They've been doing it from around the first century BC. Admittedly, their efforts didn't become systematic until 1336. That was when the Cistercians, known for paying attention to detail, began differentiating between various parcels of land in their vineyards. Additional order was imposed in 1395 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 to be remarkable. They have deservedly remained so to our day, 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 upwards of US$10,000 a bottle, assuming you can get one.
Meanwhile, Prince Edward County's wine-growing history began in the 1980s, after Phil Mathewson, then Geoff Heinricks, identified the peninsula's wine-growing potential, noting its comparable latitude (44.0003° N) to Burgundy's (47.0525°) and 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 has seen about three decades of wine-making effort, with some 50 wineries now cultivating around 280 hectares (700 acres). Over in Burgundy, there are more than 3,000 domaines with some 28,000 hectares (more than 70,000 acres) planted in grapes. Not to forget the advantage of a two millennia head start.
Nevertheless, our "local tortoises" did rather well against "Burgundian hares" in the second annual Judgement of Kingston held last November. Pinot Noir-based county wines were blind taste-tested against fine Burgundies, presided over by two local sommeliers -- Ian Nicholls and Kimberley Meathrel -- and four independent wine aficionados -- Carolyn Hammond, Jamie Goode, Veronique 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 sells for $39. Obviously, there's already considerable value in county wines. Barrel tastings I did at several wineries earlier this winter convinced me 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 soil of each "patch." 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 from Closson Chase's "South Close" vineyard. Winemaker Keith Tyers told me last autumn that his 2016 release will offer wine lovers a vineyard-designated Pinot Noir made from grapes grown on a carefully selected parcel of 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, heightening the pleasure of those seeking the rare and the tasty. And you will be able to do that simply by visiting some world-class vineyards located at Kingston's doorstep. So I'll be out there again, and soon.
Lubomyr Luciuk was founding member of The Royal Winers. The 2017 Judgement of Kingston raised $3,000 for the Cancer Centre of Southeastern Ontario.