A Tale of Two Regions
Two new regions for Canada's expanding wine industry
New appellations in Canada’s two foremost wine growing regions are expanding the industry’s conception on just where Canadians can grow wine. Enter the Similkameen Valley in the west and Prince Edward County in the east, producing wines you probably already enjoy.
The Next Big Thing
Similkameen Valley is the new "It" place for growers
By Rhys Pender
The British Columbia wine industry is in a jubilant mood. Wine quality is constantly on the rise, demand is strong and the future, with growing consumption and the looming promise of the Winter Olympics in 2010, looks bright. Most quality B.C. wine producers are in the enviable position of facing a shortage in supply. This creates the need for more quality grapes, but the options to expand production are pretty slim. With the current outlandish land prices in the Okanagan (vineyard land in the Okanagan is amongst the world’s most expensive) it is not surprising that those with the intention of making wine are having to look further afield. Their eyes are cast to the horizon and the potential discovery of B.C.’s next great wine region.
It takes only a quick drive through any of B.C.’s diverse subregions to see orchards and hayfields undergoing the drastic transformation to growing grapes, trying to keep up the supply for a thirsty population. This is the main challenge for B.C. vintners: finding enough grapes to keep their customers happy. It is no simple task as the beauty of B.C.’s wine country is well established and enthusiasts are buying into the wine dream, driving land prices through the roof. In order to expand, the logical solution is for a winery to pull out the chequebook and buy more of the tried and tested Okanagan terroir. This idea is sound until one sees the price. Land with good vineyard potential that used to trade hands for $10,000-$30,000 per acre less than 10 years ago is now selling for well over $100,000 per acre. It is not uncommon to hear of transactions of $150,000 to $200,000 per acre for an existing vineyard. Due to this predicament, few existing wineries can now afford the price to expand their acreage and so there is no choice but to search for new frontiers.
Explorations are already taking place in areas such as Lytton, Lillooet, Ashcroft and parts of the north Okanagan and Shuswap. These areas, once considered too cool for quality grape production, are being re-examined, buoyed by the dark promise of global warming. A government-sponsored trial vineyard has been planted in the Lytton-Lillooet area to take the concept to the next phase and see what the vines can produce. One region that has been supplying grapes for some of the Okanagan’s best wines, but going unrecognised on labels, is the Similkameen Valley.
The Similkameen Valley stretches from Osoyoos in the east to Princeton in the west, following the course of the Similkameen River. The area has a rich history from the heady gold rush days of the 1800s, but today the landscape is made up of orchards, horse and cattle ranches and, increasingly, vineyards. It is the area around Keremeos and Cawston that makes up the wine route. Grape growing country begins on the bench land above Keremeos and extends east and to the south to the heart of the region around the small town of Cawston. This is where the action is taking place.
Climatically, Similkameen weather is comparable to the south Okanagan, producing similar annual temperatures to Osoyoos and Oliver. The long hours of sunshine and hot summer temperatures make a large range of grape varieties possible, from heavier reds on the bench land to aromatic whites on the cooler parts of the valley floor. The absence of a lake though to moderate the temperatures means the area is susceptible to summer heat and also to the risk of cold winter freezes similar to the conditions experienced in Oliver in the Okanagan Valley.
The Similkameen has a diverse soil profile with less of the coarse sand of the south Okanagan and more clay, limestone and chalk. This contributes to the unique flavours of this budding appellation.
Part of the new allure of the Similkameen is the quality of wines coming from the growing population of wineries. Wines have been produced in the area since St. Laszlo Estate Winery opened in 1978, but they were on their own, along with Crowsnest Vineyards from 1995, until the new wave of wineries entered the field. Names such as Herder, Seven Stones and Orofino are now starting to put this region on the map. “This was a forgotten region,” says John Weber, owner of Orofino Vineyards. “All the attention had been on the Okanagan.” The growing number of places to visit now makes the Similkameen a bona fide wine route.
All this is making the Similkameen an attractive proposition for wineries looking to expand. The last official statistics for the region (in 2006) listed 136 hectares in the Similkameen, a jump of 62 per cent from the 84 hectares reported in 2004. A quick tour of the region reveals at least another 16 to 20 hectares planted in 2007, and 50 to 60 hectares planted in 2008. Land prices in the Similkameen are rising (it is estimated that land prices, ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 a decade ago, have doubled in the last two to three years), though they are still considerably less than the Okanagan. Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery has 34 hectares in the region, an investment group from Vancouver has planted 32 hectares, two new wineries are planned and there is a rumour circulating of a large joint venture development on local First Nations land with a B.C. winery. The wines are starting to get attention, too. Seven Stones, after just one year of operation, has had to double its production capacity.
All this action points to an exciting new region and a great complement to the maturing Okanagan Valley. If the Okanagan is Napa North, then the Similkameen must be its Sonoma. Some exciting wines are being produced and there is palpable enthusiasm from the wineries that they are on to a good thing and that the best is still to come. And best of all, they can still afford to do it.
The County's Year To Shine
Prince Edward County is set to make its mark on Ontario wine in 2008
By David Lawrason
The buzz around Prince Edward County wine could not be louder, or the local enthusiasm more effusive. As a resident wine writer (I live next door in Belleville), I am in a position to be on the receiving end of a great deal of this boosterism. Even cutting through the hype, there are certain facts that point to this being the breakout year for the county’s wine industry. And it has arrived within a relatively short time; the first winery only opened in 2000.
For those still unaware of Prince Edward County, it is a large land mass that protrudes south into Lake Ontario, west of Kingston. Virtually surrounded by water, it benefits from the moderating lake effect, although not as dramatically and beneficially as Niagara. The winters here can be frigid, threatening the vines and requiring that trunks and lower canes be buried as insulation. The summers, however, can be hot and dry; it is, in fact, Ontario’s driest region. The key geographic factor for wine quality is the concentration of limestone in the soil that holds moisture, draws vine roots deep and creates wines of perfume, elegance and minerality. The soils and latitude are very much like Burgundy, so Burgundy varieties dominate: pinot noir, gamay, pinot gris, chardonnay, with cabernet franc, riesling and chenin blanc also in the ground.
The county is becoming “hot” for other reasons. It is a bucolic, rural place virtually devoid of industry. It has all kinds of natural charms (including the dramatic dune beaches of Sandbanks Provincial Park) and adorable towns like Picton, Bloomfield and Wellington that are becoming craft, antiquing and, yes, gastronomic havens. Among all the weekenders from Toronto and Ottawa (it’s almost equidistant from both) that are drawn here, and eventually move here, some are Ontario’s best chefs: Jamie Kennedy, Michael Potters, Michael Sullivan and Scott Kapitan. With its own Slow Food chapter, a growing local organics movement, local cheese “factories” and all the current wine activity, the county vies with the best as one of Canada’s great new culinary destinations.
Here are the plain facts that make 2008 the county’s year to shine.
Prince Edward County (PEC) became a VQA-regulated Designated Viticultural Area (DVA) in 2007. This is crucial because it gets the PEC name onto wine labels and assures visitors to the region that wines so-labelled are grown 100 per cent in the county. Prior to this designation, the labels simply said “Ontario,” and no one knew whether the grapes were from PEC, purchased from Niagara or a blend of both. It was awkward in the tasting rooms.
The last two vintages, the 2006 and 2007, have been very good for the county. First, there was no winter kill either year. Second, there was an abundant and fairly good crop in 2006, although fall rains made pinot noir in particular a tough go. In the hot, dry 2007 vintage, PEC production increased and the quality of the fruit is being described as “perfect” by the winemakers. Early barrel samples I have tasted have confirmed this, with a very appealing level of ripeness in all varieties.
The increased quantity comes at just the right time, with PEC wine starting to move out of the county itself. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario has anointed PEC with some general listings in regional stores and a few large urban stores, with LCBO’s Vintages division releasing a handful of labels in March 2008. Although few wineries are large enough to have sales staff on the road, more of the better restaurants in surrounding areas are also starting to list PEC wines. The number of wineries in the County continues to grow, now at 18 in total with five projects in the Wine Access 2008 Canadian Wine Annual that were not listed in the 2007 edition, plus another two or three that are close to being commercial. The small new wineries are all the work of partners, usually family members, dedicated to small, high-quality, organically-aware production.
Two of the new wineries are not in PEC itself, but nearby in very similar microclimate and geology sites near the water in Lennox and Addington counties, farther east toward Kingston. This area has wisely been accepted into the Prince Edward County DVA. If these prove viable, a very large tract of land along the north shore of Lake Ontario could eventually go under vine.
And, finally, there is some promising movement into new grape varieties and wine styles that could yet define the region’s future. Of most importance, Huff Estate has released the first PEC méthode champenoise sparkler, a very good 2004 “Blanc de Blancs” from chardonnay aged three years on the lees. Three other wineries have sparkling wine production now aging in bottle.
There are several promising new grape vinifera varieties: among them is the melon de Bourgogne (the muscdet grape) from Norman Hardie winery, the ehrenfelser at Rosehall Run Vineyards and a red Austrian variety called St. Laurent to be released in a tiny batch next year by a winery under construction called Keint-he Vineyards and Winery (the Iroquois name for Quinte that applies to a wide area in this part of Ontario, just as does the Iroquois name, Niagara). The Keint-he project is, in many ways, the bellwether of the county’s fortunes as a serious pinot noir-based fine wine region. Keint-he, which does not open until next year, will be a pinot noir-focused winery near Hillier, rising out of the pioneering efforts of Geoff Heinricks. Heinricks first scratched an experimental vineyard out of Hillier’s clay-limestone soils in the late ‘90s, and wrote about it in his book, A Fool and His Forty Acres. He also wrote a prospective on county viticulture for would-be investors.
Now that Heinricks has almost 10 maturing acres to work with in three Hillier sites, he is on the brink of commercial viability, which nicely ends the first, and perhaps most exciting chapter in the life of Prince Edward County. Barring some agricultural disaster, it will the first chapter in a very long life ahead.