Wine and Time Travelling in Historic Prince Edward County

Heritage farm and tasting room offers award-winning ciders and wines

Last night’s thunder reminded me of another summer storm that chased us back into the 19th century. Or that’s how I recall arriving in historic Prince Edward County (PEC), Canada’s newest designated wine country, for a wine-swirling weekend.

Dark clouds had grumbled above us for two hours as we sped along the 401 to that almost-island hinged to the northeastern corner of Lake Ontario. Then suddenly, as we veered south, the skies parted and we slipped into pre-Confederate time, travelling by peaceful pastures and early 19th-century villages settled by Quakers and the United Empire Loyalists who fled here after the American Revolution.

After two centuries of agricultural life, Prince Edward County was growing grapes, and we could see vineyards ripening alongside cornfields and fruit orchards as we cruised down the Loyalists Parkway to our B&B.

Six times smaller than B.C.’s Salt Spring Island, Prince Edward County draws more than 100,000 visitors a year to its provincial parks, farmers’ markets, hiking trails, festivals and fairs. Now, country inns and spas, antique shops, art galleries and fine dining venues are bringing city weekenders out to sample the local cuisine and sip pinot noirs and chardonnays in renovated rustic barns.

Historic Merrill Inn in Picton

We stayed  at a heritage Victorian-Gothic house in the town of Picton, where Sir John A. MacDonald first practised law. The 13-guestroom Merrill Inn, on leafy Main St., was built in 1878 for County Judge Edwards Merrill, a colleague of Canada’s first prime minister.

The three-storey brick house, with its creaky staircases, uneven landings and wobbly ceiling fans, looked like something out of a children’s storybook with 100-year-old horse chestnut and black walnut trees towering above the steeply pitched gables and white gingerbread trim. And in true fairy tale fashion, fireflies danced on the lawn for us in the evening.

Ontario’s fourth designated wine region

Prince Edward County’s wine industry took root about 10 years ago and today there are at least 34 wineries and nine vineyards. The County was recognized as Ontario’s fourth Designated Viticultural Area (DVA) in 2007, but it’s only more recently that winegrowers have been winning awards for their European-style vintages.

Unlike the limestone rich soil of the warmer Niagara Peninsula, the largest wine producing region in Canada, PEC’s cooler microclimate and mixture of limestone and sandy soil favours the European vines, producers of the mineral-tinged chardonnays, crisp Rieslings,  delicate pinots, the French gamay noir and the oak-aged cabernet franc.

The County’s signature wine is the Burgundian-style pinot noir, and the ’08 I tried had a little mineral, cherry, wild thyme and hint of chocolate. But I also enjoyed the oak barrel-aged blackberry and chocolate baco noir, and the unoaked chardonnays.

Meandering along the dusty back roads past old homesteads and 150-year-old villages to stylish wine-tasting barns and breezy lakeside patio restaurants, I realized the 700 sq. km nearly-island really could warp your sense of time and place. It’s old and rural, yet modern and sophisticated. Where else could I sample sharp Cheddar from a 110-year-old cheese factory one day and sheep  milk cheese from North America’s first Platinum LEED- designed green dairy the next?

Avoid the summer crowds and heat and visit in June or September.

Our Stops Along the Taste Trail

Cheese and Cider Tastings

The County Cider Company & Estate Winery (Waupoos)
Black River Cheese Company (Milford)
Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. (Picton)

Wine Sampling

The Old Third Vineyard (Hillier)
Closson Chase Vineyards (Hillier)
Sandbanks Estate Winery (Wellington)
Huff Estates Winery (Bloomfield)
The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Estate Winery (Hillier)

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