Monday, August 31, 2015

Ontario’s Southwest – Exploring the Wine Trail

Bonnieheath Estate Lavender
Bonnieheath Estate Lavender and Winery
Shawn and I are walking through the grounds at Bonnieheath Estate Lavender and Winery on a beautiful August afternoon. We pass the regal old oak tree, meander past the prairie grass, the wetlands and the rows of grape vines and lavender plants. It’s hard to believe that not long ago, this beautiful oasis was a tobacco farm. For owners Anita and Steve Buehner, I sense relief that they have been able to move past those tough years, when the tobacco farm went out of business and they didn’t know what the future held. Now, with a retail store stocking their wines, cider and lavender products, with a beautiful patio overlooking the fields and a wedding-ready gazebo, Bonnieheath is bursting with potential.

Bonnieheath Estate Lavender
The vineyard at Bonnieheath
Potential is a word that comes to mind often as Shawn and I visit Ontario’s Southwest (as guests of their tourism association). The beauty of the area is undeniable – fields of green line the highways and the local produce is flush with flavour and freshness. Amidst those crops of corn and berries, winemakers have started to pop up, first making fruit wines and now many of them adding hybrids and vinifera to their crops. The wines of Ontario’s Southwest are still in the early stages, but the area is emerging as another viable area for winemaking in the province.

Bonnieheath Estate Marquette wine
We begin by tasting through the wines at Bonnieheath – the Marquette and lavender icewine are the most impressive and the Don’t Count Your Chickens white blend is a refreshing surprise. They are concentrating on hybrids, as their terroir suits it best.  I’ll hear a lot about the unusual May frost on this visit, which wiped out most of Bonnieheath’s apples and was a reminder of how challenging it is to grow vinifera in Ontario or other cool climate regions. They are also concentrating on cider—the last bottling is all sold out, so Shawn and I sip tank samples and can see why it’s so popular. It suits Bonnieheath and I suspect it will once again be a big seller.

Blueberry Hill Estates Winery
Outside the front door at Blueberry Hill
From Bonnieheath, we turn the car towards Blueberry Hill Estates, where we meet with Amanda Allison for a tour of this meandering blueberry farm. They grow 13 different types here, and sell them at their on-site farmers market. They also sell some of the best blueberry and butter tarts around. Their café is set to open soon and they continue to add animals to their growing farm. But it’s the wines that have brought us here and we’re excited to taste.

Blueberry Hill Blueberry Wine
Fruit wine has a bad reputation amongst the wine snobs of the world, but I’ve always felt it has its place.  Blueberry Hill has decided to turn that reputation on its head. Like Muskoka Lakes and its cranberry wine, Blueberry Hill has concentrated on what it does best – blueberries. And the blueberry wine is good. It’s drier than you’d expect, but still holds the character of the berry. They age it in oak barrels and it’s made with an abundance of love and care. We liked it. We also liked their late-harvest blueberry. A perfect addition to sparkling wine or as a dessert tipple, it’s just the right level of sweetness. Their other wines are flush with potential – the fruit wines taking things to another level and their excellent new cider, The Fighter, more than holding its own in the product line.
Quai du Vin Winery
From there, we head towards our final destination for the day, Port Stanley, with a stop at Quai Du Vin Estate Winery along the way. Here, winemaker Jamie Quai is walking a group through an hour-long tour of his winery. His enthusiasm for winemaking is infectious, as he goes through everything from the basics of wine to the details of his own grape-growing philosophy. Afterwards, he walks us through a private tasting on the winery’s lovely patio, as a wedding is set up on the beautiful grounds just beyond us. It’s hard not to fall in love with this landscape, and Shawn is won over by the lone frog holding court in the patio pond.

Quai du Vin Winery Vineyards
The vineyards at Quai Du Vin
The wines here are a mix of hybrid and vinifera. The hybrids grow (and sell) well, which allows Jamie to make the vinifera he enjoys. He has a wide range available, from a sweet and slightly carbonated 2013 Aurora Muscat Petillant to a refreshing and balanced Vidal (perfect for summer). He alternates between dry and off-dry Riesling, depending on the growing season, with good results. The reds are strong. While I have yet to develop a taste for most red hybrids (Baco Noir and Marquette being the exceptions thus far), I can see that great care went into all of these wines and why they work so well in this market. I’m impressed by how Jamie is making both side by side – he reminds me a bit of the winemakers of Prince Edward County, with his experimental nature and intense passion for making wine that is expressive of the region.

Windjammer Inn Port Stanley
After a day of sipping and spitting, Shawn and I are ready to relax and enjoy a good meal, which our host for the evening, Windjammer Inn in Port Stanley, is well-equipped to provide. Our room, The Sheppard Suite, is spacious and comfortable, with a large en suite bathroom and a nice sitting area at the end of the bed. We have a reservation for dinner and I can’t wait to tuck into Chef Kim Saunder’s renowned cooking.

Windjammer Inn Port Stanley pork chop
Pork chop dinner
Dinner does not disappoint. While sipping Ontario wine, I enjoy flavourful crab cakes followed by summer ricotta gnocci with shrimp and scallops. Shawn is impressed with the melt-in-your mouth bison tenderloin carpaccio appetizer and his eyes widen when his large, succulent pork chop arrives. Finishing off with delicious desserts (a crepe for him, crème brule for me), we are more than satisfied as we set off for a much-needed evening walk of the area.

Port Stanley Beach
The beach in Port Stanley

Located on the shores of Lake Erie, Port Stanley has a wealth of sandy beaches and a bustling main street lined with cute shops and busy restaurants. We watch the sun set from the beach, then walk over to explore the main drag. Though the shops close somewhat early, the bars are wide open and many feature bands or singer songwriters, whose music fills the air around us. This is not a city that heads to bed early on a Saturday.

Winjammer Inn Port Stanley brunch
Huevos Mildred - so good.
Shawn and I, however, are ready to turn in and are grateful for our comfy bed at The Windjammer. We wake early and at 9 a.m. head downstairs to tuck into breakfast on the sunny patio, just as it opens. If possible, this meal is even better than dinner. There are fresh-baked scones to start and I enjoy the Huevos Mildred while Shawn devours the farmer’s breakfast. It’s a filling start to the day and the fuel we’ll need for the rest of our adventures.

Anything Used Sparta Historic Village
We start our day visiting The Historic Village of Sparta, which is full of artist’s galleries and antique shops. Exploring the seemingly endless rooms of Anything Used & Sparta Country Candles we can’t resist buying one of their popular candles and picking up a few odds and ends to bring home.

Bodhi Tree store in Port Stanley
From Sparta, we head back to Port Stanley, which is finally waking up. The shops are open now and we pick up local fudge and I find an adorable dress at The Bodhi Tree. We spend a few hours just wandering around exploring the stores and beaches. For lunch, we decide to split fried green tomatoes and local perch at The Kettle Creek Inn (all of which paired perfectly with a glass of Cooper’s Hawk unoaked Chardonnay). Eating in their pretty gazebo on a sunny Sunday is a pretty perfect way to end our visit to the city.

Kettle Creek Inn fried green tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes at The Kettle Creek Inn

Golden Leaf Winery in Ontario
On the way home, we pop by Rush Creek Wines (closed for a family emergency) and then set out to find Golden Leaf Estate Winery, where winemaker Andrew Shelswell is happy to show us around and let us taste through some of his recent releases. After making wine in Nova Scotia for many years, Andrew has had an interesting transition to Ontario. With a base of mostly sand and a very high water table, the conditions have been challenging, but the results are very promising. I particularly liked the Vidal and 2011 Merlot.

Golden Leaf also has a restaurant that plays frequent host to large dinners and events for the local area. We were too late to try any of their food, but we look forward to checking them out on our next visit.

Golden Leaf Winery rosé wine
And as we headed back to Toronto, we decided we would almost certainly be back. I’d like to visit Burning Kiln Winery, which we didn’t have time to include on our schedule, and there are so many hidden gems in the area that we didn’t get a chance to explore. In our room at the Windjammer, waiting for breakfast to start, we had flipped through a pamphlet for Ontario’s Southwest, picking out adventures we could tackle next – we definitely need to spend more time exploring all that our province has to offer.

Port Stanley Ontario
Port Stanley
Interested in visiting? Ontario’s Southwest is holding a contest where you can enter to win your own Dream Foodie Escape! Learn all about it here.

Shawn and I developed our trip via the Foodie 15 on – you can find your own Explore the Shore ideas there too, as well as additional information on the wineries. 

Do you have a favourite destination in Ontario’s Southwest? Be sure to share it in the comments or on social.

Thanks to Ontario’s Southwest, who sponsored this trip. All opinions are, as always, our own.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New York’s Finger Lakes Region

Sunset at Damiani Wine Cellars
I often tell people that Evan Dawson’s Summer in a Glass is the only wine book that ever made me almost miss my subway stop. It’s an engrossing read about the mavericks and originals who are taking on one of the most complicated regions in North America and making wine along New York’s Finger Lakes.

As Shawn and I drove down Hwy 14 and Seneca Lake came into view on our left, I had finally arrived in the place that had so enchanted me as I tore through the pages of that book. I had vowed to visit just one chapter in, but it was the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference that had finally made that promise a reality. Looking out over the lake and its extraordinary beauty, I couldn’t believe it had taken this long.

Two local favourites
In August, more than 200 wine bloggers from around the world descended on the Finger Lakes, ready to sniff, swirl and spit (and maybe even sip) some of the best wines the region has to offer. For many of us, it was our first time trying wines from the area, which sells the majority of its product within New York State. Inviting us to visit and experience the region seems to be part of a larger plan to finally put the Finger Lakes on the world stage. Based on some of the wines I tasted, there are winemakers in the area who are more than ready to take that step.

Shawn and I spent five days there, heading in a bit early so we had time to explore on our own before the official start of the conference. Only a four hour drive from Toronto (give or take given the unpredictability of wait times at the border), the Finger Lakes is easy to get to for Ontario residents and well-worth a stop for wine and food aficionados.

The view from Ginny Lee Café
Sitting on the patio overlooking Seneca Lake while having lunch at the Ginny Lee Café, which shares a property with Wagner Vineyards on the lake’s east side, I couldn’t stop staring at the oasis of vineyard and blue water in front of us. We had gotten lost looking for Forge Vineyards, a winery Evan Dawson had recommended and which we later learned is housed in Hector Wine Company’s Building, but that’s another story. Shawn was hungry and frustrated, I was overwhelmed with options. Wagner came into view offering wine, a brewery and a restaurant – we were sold.

Now, with a glass of their dry Riesling in my hand (a very good representation of how well that grape grows in the region), a delicious turkey sandwich in front of me and that view spreading out as far as I could see, it was hard to comprehend how anyone ever leaves.

The locals will tell you that, as with Ontario wine country, the winters make it easier to understand. Those winters have broken more than a few winemakers' hearts as vine loss is a fact of life in this cool (should read cold) climate region. At Fox Run Vineyards, where we’d stopped the day before, marketing and events manager Marisa Indelicato, had explained that they anticipate a certain percentage of loss each year and work from that. Sometimes it’s more than expected and, thankfully, sometimes it’s less.

Fox Run Vineyards

As with Ontario, there have been some cold years of late. Those have been tough, but they have often come with good growing seasons. Making wine in this region is not always easy, there are a seemingly endless list of complications – many of which were explained to us at a conference session where professor Alan Lasko from Cornell University presented on the region's soil, climate and weather patterns. I was struck by how similar the terroir is to Prince Edward County and was not surprised to learn that ‘hilling and de-hilling’, the burying of vines for winter, is also common in the Finger Lakes.

But sitting on that patio at the Ginny Lee, sipping that dry, delicious Riesling on a hot, sticky August day, I can see why winemakers persevere here. Why they make it work. Shawn and I will be sharing even more of our Wine Bloggers Conference experiences with you over the next few weeks and I hope you too will see why this wine region is worth exploring.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Lighthall Vineyards' Progression Sparkling

Lighthall Vineyards Progression Sparkling Wine
I recently interviewed Lighthall Vineyards' winemaker, Glenn Symons. He had a great story about the history of his Progression sparkling wine--a personal favourite--which was too long to include in the original post. I thought it would make a great story all on its own so you can find it below in Glenn's own words:

I had planted a large number of Vidal vines in 2009, with the intention of developing a late harvest and icewine line of products from Vidal juice, primarily as an export product.  I had an acquaintance that had been importing large volumes of these products into China, and had assured me he would find a home for as much as I could produce.  As things go, he fell out of the market in 2010, and my sales channel dried up prior to getting the first harvest off the vines, so I was left with one of the largest plantings of Vidal in PEC without a home for the product.

Around the same time, Hinterland Wine Company was setting up to offer Charmat-method production for other wineries.  As it turns out, Vidal carries a marked acidity through late periods in the growing season, which makes it ideal as a base for late harvest and icewine production (where the acidity helps balance the sweetness of these types of wines).  Higher acidity levels also make Vidal juice ideal as a base for sparkling wines!  Through fortuitous timing, Hinterland had a spot in their busy production schedule just in time for my first Vidal harvest, so the 2011 Vidal wine (after initial fermentation at LHV) went to Hinterland for Charmat processing, yielding the first vintage of Progression.

It has become one of my most popular products for a number of reasons. First, since Vidal is a very hardy varietal, we often get higher yields when compared to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that we grow, and so the cost of production tends to be lower, which allows us to keep the final price of the wine lower than the other more premium products.  Second, there is a higher demand for sparkling wines in the marketplace, with very few producers.  Third, Charmat-produced Vidal sparkling allows for the delicate floral and mineral flavors typical to PEC-grown Vidal to shine through, without being lost to bottle-aging with yeast such as with traditional method production.  Overall, the Progression is a unique, fun, refreshing, easily quaffable wine, that is available at a very reasonable price, all made from estate-grown fruit.  And it is now made from start to finish at LHV.

You can find Progression at the winery, via their website, through The Cellar Sisters agency or you can enjoy it at one of the many restaurants now serving it throughout Ontario.