Destination: Prince Edward County
Tour Guide: Norman Hardie, owner, Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard
Partridge Hollow, Lucks Crossroad, Babylon Road. The names of the country roads etched into Prince Edward County match the movie-set landscape of rolling hills and gabled barns that surrounds them. It's nearing midday, and I'm driving around with Norman Hardie, a local winemaker celebrated for his distinct, elegant Burgundian-style chardonnays and pinot noirs who has offered to show me his adopted home county. Hardie, a former sommelier for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, is known in wine circles as a cool-climate specialist. Born in South Africa, he worked in vineyards the world over before settling on this impressive 86-acre property two hours from Toronto, where dogs and apprentices mingle with guests lingering on the patio over pizza from the wood-fired limestone oven.
On Rural Route #2, Hardie pulls up to a little post office that's been repurposed into a vegetable stand, a regular stop on his grocery runs. There's no one manning the shop, but there is an honour system – a little box where visitors can put their money and make change. Behind the barn, past the house, lurk the remains of a trampoline that's being reclaimed by nature. Farmer Vicki Emlaw shows us around the property. "I'm kind of known as the crazy tomato lady," she says, explaining that she grows some 200 varieties. Norm buys 15 kilograms of greens for weekend salads, and I pick up one of Emlaw's homemade hot sauces, reminding myself to leave money in the box.
County Cider Company
Driving east toward the County Cider Company, Hardie points out a prime example of the area's Loyalist architecture, a recently restored Georgian building called the Hayes Inn. A little farther down the road, we approach the winery he wants to show me. "The ciders are great," he says, "but the view is even better." From its perch at the edge of an escarpment, the 180-year-old stone barn that serves as the tasting room overlooks Prince Edward Bay in Lake Ontario, and Waupoos Island. Outdoor tables arranged at the top of the orchard are filled with a busy lunchtime crowd sipping glasses of Waupoos Premium Cider and the raspberry- and cranberry-flavoured Feral Cider. Red with a pink mousse, it's made with late-season apples for a sweet-tart taste that walks on the wild side.
66 Gilead Distillery
Hollyhocks bloom beside an old hops wagon at our next stop, an ornate 19th-century Second Empire house. In the tasting room, we meet Michael Stroz, whose family owns this 80-acre former hops farm. "I don't drink spirits really," Hardie announces, "but I'm told the gin's good." I happily do drink spirits, so while it's too early in the day to sample the distillery's three types of vodka or its Duck Island rum, I can't resist a taste of White Dragon Shochu. "From what I can tell, we're the only distillery in Canada making shochu," Stroz says. Made from barley and rice, the Asian-style spirit is clean with a suggestion of toastiness. Stroz gives us a tour of the old hops drying barn, and then we visit the towering German-made still and another old barn that houses the Carriage House Cooperage, Canada's only traditional barrel maker. Cooper Pete Bradford is away sampling his barrel-aged vinegars, but we're welcome to look at his handiwork. The quiet, oak-scented workshop with its hand tools and low ceilings could be straight out of the 1800s. We tiptoe past a pair of freshly laid chicken eggs resting in a pile of wood shavings.
Hinterland Wine Company
The promise of sparkling wine gets me on the road again, and Hardie reminds me we've got one more stop before dinner. The former cow barn that serves as Hinterland Wine Company's tasting room and winery is more humble than some of the buildings we've visited today, but the wines are among the county's most celebrated. Winemaker Jonas Newman, relaxed in jeans and a T-shirt, greets us with glasses of his rosé sparkling wine. "Norm and I both come from hospitality backgrounds," he explains, "and
I think that influences how we run our businesses." (Newman was also a sommelier at some of Toronto's best restaurants before becoming a winemaker.) Handing out glasses of muscat – the wine that Newman and his wife, Vicki Samaras, make with a co-operative winery in Lemnos, Greece – he shows us the new kitchen overlooking the vineyards where they shuck oysters in summer and as far into fall as the weather will let them.
We take a slow road to Angéline's Inn for dinner at the Hubb, the hotel's contemporary, locally driven restaurant that's kitted out in vintage county paraphernalia with a collectible spoon display that any 1970s mother would envy. Sommelier Laura Borutski greets us while her husband, chef Elliot Reynolds, gets busy cooking. Delicate duck hearts soon appear, their tender gaminess softened by apple butter and the aroma of vanilla bean. Local beets, roasted and pickled, enjoy the company of filberts and rhubarb. A roasted local half chicken is accompanied by "butta-milk" dumplings and vegetables, and we add a mini-skillet of what might be the world's best molasses-butter-topped corn bread. It's late when we finish, and we make plans to meet at Hardie's winery the next day for pizza and glasses of Calcaire, a new wine he calls "the ultimate expression of the limestone soil." He wants my wife and me to check out the beach before we leave PEC, though: "You should go to Sandbanks tomorrow just to have a look," he says. "It's a lot more romantic with her than it is with me." He's right about that too.
Norman Hardie's Wine List
Norman Hardie, Calcaire 2013
Lemon, lime, freshness and a very mineral-driven palate speak volumes about the limestone/calcaire soils this wine was grown on.
Hinterland Wine, Company Rosé Method,
With stunning "eye-of-the-pheasant" colour and tiny
ethereal bubbles, this wine exudes a true elegance and lovely mineral elements.
Hubbs Creek, Pinot Noir 2011
Balancing tremendous richness with restraint is a feat very difficult to achieve with a pinot noir. It's also nicely beguiling as the wine constantly changes in the glass.
Destination: Okanagan, B.C.
Tour Guide: Tyler Harlton, owner, TH Wines
In an industrial zone in Summerland, tucked behind the manufacturer Ripley Stainless and next to a vintage car storage lot, you may (or may not) find Tyler Harlton's snappy new tasting room. He's a bona fide garagiste; the adjoining winemaking facilities are housed in a converted garage, complete with two Ripley steel tanks for fermenting his handmade wines. Harlton is a new face in the Okanagan, yet TH Wines are already garnering a fetish-like following as word-of-mouth endorsements spread down the valley. (I, too, heard it through the grapevine.) His 2013 rosé, made mostly with merlot grapes along with a splash of malbec and chardonnay, is one stellar example; all 119 cases sold out in two weeks.
Born in Saskatchewan to a grain-farming family, Harlton earned his law degree at McGill University and then got hooked on grapes while picking at Okanagan winery Osoyoos Larose. His winery is part of Bottleneck Drive, a scenic route of 14 participating Summerland wineries, all valleys, vineyards and lake views. He buys the best grapes from the area's hands-on growers. "We make it in a similar way to how they would have made these wines 100 years ago," he says as I sip and sigh. "Not heavily extracted, nothing's been back-added, nothing adjusted, no temperature control. It's as natural as possible." Following this ethos, we hop into his truck for a quickie road trip of his freshest local picks.
O'Reilly's Organic Farm Bed & Breakfast
For Harlton's favourite valley view (coupled with the nicest people you'll meet), we stop by David and Allison's in Oliver for a coffee chat. From the wide balcony deck overlooking their certified organic orchard, I take in a living landscape painting of pears,
plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots and, as Harlton says, "peaches to die for." Much of the acreage is conservation land left, quite literally, to the birds. It's an Eden-like view complemented by an early morning pot of coffee and the first strawberries of the season.
Giant's Head Mountain Mont Giant's Head
We take the scenic back way from Okanagan Falls to Penticton. While driving along, I spy poppies and bighorn sheep, wild sage and yellow pine. We pass by Skaha Lake – there are fishermen out on this sunny day – as well as Lycra-clad biking triathletes. From the Giant's Head trailhead, it's about 45 minutes hiking up and 25 coming down. "At the very top, there's a panoramic view that gets you familiarized with the valley," says Harlton. "For a farmer from Saskatchewan who likes to know his east from his west, this is a great place to get oriented."
Penticton Farmers' Market
As we stroll the buzzy Saturday market, Harlton explains that there's a strict "grow it, make it or bake it policy" here. (A competing market a couple of blocks down isn't as resolutely DIY.) On this end, there's everything from wild flowers and homespun ice cream to grass-finished hot dogs and glowing salad greens from the Homestead Organic Farm stand, friends of Harlton's. Best of all are the buttery berry galettes from Joy Road Catering, which we happily acquire. I'm a huge fan of chef/owners Cameron Smith and Dana Ewart; their seasonal alfresco wine dinners, which start with a recited quote from queen of sustainable eating Alice Waters and unfold with cuisine du terroir on a shared harvest table, get my vote as the number one culinary experience you can have in the Okanagan.
Local Lounge and Grille
This is Harlton's favourite place to sip wine in Summerland. "Oh look," he says, perusing the menu with what might be feigned surprise. "They have my rosé." With a smirk and an order of two glasses, we settle in for views overlooking Okanagan Lake; the Naramata Bench is across the way. Raised in Cornwall, England, chef Lee Humphries worked at Vancouver's finest restaurants, including West and C, before moving to wine country a year ago. He is a passionate locavore, and his family-friendly menu features everything from artisanal thin-crust pizzas and Okanagan cherry spareribs to this morning's prime-rib hash with eggs Benny, a killer British-B.C. brunch mashup.
Watermark Beach Resort
When Harlton drops me off after our day of exploration, he's duly impressed. "Nice place," he says while wandering the patio. With calming views over Osoyoos Lake – Canada's warmest – a stay at these contemporary suites and beachfront villas encompasses fully kitted kitchens, poolside cocktails (and waterslide), dining at Wine Bar & Patio and Yogalates lessons on the manicured lawn. And lest we forget, the area is lousy with vineyards, golf courses and running trails.
Tyler Harlton's Wine List
TH Wines Cabernet, Merlot 2012
Cabernet franc, merlot and malbec meld in this subtle yet powerful blend of Okanagan's signature reds, stringing floral and fruit notes with sombre tones of earth and spice.
Blue Mountain,Vineyard and Cellars, Pinot Blanc 2013
This pinot blanc stands out for its harmony of fruit and minerality atop a clean and creamy texture, an invitation that will only improve with age.
Haywire Wild, Ferment 2012
The lead of pear, honey and cinnamon portends a pinot gris of depth, rippling with minerality, herbs and a zesty acidity.
Destination: Niagara, Ontario
Tour Guide: Marlize Beyers, winemaker, Hidden Bench
When I arrive at Niagara's Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery, winemaker Marlize Beyers is nursing her infant daughter, Kate. I happily wait in the back room for a few moments, nursing a glass of her delicious Hidden Bench Roman's Block riesling – full of fresh acidity, flinty minerality and citrus notes – while taking in the approaching storm clouds from the wraparound picture windows overlooking the vineyard. It's Beyers' fifth harvest here; she studied in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and has also worked at a couple of other Niagara wineries. But with a fresh-faced baby on her knee, it seems that this is where she belongs.
"On a clear blue-sky day, you look out over Lake Ontario toward the Toronto skyline," she says of the views from Felseck, one of three Hidden Bench estate vineyards. From Rosomel, a vineyard that faces the Niagara Escarpment, you get an eagle's-nest view of the escarpment and treeline – trees surround the whole vineyard – and it's almost silent. "When I'm out there sampling grapes, it's very peaceful," she says. With a custom-designed itinerary in hand, I hit the genteel streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake to check out some of her haunts.
I spot my mark, the crumble-topped date square, as soon as I enter Balzac's, a countrified café with colourful wicker bistro chairs, Cuban tile floors and a wall of coffee bean dispensers filled with signature roasts like Mexican Chiapas and Peru Penachi. "I love sitting and sipping, especially on the outdoor patio, but the coffee is the main attraction: strong and roasted locally in Stoney Creek," says Beyers. People are inside and out, chatting away over fair trade lattes rather than plunking away on laptop computers. The glass cake stands, displaying homespun cookies and squares, make it feel like grandma's kitchen, while the fortifying espresso makes me feel like sprinting around the block several times.
For the best restaurant experience in the area – "no contest" – Beyers sends me to Treadwell in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Chef/owner Stephen Treadwell's heirloom tomato salad, which Beyers ate here in late summer, is still a vivid memory. Tucked off the main strip, the chic theatre crowd is conversing happily while enjoying the open kitchen and the open bottles, lending it a buzzy Manhattan feel. It comes as no surprise to find that the menu name-checks small providers, from Monforte Dairy to Marc's Mushrooms. The restaurant also has an exceptional wine list, which sommelier and co-owner James Treadwell (Stephen's son) changes frequently, along with a stock of back vintages of Ontario wines. He suggests the hard-to-snag Queenston Road Vineyard 2027 Cellars VQA, St. David's Bench, to go with my seared scallops. Treadwell describes the sparkling wine as intellectual but not austere, even with its zero dosage, while I'd describe it as a dangerous drinking partner with those perfectlyplump scallops served with charred wild ramp vinaigrette and ramp purée.
Prince of Wales Hotel
The swellegant Prince of Wales, established in 1864, is where Beyers stayed when she was named the 2013 winemaker of the year at the Ontario Wine Awards. "Very luxurious," she smiles, citing the spacious rooms, great service and historic look of the place, including the Victorian sunroom. Tea in the Drawing Room, complete with silver service and scones riddled with plump jasmine-tea-infused sultanas with clotted cream served upon proper Wedgwood china, is a monarchist's dream – and a raisin hater's nightmare.
Niagara Oast House Brewers
At the tasting bar in Oast House's big red barn with Cian MacNeill, the owner of Beyers' favourite craft brewery, I glean insider info on why her chosen brew, their Barnraiser Country Ale, is so refreshing. The dry-hopped beer is fermented and aged before more hops are added in a second infusion so that hints of grapefruit, peach and apricot take the pole position. "I'm not a big beer drinker," notes Beyers, "so if I drink beer, I prefer something that's very fresh tasting, and this pale ale is great on a hot day." The beer is for sale on site in bottles and growlers and is also available at more than 200 Ontario bars and restaurants. Friday Night Pints at Oast House is the biggest party in Niagara, with freshly pulled pints, live music, Ping-Pong and vittles by food truck pioneer El Gastrónomo Vagabundo. Bonus points: MacNeill points out the experimental hops plots out back, representative of a bigger project of moving towards self-sufficiency. "It's the Niagara way of doing things," he says.
Marlize Beyers' Wine List
Hidden Bench Rosomel, Vineyard Roman's Block, Riesling 2011
Citrus and stone-fruit aromas are offset by a smoky, flinty character from vines planted in 1977, while a bright acidity complements the concentrated and
Malivoire Moira, Chardonnay 2009
Pear and caramelized apple aromas, roasted hazelnut and a luscious, creamy palate are balanced by the refreshing acidity of the 2009 vintage.
Tawse Quarry Road, Estate Pinot Noir 2010
Ripe and generous flavours of black cherry, raspberry and spice are set against an underlying earthiness and a firm backbone of silky tannins.