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A critic’s guide to Prince Edward County wineries

This is the fourth of a five-part series on Canada's wine regions. Find the other parts here: South Okanagan, North Okanagan, Vancouver Island and Niagara.

It took a miracle long ago to turn water into wine. It took Jonas Newman and Vicki Samaras a couple of farm loans, hard work and a dream to turn milk into champagne.

The owners of Hinterland Wine Co., housed in a former dairy barn in Ontario's Prince Edward County, crush grapes where 48 cows once made their home, crafting some of the most compelling new non-French sparkling wines I've tasted in years.

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"When we first opened, we were apologetic," Ms. Samaras says of the rustic, pine-plank counter that serves as a tasting bar. Brisk sales soon cured the couple of that distress.

Since opening to the public last year, Hinterland has rapidly become a star of this much-hyped wine region on the northern shore of Lake Ontario near Belleville. The "County," a large headland studded with 19th-century barns and pastoral cornfields, now boasts about 35 small estates, virtually all founded within the past dozen years.

Limestone, the vineyard prospector's analogue to gold, has been the driving force. It's the foundation to many a great Burgundian-style pinot noir and carpets this territory as thoroughly as the local traffic cops.

Still wines based on pinot noir have become the region's signature, and the exceptional 2010 harvest, still aging in barrel, should underscore that reputation as the results become available months from now.

But the grape also is the main constituent of many fine sparkling wines, Hinterland's included. Grapes for bubbly are generally picked before they reach full ripeness, imbuing the wine with its characteristic jolt of fresh acidity. That renders the style well suited to the County, where frigid autumns can spell disaster for still wines, especially late-harvested reds.

"We take a lot of heat for being this vocal about it, but we want more people to do sparkling," Mr. Newman says.

Limestone aside, Prince Edward County's media hype, vastly disproportionate to its production, may have as much to do with asphalt as with soil. Located just south of Highway 401 in the so-called Golden Triangle between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, its producers are visited not just by tourists but by a steady stream of influential journalists. Many County wineries eke out a scant 400 or 500 12-bottle cases, a thimbleful by most commercial standards. The production last year of County-designated wine, barely 1 per cent of Ontario's total, was 24,000 cases. That's one-third the output of just one family-owned, quality winery in Niagara, Henry of Pelham, and half that of excellent Quails' Gate in British Columbia.

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In these baby-step years, some also have bolstered their medal wins with a controversial practice, supplementing their portfolios with warmer-climate Niagara fruit, in some cases quietly blending the trucked-in grapes into the same bottle. (Ontario law permits up to 15-per-cent non-County content for a wine labelled "VQA Prince Edward County." A bottle carrying the "VQA Ontario" designation probably means you're enjoying a whole lot of Niagara.)

Certainly, what the County lacks in size it makes up for in self-confidence. At $20 to $40, many pinot noirs and bubblies do compare favourably against their stylistic counterparts from France, but a couple of pinots, with little track record of cellar-worthiness, have soared above $60. The dairy barns may be making room for new settlers, but some might say milking is alive and well in Prince Edward County.

Hinterland Wine Co.

Jonas Newman, a former maître d' at Toronto's Scaramouche restaurant, and Vicki Samaras, who left a sales position with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, took over this former cow barn in 2006 to focus exclusively on sparkling wine. Like many in the County, they are self-taught, though Mr. Newman apprenticed for four years at Niagara's 13th Street Winery. "I cleaned tanks and asked questions," Mr. Newman says. He's a quick study. The flagship Les Etoiles is a ringer for good Champagne, as is the rosé. Currently sold out, the winery is scheduled to reopen for sales and tastings on or about Aug. 15. 613-921-7003,

Closson Chase Vineyards

Deborah Paskus, who produced gloriously rich, cellar-worthy chardonnays under the Temkin-Paskus label in Niagara in the 1990s, was among the first to beat a path to the County. In 1999, after studying soil maps with the diligence of a diamond prospector, she persuaded former film executive Seaton McLean and actress-wife Sonja Smits to follow her to the corner of Closson and Chase roads. The converted century-old barn and relocated local church that serves as a seasonal home for Mexican vineyard labourers prepare you for the good taste in the bottle. 1-888-201-2300,

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Exultet Estates

Gerry and Lia Spinosa, who christened their winery with the Latin term referring to a hymn of praise, made just 500 cases last year from this cute little former cheese factory. But the lilliputian size stands in inverse proportion to Gerry's obsessive standards. He bottles only grapes he has personally tended, all within virtual slingshot range of the cellar. The former medical researcher loaded up his Toronto family in 2004 and aimed the car eastward. His first white recently captured gold at the Ontario Wine Awards, prompting him to raise the price to $49.95 from $35. His flagship 2009 pinot noir, called The Beloved, is spicy, sublime and already half gone at $65. "There isn't a chef or sommelier who leaves here without buying a bottle," he says. 613-476-1052,

Rosehall Run

Rosehall makes some of the best-value wines in the County. Dan Sullivan, who started as a "basement amateur" in Toronto, began planting in 2001. His laid-back demeanour belies a profound grasp of vineyard biology and a connoisseur's palate. His 2010 syrah, still maturing in barrel, has the concentration and peppery zing of a St. Joseph from France's Rhône Valley. And the 2009 Cuvee County Chardonnay is a bargain at $22. "Nobody ever says Rosehall Run's wines aren't worth the money," Mr. Sullivan says. "And I don't ever want to hear that." 1-888-399-1183,

Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard

Mr. Hardie has been a one-man publicity supernova for the County. His first, acclaimed, wines, starting with the 2004 vintage, were based mainly on Niagara fruit, though. While he still sources about 30 per cent of his grapes from the peninsula, including a Niagara-Prince Edward County blended pinot priced at $69, his County-specific wines have met with growing praise, especially from fans of his Burgundian-style chardonnays. The small dining patio, serving pizzas from an outdoor oven, is an ideal spot to savour the food-friendly wines. 613-399-5297,

The Old Third Vineyard

Before Closson Road was renamed, it went by another moniker. "When we moved here, our neighbours left a note on our door saying, 'Welcome to The Old Third,' " recalls co-owner Bruno Francois, the Toronto-raised son of French immigrants. With partner Jens Korberg, he has brought the past back to life in another way, restoring an 1870s horse barn with design details worthy of Architectural Digest. Billowing white curtains make for an arresting contrast with the weathered wood, a conspicuous clue that the horse has indeed left this barn. The only wine made here, a $35 pinot noir, is excellent. 613-399-2554,

Huff Estates

Lanny Huff, a chemical engineer and County native, erected the region's most imposing and ambitious winery, complete with a modern-styled inn. But his wisest business decision was to hire Parisian-born, Burgundy-trained Frédéric Picard. With charm and good looks to match his formidable talent, Mr. Picard worked at vineyards around the world before settling in Canada 10 years ago. He was the first to produce a County sparkling wine. "I love Champagne," he says. "That's my favourite wine." The South Bay Chardonnay also is a County benchmark and reasonably priced at $29.95. A contrarian among his peers, he believes early ripening pinot gris holds more promise for the region than pinot noir. And he decries the opportunistic push for trophy-wine prices by some of his neighbours. "You go to the LCBO and you can buy a decent Burgundy, a Santenay, for $22," he says. 613-393-5802,

Other highlights

The Grange of Prince Edward (for the sparkling wine and historic 1826 barn) and 3630 Wine (for the chardonnay, sparkling wine and superb, oak-aged sauvignon blanc sourced from Niagara; available for purchase via e-mail at

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect address for 3630 Wine. It has been changed.

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