Alan McGinty

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Down for the County

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By Alan McGinty

It sounds like a grandma-run country restaurant where you could order a hot hamburg sandwich or halibut & chips, but Clara’s is not only gourmand-friendly, it’s locavore too. The Claramount Inn’s dining room sources much of the meat and fish locally, and many of the fruit and vegetables too. However the chef turns to Niagara for peaches: they don’t grow in Prince Edward County.

 


The Claramount Inn is a “colonial revival” mansion built about a hundred years ago in Picton and is now a 10-suite hotel with spa facilities and a dining room. The Wine Council of Ontario arranged a dinner to welcome a group of wine writers and showcase the County’s food and wine. Winemakers from five wineries were on hand to discuss the wines paired with each dish.

Not your Grandma’s menu:

Pan-seared Lake Ontario pickerel with citrus, sambal olket, fresh cilantro and buerre orange paired with a guwurztraminer from Black Prince Winery

Pure Springs rainbow trout gravlax with buckwheat blini, Hagerman golden beet and sweet herb remoulade paired with a 2007 Rosehall Run Chardonnay

Flintshire Farms Breast of Guinea Hen with roasted shallots, fresh thyme and Neil Sipkes’ fava beans. Grange of Prince Edward County 2007 Pinot Noir

Century Game Park bison with Windatt cherry baco noir sauce paired with 2008 Baco Noir Reserve from Waupoos Estates Winery.

Italian lemon semifreddo with ripe Niagara peach. Paired with Huff Estates’ 2007 First Frost (a late harvest vidal)

The food was beautifully presented and perfectly prepared – and the pairings worked very well except maybe the semifreddo with the late harvest wine… too much lemon and sugar or something (to be fair the wine worked with the peach). The best pairing was the rainbow trout gravlax and the Rosehall Run chardonnay, with the Guinea hen and Grange of Prince Edward County pinot noir next best.

It was a great welcome to and it set the tone for what we’d learn over the weekend: the County just keeps getting better.

Since I last visited a year ago, there have been several expansions of wineries and hotels, plus new wineries, new food outlets and new food producers on the market. The quality at the wineries too is improving – though by no means evenly: there’s still some awful, sharp and additive-laden wines kicking around the county, and they aren’t even cheap.

Norman Hardie and Closson Chase continue to turn out superb pinot noirs at fairly steep prices – but joining them at the high end are the terrific Rosehall Run (best overall quality/value proposition across a range of wines I’d say) and Grange of Prince Edward County Wineries. Kiente-He is a brand new winery also in the $30-40 a bottle bracket and its excellent pinot (and other wines) will be available when it opens in late September. 


Geoff Heinricks is the winemaker at Keint-He – he gave up the urban rat race and moved to the County a decade or so ago. He worked at Closson Chase before Keint-He, which now has 27 acres under vine: “The terroir here is absolutely brilliant. We just need the farming techniques to take advantage of it,” he said. The winery will open to the public in late September. Heinricks also uses “natural Hillier yeast” for his fermentation - in other words, whatever yeasts happen to land on his grapes initiate the fermentation. As for the soil, it’s full of rocks, but that isn’t a problem for the vines.

Waupoos Estate Winery is the longest running County winery, having been established in 2000 after an experimental vineyard planted in the early 90s was deemed a success. Winemaker Amy Mumby’s  baco noir is worth a try and her St. Laurent is interesting too. Waupoos is also in the most beautiful setting – a verdant and gently sloping hill down to the lake.


At Huff Estates – the County’s most glamorous winery, with a hotel and regular art exhibitions – the new flavour is sparkling. Winemaker Frederic Picard, originally from Burgundy, decided a couple of years ago to divert a lot of his chardonnay production into sparkling wine, the first of which was released earlier this year. It’s very good and County-sharp with the acidity, but also very expensive…  don’t forget to try his rieslings and his pinot gris is terrific too, and he still makes chardonnay. Picard’s focus is firmly on whites, though he makes a little bit of pinot noir “for fun”.

The Grange of Prince Edward County has a great property and among the widest selection of wines in the region, including some in the low teens, price wise. The tasting room is housed in a nearly 200-year old barn and owner Caroline Granger is a tireless promoter of the County and its wines.

Closson Chase is the upscale rural-chic place to go for great pinot and chardonnay. High prices, but high quality too and a really terrific converted barn, which has a relaxed yet stylish vibe. Nice gardens as well. Rosehall Run’s look is more utilitarian, but does have the dynamic Dan Sullivan at the helm and offers probably the county’s best range of wines from a quality/value standpoint.

Across the way, Norman Hardie’s small but rustic/stylish operation is focused on high end pinot and chard –he does pinot noir best. More affordable are his melon de Bourgogne and Riesling – alas both are completely sold out this year. Hardie is one of the few winemakers in Ontario producing wine from melon de Bourgogne, which is the main grape in the Loire Valley’s Muscadet. Hardie’s is light, crisp and fruity yet austere… try some next year.

At over two hours from Toronto and three from Ottawa, it’s not wise to do a day trip to the County – not least because once you get there, you still have a lot of driving to do. For example, going from Waupoos to the wineries around Hillier will take you the better part of an hour. So go for a weekend. You’ll eat well, drink well and sleep well.

We stayed at the terrific Waring Inn just west of Picton – it’s a complex that includes a fun and lively pub, a restaurant, cooking school and hotel – and you use a gleaming new roundabout on the Loyalist Parkway to get to it (several locals grumbled about the cost, but I thought it was terrific and very Euro). The hotel is in several different buildings and looks disappointingly pre-fab, but just wait until you see the rooms: the quality and style of the furniture is top notch and the king sized beds have a ludicrous number of pillows. There is also accommodation at Huff Estates and a number of B&Bs around as well as, of course, the Claramount Inn. Nearby Belleville also has a full range of accommodation.

If you can’t get to the County this fall, more and more County wines are available at the LCBO – not just in Vintages, but on the General List in selected stores too. One suggestion if you're going to try for the first time: like high acidity.

Title Image: Caroline Granger in the Vineyards

 



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