Saturday, October 8, 2011

[EID Travel Feature] Ontario Wine Country: Lake Erie North Shore + Pelee Island

Cooper's Hawk Vineyards. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Obviously we here at Eat It Detroit are huge proponents of local travel and Michigan wines. The wineries of northern Michigan are close; the wineries of southern Michigan are even closer. But if you live in metro Detroit, a geographically unique area where Canada lies both north and south, the closest wine region actually lies across the border in Ontario ... and if you live in the city of Detroit, you can be in the heart of the Lake Erie North Shore VQA in about 35 minutes.

We love the L.E.N.S. VQA because it's so close, and also because it's so cheap. The Canadian dollar and U.S. dollar have been pretty comparable as of late (fluctuations in strength between the two are effectively negligible), which means gold medal-winning wines from this Ontario region priced at a scant $15 are a scant $15. Also, ice wine. Canada and Germany are the world's largest producers of ice wine - a luscious dessert wine that's like liquid honey; truly the nectar of the gods - and most of Canada's comes from Ontario. The wineries here make ice wine in abundance (the name refers to the method of production: healthy grapes are harvested and pressed while frozen, making for a highly concentrated, sweet wine), and unlike the $65+ price tag for a 200mL bottle you'll see here in the States, most of them sell for $20-35 for 200mL; Sprucewood Shores even sells a 375mL bottle for $40.05.

Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery.

There are some distinct differences between southern Ontario and northern Michigan wines. The climates are just dissimilar enough to allow for some divergent areas of focus - both are considered cool climate regions, but it seems that northern Michigan is stronger in their Alsatian-style whites and Lake Erie is having better and more consistent luck with their Rhone-style reds (cool weather red varietals like Cab Franc, the heartbreak grape Pinot Noir, and the hardy hybrid Baco Noir grow well here and make for some exceptional wines).

There are 15 wineries now in the Lake Erie North Shore VQA (with two more opening next year and three more approved down the road), but only a handful have been around for a significant amount of time. This wine region is reminiscent of where northern Michigan was about five or so years ago: they're producing some truly outstanding wines, but no one is really paying them any attention. They are an underdog region, sneered at by Ontario's big dog regions of Niagara and Niagara-on-the-Lake - and oh, hell, we love to root for the underdog. Just as northern Michigan is starting to get some international recognition now, so will the Lake Erie North Shore in the future ... but for now, it's their little secret and they're pretty content to let it stay that way for a little while longer (and so are we).

The topography of the Lake Erie North Shore is also markedly different than northern Michigan - lots of flat land and straight roads, but all situated along (or nearby) the Lake Erie coast in the middle of abundant farmland, so still very scenic and peaceful (a bit reminiscent of the many apple orchard and pumpkin patch stretches in northern Macomb County, complete with the quaint little downtowns interspersed throughout). A weekend tour through Ontario wine country is truly a fantastic way to enjoy the fall colors close to home.

Jack's Gastropub and Inn 31.

The 15 wineries of the Lake Erie North Shore encompass everything from teeny-tiny wineries open all of three months with a case production of only 850 to some of the biggest and oldest wineries in Ontario with an annual case production topping 600,000. Another cool little factoid to stick in your hat, wear around and present at parties: there are four female winemakers in this 15-winery region, including Rori McCaw at Cooper's Hawk and Tanya Mitchell at Sprucewood Shores. By comparison, at best count there is one female winemaker in the entire state of Michigan. One. (There are actually very few female commercial winemakers in the United States at all. This is especially significant when you consider women account for over 60% of wine consumers and nearly 80% of women make all or almost all of the wine purchasing decisions in the home; kinda goes back to that whole women in the kitchen thing.)

So, Canada, Ontario, Lake Erie North Shore ... you have our attention. Now, here's what you need to know about Canadian wine terminology before going in: the VQA is Ontario's wine authority, designating the standards for VQA-designated wine production within the province's distinct appellations. A wine that is designated "VQA" means the grapes were all grown in one of Ontario's specific VQA appellations (i.e., Lake Erie North Shore) and is a quality example of that appellation. Think of it as the same as the Italian DOCG and the French AOC systems.

Next, you'll hear a lot about the LCBO - the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Much as the Michigan Liquor Control Commission controls liquor sales here, the LCBO controls liquor sales there. Because of strict exportation and distribution laws both on the part of the LCBO as well as the MLCC (and also because many of these wineries are simply too small to do any significant distribution), many of these wines you will only ever be able to sample and purchase here at the wineries themselves (most of the wine that gets exported is sent over to China and Japan, where the ice wine market is particularly huge and Canadian wines are generally in good favor). And that will appeal to just about any adventurous quasi-hipster-foodie type looking to find the next cool food thing before anyone else. And, hi, it's less than an hour away.

Another thing to know about Canadian wines is the sugar code scale, a numerical designation referring to a wine's residual sugars. 0 is as dry as it gets; the majority of the wines will clock in at 4 or under, but some ice wines can get up into the 20s. It's a handy designation to determine whether or not a wine is dry and an easy way to self-educate your palate.

Got all that? You are now ready to experience southern Ontario wine country.

Viewpointe Estate Winery.
Day 1
Start at Viewpointe Estate Winery in Harrow, about an hour from the center of downtown Detroit. This brings you through a big chunk of the L.E.N.S. region and right into the heart of it. Have lunch with a glass of wine on their spacious patio overlooking Lake Erie; their patio menu is available Thursday-Sunday when weather permits and emphasizes the local products of Windsor-Essex. Viewpointe has been open since 2006 and strives to be a winery of many hats: they can accommodate large parties both indoors and out for weddings and corporate events; they have a culinary center that does all their in-house catering as well as teaches hands-on culinary classes during the off season; they are a satellite school for Niagara College's Master Taster's program, which basically offers all the same training of a sommelier without the rigorous testing. Viewpointe is also something of a research facility: they worked with a Swiss scientist to produce a hybrid grape specifically for Essex County, one that would be ideal for their climate - early-ripening, cold-hardy, mildew-resistant - promoting environmental and economic sustainability. These grapes are behind their Colchester Cuvee, and while they are the only winery currently making the wine they have sold roots to other wineries, and they hope this will one day be known as Essex County's grape. The Auxerrois is also a varietal wine unique to this estate.

Wine recs: 2009 Colchester Cuvee, 2008 Auxerrois VQA, 2007 High Pointe Syrah VQA, 2001 Cabernet Merlot VQA, 2002 Focal Pointe Cabernet Franc

Next, head over to Cooper's Hawk Vineyards in Harrow, a brand-new eco-conscious winery only open three months now. Because they're new their case production is small and they only have four wines currently available, but MAN if they didn't make the very most of what they had to show... Their Riesling is grown in limestone and so has a huge mineral backbone with NO sweetness; the Cabernet Merlot has a velvety earthiness to it - full-bodied yet still soft with toned-down tannins and lots of dark berry and leather. But winemaker Rori McCaw is most proud of her Cabernet Franc Rosé, a gorgeous rosé that's lush and warm. There are no additions or corrections made to these wines - Cooper's Hawk is off to one hell of a good start. Next year their production will more than double with twice as many wines available. While here, be sure to tour the grounds where you'll find a natural ampitheatre and wetlands.

Wine recs: CHV Unoaked Chardonnay 2010; CHV Riesling 2010; CHV Authentic Cabernet Franc Rosé 2010; CHV Cabernet/Merlot 2008

For your last winery of the day, visit one of the oldest and largest estate wineries in Ontario: Pelee Island Winery in Kingsville. They've been operating since 1983 growing upwards of 40 different grapes on their 1,000 acres on Pelee Island, and are the only Pelee Island VQA winery. The operation is massive and they distribute widely throughout North America and Asia. They make dozens of wines covering a huge range of styles, but their reserve wines are only sold in the winery. The Cab Sauv Reserve is an absolute must, but if you try NOTHING else at this winery you MUST try the Cab Franc Icewine - a pale, dusty rose color, this icewine, though lesser known than the golden Vidal Icewine, is a honey-tongued goddess loaded with cassis and strawberry jam. Luscious and lovely and only available at the winery.

Wine recs: Gewurztraminer Riesling VQA, Gamay Noir Zweigelt VQA, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve VQA, Cabernet Franc Icewine VQA, Chardonnay Barrique VQA

After a day of tasting, head just down the street to Jack's Gastropub in adorable downtown Kingsville for a casual dinner of hearty, homey locally-sourced fare. The greens and produce come from area farmers, the meat from local butchers, burgers are ground in-house and topped with unique items like apple fig chutney and cider mayo (for the fall). You can't get items like a Turducken Rueben anywhere else, and the brisket poutine is comfort food to the extreme. They carry a large selection of local craft beer from breweries like Mill Street and Muskoka, and their wine list is all Ontario wines. After a meal like that on a brisk fall night you'll want to cozy up in bed next to a fireplace and hey look, you can do that here too! Upstairs from Jack's is Inn 31, a three-room bed and breakfast where each room has a fireplace and a big big bathroom with jacuzzi tub.

Inn 31.

Day 2
After breakfast at Inn 31, head back into Harrow to visit Colio Estate Winery. Another one of Ontario's oldest and largest wineries, Colio makes about 75 different wines for just about every palate and price point. Take a full tour of their facilities to learn more about their operations and see their barrel room with just a portion of the medals they've won over time. They've racked up over 500 medals since they started in 1980, and continue to knock it out of the park with their reserve reds like Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, and most recently their phenomenal Shiraz* loaded with white pepper and almost-ripe strawberry. They make several different varieties of sparkling wine, but the best bang for your buck might just be the Girl's Night Out Sparkling VQA, a wonderfully bright, crisp bubbly made with all Riesling grapes for only $14.75 per bottle.
*Look, we can nitpick over Shiraz vs. Syrah; they named it thus because the Aussies gave the grape more recognizability and so Colio gave it the name people are familiar with.

Wine recs: CEV Riesling Reserve VQA, CEV Small Lot Shiraz, CEV Reserve Cabernet Franc LENS, CEV Gamay Noir, CEV Late Harvest Vidal VQA, Girl's Night Out Sparkling VQA

From Colio visit Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery in Harrow, a small family-owned and -operated winery overlooking Lake Erie. Their Pinot Gris is their most popular wine, bright and citrusy and only lightly acidic (a great summertime patio drinking wine), but their unoaked Barrel Reserve Chardonnay is fruit-forward with a smooth butterscotch finish (when Chardonnay comes back into favor in the wine drinking world it will be because of the anti-oak trend). Their Pinot Noir is aged 8 months and oak and is described as being "uncomplicated" - nice and drinkable. But winemaker Tanya Mitchell's masterpiece is their Meritage, a Bordeaux blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, and Merlot aged 18 months in oak for a rich, bold, complex wine. Hang out here for awhile and enjoy their picnic basket lunch, an actual picnic basket loaded with gourmet cheese (Dubliner, 3-year aged cheddar, or smoked gouda), meat (prosciutto or salami), a warm baguette loaf, garlicky hummus, antipasti, fruit and dessert for $25 (easily feeds 2-3). Take the basket down to the picnic benches on the shore for a relaxing lakefront al fresco afternoon feast.

Wine recs: Pinot Gris, Barrel Reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meritage, Hawk's Flight Reserve Merlot, Vidal Ice Wine

Next up, D'Angelo Estate Winery in Amherstburg, another one of the area's old wineries. Owner and winemaker Sal D'Angelo produces award-winning wines from his two locations (the other is in British Columbia). Their unique specialty is their Foch wines, made from the hybrid Marechal Foch grape which only they are growing. Their Old Vines Foch wines are from the winery's first planted vines (around 1983). There are several vintages of the Old Vines Foch available to taste - 2002,  2005 and 2008 - and each is markedly different from the last. Aged in American oak, these are big, rich, jammy, meaty reds (the 2002 has a nose of strawberry Starburst). D'Angelo also makes an exceptional Baco Noir, another hybrid grape that thrives in the area. Where most Baco Noirs are fruit-forward, theirs are edgy and full-bodied; again, try both the 2007 and 2008 vintages to compare. D'Angelo also specializes in dessert and fortified wines, including Vidal Icewine, Iced Foch (in which the juice is frozen and concentrated after the grapes are picked), Iced Foch Vidal, and their signature Dolce Vita, a fortified Vidal Icewine that's all the lusciousness of ice wine with the alcohol kicked up.

Wine recs: Old Vines Foch, Baco Noir, Pinot Noir, Blanc de Blanc, Iced Foch Vidal, Dolce Vita

For your last stop through the Lake Erie North Shore VQA, visit the Muscedere family over at Muscedere Vineyards. Their winery estate is also their home, and the operation has a distinct family feel with a children's playset out back and little ones running around. Muscedere is a small winery, with 12 acres of vines on their estate and an annual production under 1,500 cases. 2010 was their first full production year. They hand-harvest all of their grapes to ensure greater quality control, and plan on staying relatively small in order to maintain that quality. Their 2009 Pinot Noir, Baco Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon all medaled at InterVin, and already barrel samples of the 2010 Cab Sauv currently chilling out in oak show a wine that's going to be HUGE and will only get bigger as it sits on oak another year. Even their Pinot Noir - usually such a soft, gentle grape - is high in tannins and fuller in body.

Wine recs: Pinot Grigio, Baco Noir Reserve, Pinot Noir, Meritage, Cabernet Sauvignon

On your way back to the States, make one last stop about 15 minutes from the Ambassador Bridge at Seasons Bistro in La Salle. The restaurant opened in 2008 with the concept of seasonality and freshness, so they work with local farmers and producers in conjunction with the Grown Right Here - Windsor-Essex campaign promoting local producers. Menus are updated regularly to reflect the season and availability; right now the shredded duck dumplings and roasted squash ravioli are a wonder. The wine list also features several Lake Erie North Shore wines.

Now with a head full of wine and a belly full of food, it's time to go back over the border. Try not to look too guilty, and be sure to visit our friendly neighbors to the south-north again soon and partake generously of their fantastic wines.

For more information on Windsor-Essex and Pelee Island, click here.

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.