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From the Foreign Press … Actually Ottawa

August 18, 2010

I had the luck to spend a little time with this fellow among a group before my tastings and at dinner afterward

So more views from outside…this is from his blog

Rod Phillips Blog 2 and 3 from his visit to Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) and Pelee Island

by Muscedere Vineyards on Monday, August 16, 2010 at 9:32pm

Lake Erie North Shore under the LENS (Part 1)

[OTTAWA, CANADA] A few days ago, I blogged from Windsor at the start of a four-day visit to wineries in Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island, the two least-known of Ontario's four designated wine regions. "Stay tuned," I confidently wrote, planning to blog at the end of each day. As it happened, I stayed in a Bed & Breakfast the next two nights, and there was no wi-fi. At first I was irritated, but then the situation spoke to me. It's one of the charms of the region, it said; this is a place where you can enjoy local wine and food and escape the computer. So, instead of a rolling narrative of my visit, here's the first of a series of retrospective observations. ('We' in these notes refers to my colleague on this trip, Shelley Boettcher, food and wine writer for the Calgary Herald.)

First, it's not quite true that Pelee Island is an unknown name to Ontario wine consumers. Wines made by Pelee Island Winery are common in the LCBO (Ontario's liquor monopoly), and their prices and their labels (which feature birds, butterflies and fauna from the island) make them popular. The island has 230ha of vineyards, all owned by Pelee Island Winery, whose winemaking facility is located on land. Grapes from the island are picked at night, then shipped by ferry in the early morning. The fact that the region and the winery have the same name is a bit confusing. Some of Pelee Island Winery's wines carry the Pelee Island appellation, but most don't. Apparently there's thought being given to changing the name of the region, maybe to something like Erie Islands. As for the island, we flew there by chartered Cessna (20 minutes, compared to 90 minutes by ferry) and toured the vineyards with the winery's resident viticulturist Wolf Moritz, who's lived there 30 years. Pelee Island Winery is carrying out various experiments, including some organic vineyards and new varieties. They also cultivate seven varieties of lavender. (Wolf's jeep had been used for transporting cut lavender a few days earlier; it was a pungently sweet ride.)

We also visited Pelee Pavilion, the winery's visitor centre on the island. It was hopping on this summer Saturday, with hundreds of people (most of them day-trippers) eating, drinking and listening (and dancing) to live music. We ate from a barbecue and tasted/sipped some wines. The highlight was Pelee Island Winery 'Vinedressers' Shiraz 2005 (VQA Pelee Island). Wolf says that syrah is "a challenge" on the island, but 2005 sure got it right. This is a big, dense shiraz, with taut acidity and some juiciness in the texture. It was delicious enough for me to abandon my principle of not taking wine home from trips like these, now that wine has to be in checked baggage.

Most of our trip was to Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) where there are a dozen or so wineries. Two of them–Colio and Pelee Island–are long-established and massive. Colio Estate Wines, for example, was established in 1980 (that's long in Ontario) and produced 240,000 cases of wine last year. The other wineries range from production of about 2,000 to 20,000 cases a year, and most are on the low end of that. They tend to be family owned and fairly modest in their facilities, although a couple have set out–quite successfully–to be destination wineries. The stand-out winery, in terms of facilities, is Viewpointe, which sits right at the edge of Lake Erie. It has a full kitchen, expansive tasting room, and a massive winemaking facility. I last visited when most of it was barely under construction, and the result is very impressive.

Viewpointe Estate Winery

Among Viewpointe's wines is one made from a variety being developed specifically for the region's climate (which can produce very cold winters). Called Colchester Cuvee, it's a blend of three varieties, presently known as HG01 (Harrow Graft), HG03 and HG04. It's a very good red, with defined flavours, good complexity, and good fruit-acid balance. It's a very promising venture. Viewpointe's more familiar varieties are impressive across the board. 'Ideal Pointe' Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2006 (VQA LENS) is delicious: rich, layered flavours, great structure, and long acidity. The Cabernet Franc 2005 (cab franc is one of LENS's strengths) was a bit warm and didn't show the acidity as it would when served cooler, but the fruit was well extracted and complex. A sample of 'High Pointe' Syrah 2007 (it's not yet available) showed excellent structure, fruit, complexity and balance. It's one to watch for.

I'll look at the other wineries in forthcoming posts.


Lake Erie North Shore under the LENS (Part 2)

There was an underlying sense of… was it resentment?… in many of the conversations I had during my recent trip to Lake Erie North Shore, one of Ontario's four DVAs (Designated Viticultural Areas). However you describe the sentiment, it springs from irritation that LENS is so little known to Ontario wine consumers. If they think about it at all, most consumers probably assume that Colio and Pelee Island, LENS's biggest producers by far, are located in the province's biggest DVA, Niagara Peninsula. It doesn't help that most of Colio's and Pelee Island Winery's wines carry a general 'Ontario' appellation, rather than Lake Erie North Shore or Pelee Island. There's also a sense that Prince Edward County (PEC), Ontario's newest DVA, has been getting an inordinate amount of attention. One LENS winery owner said, "I just don't get it. Our wine is just as good as theirs, and they get all the press attention." It's certainly true that PEC has had a huge amount of coverage. But there are real differences between the two regions, regardless of the overall quality of their wine. The key is that Prince Edward County is easily accessible to the Greater Toronto Area (and, to a lesser extent, to Ottawa). A lot of people drive by PEC on Highway 401. Many Torontonians have made PEC their weekend get-away, and the region not only has wineries, but tourist infrastructure in the form of accommodation and up-scale restaurants with known chefs. And it's easily available to Ontario's wine and food writers, most of whom live in Toronto.

In contrast, LENS is in a less-travelled area and, although it has a huge population within an hour or two's drive (in Canada and the U.S.), it lacks the infrastructure needed for wine and agritourism. There are three or four dozen B&Bs in LENS, but many are unlicensed, and there are precious few restaurants. Of course, you can have a comfortable and delicious stay in LENS, as I did last week. I stayed at The Bell House in Oxley, which has three bedrooms and is close to many wineries. It will be even closer once Oxley Estate Wines, owned by the Bell House's proprietor (a viticulturist from Germany) opens in 2012/13. As for eating, you can't go wrong at Caldwell's Grant in Amherstburg, Mephisto in Kingsville, and the great find of the weekend, Calabria Pizzeria in Cottan. Calabria looks like a place you'd drive past, but the herbs growing in planters outside give you a sense there's more to it. And there is, from delicious salads, fish,meats–and, of course, pizzas–all featuring local ingredients. If you go, you have to try the Salty Dog Pizza.

That said, until LENS develops the infrastructure to support wine tourism on a bigger scale, it offers a pastoral get-away that's very refreshing. Last Monday morning, I took a mug of coffee and stood in the middle of the road outside The Bell House (on County Road 50). The road stretches straight for kilometres each way, and I stood there, on the white centre line, for 5 minutes (until my coffee was gone) without seeing a car.

Another challenge facing LENS wineries is sales channels. They all sell from the cellar door, and a few (other than Colio and Pelee Island Winery) have placed wines in the LCBO (Ontario's provincial liquor monopoly). But because they make so little wine, they couldn't possibly supply the LCBO on a regular basis, and some participate in 'Go To Market', an LCBO regional initiative that enables them to sell their wines in 13 local LCBO stores, depending on the willingness of each store's manager. This seems to work for some and not for others, but no one's really happy about the retail system (or the taxes and mark-ups involved). And until wine tourism takes off, even cellar-door sales are limited. One thing that is working in their favour in the meantime, though, is that local restaurants are very supportive.

Tanya Mitchell, winemaker, and Gord Mitchell, founder. Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery

One winery to develop a broader business plan is Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery, which has facilities for events like weddings. We visited on a Saturday morning, and arrangements were being made for a wedding on the beach that afternoon. They also sell picnic baskets so that visitors can enjoy a meal–with wine, of course–on the winery grounds or the beach. Gord Mitchell planted vines in 1990 and opened the winery (which has a big tasting room and event facilities) in 2006. Tanya Mitchell, his daughter, is winemaker. She's a chemical engineer who has worked at wineries in Australia and Ontario. Last year, Sprucewood Shores produced 3,500 cases of wine a year, but they expect to increase to 5,500 in 2010.

We tasted a range of Sprucewood Shores wines. The 2009 Chardonnay (VQA Ontario) was refreshing, with good fruit and structure, and the 2009 Riesling (VQA Ontario) was off-dry, nicely fruity and had good acid balance. There was also a well-made 2007 Meritage (VQA LENS), a merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc blend. The fruit was very well developed and the texture was full and round. Another red blend, 2007 Lady in Red (VQA LENS), which is 80% cabernet sauvignon and 20% cabernet franc, was even better (though less expensive: $14.95 vs. $21.95). It showed solid fruit, good complexity, edgy tannins and a juicy texture–very successful. From what I saw and tasted, Sprucewood Shores is doing well and shows a lot of promise.

An even bigger operation is Mastronardi Estate Winery, in Kingsville. This is fairly new, but it has 93 acres of vines (some of which used to belong to Colio), growing a wide range of varieties that includes zinfandel. It's not a variety you see much of in Ontario, but if it's going to thrive anywhere in the province, it will be in the warmer conditions of LENS or Pelee Island. Mastronardi makes 40,000 cases of wine a year, and has wines in a number of LCBO stores throughout Ontario. The winemaker (since 2004) is Lyse Leblanc, one of a number of women winemakers in LENS, which must have a higher proportion than other Ontario DVAs.

Highlights of the Mastronardi tasting included the 2008 Pinot Gris (VQA LENS) which has plush fruit and a juicy texture; 2006 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay (VQA LENS) which I thought was a bit oak-heavy, but still showed nice fruit and a smooth texture; 2008 'Brianje' Riesling (VQA LENS) a delicious riesling with great acidity and lovely fruit (and is widely available in the LCBO); and a new product, Sangria made from baco noir and other ingredients too secret to be revealed. It really was terrific on the hot day we were at Mastronardi. More on LENS in later posts.

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