made the leap to helm the kitchen at the Merrill Inn (343 Main East, Picton; tel: 866-567-5969; www.merrillinn.com). Also the County's only wine bar, the restaurant offers two dozen wines by the glass and spotlights local duck, quail, lamb and Lake Ontario fish.

At the Waring House Inn, executive chef Luis de Sousa crafts an inventive menu around the best seasonal produce, from cider-and-cheddar soup to ostrich, bison and venison medallions with a wildberry merlot reduction. Not surprisingly, the restaurant's extensive wine list focuses on Ontario and New World wines.

The Waring House is the County's de facto culinary centre. Its cookery school offers half-day workshops run by friendly chef Pat Forster, who keeps wellness on the menu while giving visitors a chance to taste local produce. All classes are hands-on, with themes this summer ranging from Thai to tapas and from grilling to cooking for wellness.

In the off-season, the Waring House's wine school organizes appreciation workshops led by local sommeliers. The Inn also hosts seasonal winemakers' dinners, where local vintners present their selection along with a perfectly paired meal.

Foodie Road Trip
Like all burgeoning culinary destinations, there's only so much that locals can do to give visitors a reason to come -- much of its success will hang on the appeal of the scenery. Here too, the County doesn't come up short. The gently rolling farmland, sheltered inlets and tree-lined rural roads are idyllic.

The Taste Trail (tel: 613-393-2796; www.tastetrail.ca) swings by antique and craft shops, past the surreal Lake on the Mountain -- which overlooks Lake Ontario 60 metres below -- and along field-lined rural roads through Hillier and Waupoos, linking wineries with local producers.

At the County Cider Estate Winery (Rural Road #4, Picton; tel: 613-476-1022; www.countycider.com), the brut and sparkling ciders are made with apples harvested from a 150-year-old orchard. Sir John A. MacDonald -- who worked as a young lawyer in the area -- was once the landlord of the stately home on the premises. An old stone barn houses the shop and tasting room with great views of the South Bay.

Visitors to Orchard Coast Farms (2983 County Road 8, Waupoos; tel: 613-476-6458; www.orchardcoast.ca) can pick berries, peppers and tomatoes and wander the four-hectare maze of maize. The farms' market store sells produce as well as jams, syrups and sauces fresh from a country kitchen.

When fire destroyed the Black River Cheese Company's heritage factory building a few years ago, the communities rallied behind this County institution. Today, it's still operating on the same spot where it was started a century ago, though newfangled specialty cheeses like maple cheddar and horseradish mozzarella have been added to the shelves alongside their award-winning two-year-old cheddar.

As a picturesque food and wine destination, Prince Edward County doesn't need to manufacture a small-town atmosphere -- it still has it. The question, of course, is how long residents can keep it that way as their inevitable success catches up with them.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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