Local tortoises vs. Burgundian hares
They’ve been at it from around the first century BC. Admittedly, their efforts didn’t become systematic until 1336 when the Cistercians, known for paying attention to detail, began differentiating between various parcels of land in their better vineyards. In 1395, additional order was imposed by Duke Philip the Bold, who decreed only the pinot noir grape was acceptable in his Burgundian domains. After 1861, vineyard classifications became more complex— and have remained so. Then, in 1936, France enacted its acclaimed AOC [appellation d’origine contrôlée] system. “Top tier” status was afforded to wines already known as remarkable. They have deservedly remained so to the present, although no one I know has ever tasted, or even touched, a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. That Burgundy, one of the world’s most expensive wines, commands prices upwards of $10,000 US a bottle, assuming you can get one.
Meanwhile, Prince Edward County’s winegrowing history began in 1993 after Geoff Heinricks first identified the peninsula’s winegrowing potential, noting how its latitude (44.0003° N) is comparable to Burgundy’s (47.0525°) and recognizing the two regions’ similar soils and Growing Degree Days (1250 GDD to 1300 GDD). Designated as a VQA (Vine Quality Alliance) region only in 2007, the County can now claim about 25 years of winemaking effort, with just under 50 wineries cultivating some 280 hectares (700 acres). Over in Burgundy there are over 3,000 domaines with some 28,000 hectares (more than 70,000 acres) planted in grapes. Not to forget a 1,900-year head-start advantage.
Nevertheless, our ‘local tortoises’ did rather well against ‘Burgundian hares’ in the second annual Judgement of Kingston. Pinot noirbased County wines were blind-tasted against fine Burgundies, presided over by two local sommeliers, Ian Nicholls and Dr. Kimberley Meathrel, and four independent wine aficionados—Carolyn Hammond, Dr. Jamie Goode, Véronique Rivest, and Christopher Waters. While this distinguished panel picked the 2012 Domaine Drohin Laroze Gevrey Chambertin as the day’s top wine, with the 2011 Domaine Thenard Givry Cellier Aux Moines coming second, a County wine, Stanner’s 2014 Vineyard Barrel Select Pinot Noir, came third. The tasting public, it’s worth noting, voted another County wine as their third choice, Exultet Estate’s 2013 “The Beloved” Pinot Noir.
Now there’s no denying all three Burgundies were delicious. That agreed, the first-placed French wine would cost you $83.95 a bottle while the Stanner’s Vineyard pinot sells for $39. Obviously, there’s already considerable value in County wines. Barrel tastings I’ve taken at several wineries demonstrate improving quality, meaning even better wines will be released over the next few years.
Also exciting is how a few County winemakers, following in the footsteps of vintners in the Niagara Escarpment and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, are now mapping specific “parcels” in their vineyards. Doing so, they hope, will allow them to produce wines with differing flavour profiles, reflecting the unique nature of the soil of each “patch.” Certainly such wines will be costlier, but for those savouring the distinctiveness of specific terroirs—an experience that goes to the essence of Burgundy’s success—this represents an arousing evolution in County winemaking.
For years I have particularly liked wines produced from Closson Chase’s ‘South Close’ vineyard. Winemaker Keith Tyers recently told me his 2016 release will offer winelovers a vineyard-designated Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown on a carefully selected parcel from my favourite field. Or, to quote him, “wine is of a place and now friends of Closson Chase Vineyard will be able to taste it in the bottle.” How different will this pinot really be? After all, some experts insist varying flavours have little to do with the soil below and are instead the result of varying sun exposure (or perhaps genetic mutations). So will we be able to discern how grapes of one variety, taken from a very specific part of a vineyard, shape a unique wine? If we do (and I am betting most will), then some local winemakers will have adopted another Burgundian innovation to heighten the pleasure of those seeking the rare and the tasty. How wonderful that doing so involves nothing more difficult than visiting world-class vineyards on Kingston’s doorstep. I’ll be out there again, and soon.
Lubomyr Luciuk is a member of The Royal Winers and an organizer of the annual Judgement of Kingston event. For more information go to judgementofkingston. ca