I once did time in Kingston, Ont. Five years to be exact. No, not for that reason; criminal tendencies were never my thing, though I did once surreptitiously add ice to a glass of premier-cru Burgundy. But that's another story. Rather, I worked at the daily paper, The Whig-Standard. And, like most people I knew in the 1980s who had moved to Kingston from elsewhere, I quickly became smitten with the place. So much so that when anyone mentions the word limestone - and it happens a lot in wine-snob circles, as I'll get to in a moment - I think of Kingston, the Limestone City.
Limestone, or calcium carbonate, is said to be the magic ingredient in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, the small district of eastern France responsible for many of the world's rapture-inducing wines, specifically pinot noirs and chardonnays. Vineyard prospectors around the world are constantly on the lookout for limestone outcroppings in the hopes of discovering The Next Burgundy.
There's not much available land in Kingston for vineyards, what with all the historic grey-white buildings that gave the town its nickname and all the public land devoted to prisons, schools and the military.
But there is limestone under Prince Edward County, a pastoral peninsula on the north shore of Lake Ontario west of Kingston, south of Belleville. The region, often simply referred to as "the County" by locals, not only sits on the same rock formation, with clay-loam mixed in with the limestone, but also happens to enjoy a moderating temperature influence from the lake, which makes it hospitable to vines.
So, during the past decade, there has been a gold rush of sorts to the County and - to mix the metaphor - a gusher of hype. This is the only viticultural region I know of in the world that seems to have had its press kits printed and tourist maps designed before the vines actually went in the ground. I'm exaggerating, of course. But not by much.
Finally, the Phantom Wine County seems to have graduated from a community of hobbyists with a knack for public relations to a bona fide industry whose wines, rather than its people, are starting to do the talking. I've now tasted a big selection from most of the 20 or so active commercial producers on the peninsula and I can taste the promise.
The four whites below are just a few highlights (there will be more in future weeks). One of the challenges of any new wine region, and it's palpable in this case, is getting ripe fruit from young vines. A typical vine starts producing fruit after three years, but usually that wine is thin and stemmy-tasting. Demanding producers of great pinot noir (the fickle and thin-skinned grape of red Burgundy) and chardonnay (Burgundy's other major grape) often prefer to use vines at least 20 years old because those plants yield less but more concentrated and physiologically ripe fruit.
That's not a strike against the County. You can't blame a baby for being young. It's just a harbinger of better things. Should you like any of the wines now, you'll probably like them more in future vintages. Most of the following are available only direct from the winery.
Closson Chase Sans Chene Chardonnay 2008 ($25, only through the winery, www.clossonchase.com, 888-201-2300). I've praised the pinot noir from this ambitious and exacting producer, whose winemaking efforts are led by distinguished viticulturist Deborah Paskus. Here's a truly compelling effort that marks a departure from the wine's two previous vintages. Unoaked, it's medium full-bodied and serves up fresh-fruit flavours of melon, peach and citrus. The texture is slightly creamy and there's a pleasant note of yeastiness. But thanks in part to a shorter period of malolactic fermentation, there's crisper, more apple-like acidity here than in the past, leading to an almost tingly, effervescent sensation on the finish. Delicious tension and balance.
Closson Chase South Clos Chardonnay 2007 ($39.95, available through Vinifera Wine Agency, www.vinifera.com, 416-924-4004). From an older section of vineyard, this wine was produced with the estate's best fruit and allowed to linger for 18 months in oak barrels. Paskus is untimid about barrel-aging her chardonnays, which are often thick and lavish and toasty as a result. But she inevitably makes sure there's enough ripe, concentrated fruit to support the overtones of vanilla and smokiness that come from the wood. This wine, from the super-ripe harvest of 2007, is voluptuous and silky, with a rounded feel, flavours of pineapple and toasted bread and just the right acid balance on the finish. Perfect for fall-weather imbibing, this is sort of a red wine disguised as a white.
(Incidentally, Vinifera Wine Agency also still has stock of Paskus's excellent Closson Chase Beamsville Bench Chardonnay 2006 from Niagara, which costs $42.20 and is reaching a nice stage in its evolution.)
Black Prince Winery Chardonnay 2008 ($14.75, www.blackprincewinery.com, 613-476-4888) is a decent white at a good price. There's obvious oak in the aroma here, as well as some smoke, but on the palate the wood flavours are nicely balanced by the fruit, with good acid on the back end.
Lanny Huff grew up in Prince Edward County and opened his impressive winery, Huff Estates, which now boasts 45 acres of vines and a country inn, in 2004. Huff Estates Pinot Gris 2008 ($19.95, www.huffestates.ca, 613-393-5802) is a dry, medium-bodied pinot gris with a rounded texture, sort of a cross between the more opulent versions of this grape from Alsace and the lean, crisp pinot grigios of Italy. It won a gold medal at the recent All Canadian Wine Championships. Like I said, gold rush.