Written by Kirstyn Mayers. Originally published in Life au Lait.
Prince Edward County may be one of Canada’s youngest wine regions, but please don’t call us New World. With a climate reminiscent of Chablis and winemakers with Burgundian tastes, County wine has a style that is decidedly French. Whether a wine is considered Old World (European) or New World (everywhere else) in style comes down to the winemaker and what decisions they make during vinification—not the country where it’s made. There are New World style wines made all over Europe, and plenty of winemakers are finding the perfect conditions for the Old World style right here in the County.
Along with vinification (or winemaking), climate plays a crucial role in determining what style a wine will be. Cool climate wines are light bodied, with aromas and flavours that lean towards green or underripe. They are high in acid and have subtle flavours that pair well with a variety of foods. This climate lends itself well to the Old World style, which is known for wines with more earthy and vegetal aromas than pure fruit. The Old World favours structure over aromatics, and the subtle flavours of cool climate wines allow components like minerality and texture to shine. New World style wines are all about the fruit, with big aromatics that express themselves immediately in the glass. This style is most easily achieved in a warm climate, where wines are full bodied and have ripe fruit flavours that many consumers perceive as sweet. Their high alcohol and low acid levels make them less refreshing than cool climate wines, but they are more approachable and easier to drink on their own without food.
Many winemakers are also winery owners, farmers—with telltale dirt under their fingernails from the day spent toiling in their vineyard.
Lee Baker, winemaker, was drawn to the County for its elegant, acid driven wines—a departure from the big, jammy, overripe styles of the Okanagan where he had just completed three vintages as an assistant winemaker. I spoke with him in his new home base at Keint-He Winery about what makes the County ideal to pursue the food-friendly, expressive style that the Old World is known for. He compares the small community of County winemakers to those of Burgundy: salt-of-the-earth types that work with the grapes from the field all the way to the bottle. Many winemakers are also winery owners, farmers—with telltale dirt under their fingernails from the day spent toiling in their vineyard. It’s this relationship to the vine that makes a lot of County winemakers a little puritanical. While not strictly “natural”, many opt for a minimal intervention approach—producing wines that are more expressive of the terroir.
It takes intense passion to be a County winemaker. Here, we are cold climate to the extreme, growing grapes in a region whose winters would likely kill off unprotected vines. Weeks are spent at the end of each vintage tilling the soil between rows and hilling up the vines to protect them from frigid temperatures. The economics don’t quite make sense, an equation that keeps large commercial producers out of the region. “Big guys have yet to infiltrate Prince Edward County because their profit margins are decreased greatly by producing here.” Lee says. “They’d rather grow out in Niagara where they can push higher yields and get higher sugars and make the wine easier. Here it’s more difficult, growing and getting things ripe, but we have more expressive fruit in the end—and we have to charge a premium for it.”
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