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Early in the year, Huff Estates Winery is already busy with bookings.Daniel Vaughan/Huff Estate

On a recent Saturday morning, shortly after opening, Huff Estates Winery was already abuzz. A bachelorette party was seated around a tasting bar overlooking the vineyard for a guided tasting, their view of the vines included another bachelorette group finishing their visit with some photos. Inside the wine shop, two couples took advantage of more informal stand-up tastings.

”It’s not even May and we’ve got a busy day of bookings,” says Tyler Shettell, Huff Estates’ tasting bar manager. His team at the Bloomfield, Ont., winery is gearing up for busy summer.

Not that long ago, planning a weekend wine tour in Prince Edward County in the spring meant you largely had the place to yourself. If reservations were hard to find, it was because places hadn’t opened for the season yet. Since the lifting of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, wineries, restaurants and other businesses in the county have welcomed increasing numbers of vacation-deprived visitors.

A visit to Rosehall Run Vineyards in Wellington later in the day coincided with the departure of a different wedding party and took place in a hospitality area undergoing a considerable renovation. Co-founder and winemaker Dan Sullivan pointed to a new addition that’s earmarked for hosting larger groups. An upstairs area will be set for more exclusive sit-down tastings for wine lovers, while outdoor spaces offer guests a chance to relax and enjoy a glass of wine.

“People who come here aren’t all looking to have the same experience,” says Sullivan, who was one of the first grape growers in Prince Edward County. Plans for the larger hospitality area at Rosehall Run also include selling takeaway food items and other provisions. Sullivan explains booking lunches and dinners has always been a challenge during the peak season, so there’s a need to offer alternate options for guests.

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Rosehall Run Vineyards co-founder and winemaker Dan Sullivan was one of the first to plant vineyards in Prince Edward County at his winery in Wellington.Daniel Vaughan/Rosehall Run Vineyards

Wine growing in Prince Edward County got its start in 1993 when Geoff Heinricks and Deborah Paskus planted experimental vineyards. The quality of the region’s limestone rich soils drew favourable comparisons with Burgundy and chardonnay and pinot noir were quickly singled out as signature varieties. Winemakers also work with locally grown cabernet franc, riesling, gamay and other varieties, taking pains to bury their vines after harvest to help them survive the severe winter temperatures.

Left exposed to the elements, these European vinifera varieties couldn’t survive the winter temperatures. Some growers are auditioning geotextile materials to blanket the vines for winter protection, hoping to reduce labour costs and increase the yield of their vineyards.

Today the county is home to more than 30 wineries. Many of the operations are tiny – the drinks trade refers to them as artisanal, boutique or small-batch. Collectively, the amount of wine produced in the county represents 1 per cent of Ontario’s total annual production. It’s a small but distinctive wine region and reports in Wine Spectator, Decanter and The World of Fine Wine have sung the praises of this nascent area, which is right on the fringe of viable grape growing.

(Some producers, such as Closson Chase, Rosehall Run and Huff, buy grapes from Niagara to broaden their portfolio and increase their case count. Each wine’s label will declare Prince Edward County, Niagara Peninsula or Ontario to let consumers know the origin of the grapes used.)

The wine boom has successfully drawn attention to the towns of Bloomfield, Picton and Wellington and spawned a growth in accommodations, farm-to-table dining and other businesses to support the region’s agricultural roots. One of the latest highlights is the newly restored The Royal on Main Street in Picton, which includes a stylish 28 room inn as well as a bar, bakery and restaurant. Chef Albert Ponzo, who spent more than a decade at Le Sélect Bisto in Toronto before moving to Prince Edward County, offers a seasonally-driven menu based on the county’s produce and ingredients, including honey from his nearby farm.

Three PEC wines to try:

Closson Chase Churchside Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019, $42

Rating:93 /100

A pioneer in Prince Edward County, Closson Chase got its start by planting a vineyard at the intersection of Closson and Chase roads in Hillier. Since taking over winemaking duties in 2015, sommelier turned winemaker Keith Tyers has helped raise the quality and consistency of the portfolio. This is a pinot noir with a penetrating perfume, suggesting spice, ripe berry fruit and toasted notes. On the palate, this is dry and harmonious with terrific integration of juicy fruit and spice notes. The elegant and silky texture makes this truly impressive. 375 cases. Drink now to 2030. Available direct from the winery,

Huff Estates Winery South Bay Vineyard Catharine’s Chardonnay 2020, $35

Rating:91 /100

Named for winery owner Lanny Huff’s wife, Catharine, this stylish chardonnay comes from the southernmost part of Prince Edward County. The vines are 20 years old and the chardonnay grapes are handpicked and sorted prior to processing. Winemaker Frederic Picard’s Burgundian training shines through here. This is a rich and refreshing chardonnay with impressive weight and texture. A blend of chardonnay aged in French oak barrels (60 per cent) and stainless steel tank makes for refined white wine with impressive length. 475 cases. Drink 2023 to 2027. Available direct from the winery,

Rosehall Run JCR Chardonnay 2019, $36

Rating:93 /100

The flagship chardonnay from Rosehall Run’s estate vineyard in Wellington, from vines planted in 2001 and 2002. JCR is the monogram of winery co-founder John Campbell Reston. This wine is always made in an inviting style, with plushness balanced by a lingering mineral finish, but the 2019 JCR seems to find another gear. Maybe it’s the age of the vines or the conditions of the 2019 growing season. This is an impressive chardonnay with poise and structure that frames the flavourful mix of citrus and apple fruit, toast and spice. Drink now to 2026. Available direct from the winery,

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