Prince Edward County may be one of Canada’s youngest wine regions, but please don’t call us New World. With a climate reminiscent of Chablis and winemakers with Burgundian tastes, County wine has a style that is decidedly French. Whether a wine is considered Old World (European) or New World (everywhere else) in style comes down to the winemaker and what decisions they make during vinification—not the country where it’s made. There are New World style wines made all over Europe, and plenty of winemakers are finding the perfect conditions for the Old World style right here in the County.
Along with vinification (or winemaking), climate plays a crucial role in determining what style a wine will be. Cool climate wines are light bodied, with aromas and flavours that lean towards green or underripe. They are high in acid and have subtle flavours that pair well with a variety of foods. This climate lends itself well to the Old World style, which is known for wines with more earthy and vegetal aromas than pure fruit. The Old World favours structure over aromatics, and the subtle flavours of cool climate wines allow components like minerality and texture to shine. New World style wines are all about the fruit, with big aromatics that express themselves immediately in the glass. This style is most easily achieved in a warm climate, where wines are full bodied and have ripe fruit flavours that many consumers perceive as sweet. Their high alcohol and low acid levels make them less refreshing than cool climate wines, but they are more approachable and easier to drink on their own without food.
Many winemakers are also winery owners, farmers—with telltale dirt under their fingernails from the day spent toiling in their vineyard.
Lee Baker, winemaker, was drawn to the County for its elegant, acid driven wines—a departure from the big, jammy, overripe styles of the Okanagan where he had just completed three vintages as an assistant winemaker. I spoke with him in his new home base at Keint-He Winery about what makes the County ideal to pursue the food-friendly, expressive style that the Old World is known for. He compares the small community of County winemakers to those of Burgundy: salt-of-the-earth types that work with the grapes from the field all the way to the bottle. Many winemakers are also winery owners, farmers—with telltale dirt under their fingernails from the day spent toiling in their vineyard. It’s this relationship to the vine that makes a lot of County winemakers a little puritanical. While not strictly “natural”, many opt for a minimal intervention approach—producing wines that are more expressive of the terroir.
It takes intense passion to be a County winemaker. Here, we are cold climate to the extreme, growing grapes in a region whose winters would likely kill off unprotected vines. Weeks are spent at the end of each vintage tilling the soil between rows and hilling up the vines to protect them from frigid temperatures. The economics don’t quite make sense, an equation that keeps large commercial producers out of the region. “Big guys have yet to infiltrate Prince Edward County because their profit margins are decreased greatly by producing here.” Lee says. “They’d rather grow out in Niagara where they can push higher yields and get higher sugars and make the wine easier. Here it’s more difficult, growing and getting things ripe, but we have more expressive fruit in the end—and we have to charge a premium for it.”
Large producers are in the business of making a wine that is appealing to a wide variety of consumer palates. That usually means a wine in the New World style. “In a couple of places I worked at, the mandate was to make the biggest wine possible,” Lee recalls of his time in the Okanagan, “push ripeness levels and make high alcohol, really jammy type wines. No hard edges. Really big, round fruit in the mouth.” The cold climate of the County dictates what grapes will grow well and how they will taste. The first wave of winemakers learned that we simply cannot achieve the big, full bodied style of red wine popular in other Canadian regions. They adapted their techniques and focused their efforts on varietals that are better suited to the climate. Slowly, the County built a reputation for itself on the backs of Burgundian varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That reputation for quality, Old World style wine attracted young winemakers like Lee to the region. “Originally coming from Niagara, I fell in love with cool climate varietals—especially Pinot Noir. The County was my opportunity to get back to making good, food-friendly Pinots.”
A more natural style of winemaking first drew Lee to the County and now, in his third vintage as a head winemaker, he finds himself doing less and less to the wine—and seeing better results. He describes his personal journey since coming to the County, “If you think of Old World winemaking at its roots, it’s very natural. Throw a bunch of grapes together, crush them up a little bit, and then let them ferment. But New World winemaking has really moved away from that. In my first year here, I only did one whole cluster fermentation [as opposed to processing the fruit so the berries are removed from the stem]. I kept coming back to the batch and thinking ‘Man, there’s something really good here.’ And slowly I’ve been getting further and further away from technology. A lot of winemakers here are small producers and don’t have the means to use technology to control the winemaking process. Our circumstances force us into these Old World methods, but that works with Pinot and it makes it taste so fucking good.” [Ed. Note: We tend to say this a lot in the County.]
With the unique challenges of grape growing in the County, I asked Lee if Niagara is more appealing for a winemaker. “I wouldn’t give up this experience for anything, getting to know this weird and wonderful place. I know the majority of the winemaking community in Wellington. We have our winemakers meetings and grape growers meetings and we’re really trying to figure this thing out and work together as a community. It’s been really cool, and the wines are just so good—they’re crazy good! People are embracing the style.”
Perhaps that’s the most important part, that consumers want to buy what we’re selling. Years ago, selling County wine to the public included lots of excuses for why we didn’t have, and couldn’t make, the type of wine they were looking for. Now, our style is our selling point. You can call it Old World, Burgundian, or cool climate, but one thing is certain, it’s all County.
Ewing-Mulligan, Mary, and McCarthy, Ed. Wine Style. John Wiley, 2005.