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Andrew Jefford: ‘The wine was so refined and choice that I swallowed, greedily’

Young vines at Norman Hardie Winery, Prince Edward County.

It was pure and driving in the mouth, clearly acid-structured and hence intense – yet age had brought a softening, a tenderness, a singing quality. This was not a harsh, abrupt wine to sip but, like the aromas, expansive; poised yet mellow. Indeed the aromatic trace of the fruit on the tongue had a perfumed lift: an uncommon trait, but always lovely.

The wine was so refined and choice that I swallowed, greedily and unprofessionally – and thought of the vineyard I had just walked through. The way it looked. That mass of bright limestone pebbles in a nourishing matrix of loamy clay… I’ve seen that before. Hmm… hang on a minute…

I try to avoid facile comparisons of this sort. Every vineyard and every wine-growing region is unique: itself and only itself, subject to its own laws of site and sky and season, freighted down with its own disasters and joys. And yet, and yet. I was 6,000km from the Côte d’Or, but this glass of Pinot and the mental image I retained of its vineyard insisted on some sort of comparison. The wine? Norman Hardie’s Unfiltered County Pinot Noir 2014 from Prince Edward County in Canada’s Ontario.

I should stress the differences. The Ontario wine had just 10.5% alcohol. That’s a minus for me: I like alcohol and the wealth, warmth and emotion it sends coursing through a wine (and my veins). This wine, though, had perfect balance, its resonant acidity matched by the inner sweetness and length which can only come from teased, full-season ripeness and its sage gift of alcohol. It didn’t taste short, like an early-picked wine from a warmer site.

‘You can’t duplicate maturity,’ as Hardie’s fellow winemaker Keith Tyers at Closson Chase says. ‘You can’t replace the texture.’

In autumn 2014, the wine’s mother vines had come through the first of two brutal, vine-killing Canadian winters. Prince Edward County is a broad, water-incised peninsula, almost an island, dangling like a broad-shouldered bunch of grapes into Lake Ontario from its northern shoreline.

Unlike the Niagara Peninsula, on the other side of the lake and down at the western end, Prince Edward County has water on the southern side only. To the north lies the Arctic. Its winters are almost boreal. As in China’s Ningxia, the vines must be buried through the dark months, like hibernating chipmunks.

‘If I’d known,’ says Hardie’s fellow Pinoteer Colin Stanners of the eponymous winery, ‘how difficult this business of hilling up and preparing for the winter is, I might never have started here. It really limits our yields; with hilling you never get more than 70% recovered buds.’

Higher yields are possible by creating little geotextile tents over the pruned canes, as many of their fellow growers now do. For all that, Hardie prefers hilling; the clay, he says, that provides the matrix for the region’s limestone needs (in this climate) to be moved and aerated.

‘The County’, as it’s known, doesn’t just produce fine Pinot from the likes of Hardie and Stanners. The Closson Chase Chardonnays are excellent; Pinot Gris can be good if terse; and Jonas Newman and Vicki Samaras at Hinterland have been making impressive sparkling wine, led by an exceptional blanc de blancs.

Everyone, though, faces the same challenges from the weather, with intermittent winter vine kill and inconsistent summers occasionally producing vintage wipeouts. It’s not certain that global warming will help, since the depth of Lake Ontario (244m at its deepest; that’s 802 feet) holds change in check. Optimism is always tempered here. ‘There’s no fake news,’ Hardie says, ‘from Mother Nature.’

They all keep going, though, just waiting for those generous vintages and the occasional glimpses of greatness and glory they imply. Wine places that can give drinkers greatness and glory in a glass, no matter how occasional, are rare.

In my glass this month

I drank this sublime Sauternes just a little too late to include it in my suggestions for Decanter’s Wines of the Year feature. Drat! Château Suduiraut 2014 (£93 Tanners) is truly wondrous, the most successful Sauternes I ever recall drinking: fresh, enticing lemon verbena, meadow hay and creamy summer fruits, then vivid, concentrated and mouth-lacquering yellow fruits, crème brûlée, more verbena. Great Sauternes is always sensually overwhelming; this one is profound and authoritative, too. Hats off to its creators.

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