Head south for a leisurely road trip along the southern most part of Canada — the peaceful and picturesque County Roads 50, 20 and 5 in Essex County between Kingsville and Amherstburg — and take in EPIC: the Erie Pelee Island Coast wine route of nearly 20 quality wineries. This tour will be especially spectacular in the fall when not only are the trees in colour but the grapes are in production along with the incredible vegetable and fruit bounty of this rich agricultural region only two hours from London. EPIC is producing award-winning wines due to the cool breezes off Lake Erie combined with the highest heat units in the country.
The two giants of EPIC bookend the route, Pelee Island Winery on County Road 20 in Kingsville and Colio Estate Wines just off County Road 50 in Harrow, are the original wineries of the region and they playfully fight for dibs on who started first in 1979/80. Pelee throws down the gauntlet when it points to grapes being grown on Pelee Island back in the 1800s (and there is a museum on the island to back up the claim). Both wineries today are producing large volumes (from 350,000 to 450,000 cases annually) and shipping across Canada and to other countries. Both also have successful retail outlets in China.
Pelee produces and bottles its wine in Kingsville, bringing the grapes by ferry from the island. It also source grapes from other growers. Visitors can go to the island by ferry from Kingsville or Leamington (in season) which is a great day or overnight trip. On the island you can visit a tasting room and tour the gorgeous vineyards by bike or car. There are BBQ stations at the Pelee pavilion where you can grill your own food while enjoying wine. Pretty perfect!
In Kingsville, Pelee offers complimentary tastings and has a full retail outlet which offers many wines not available in the LCBO. Tours of the facility include the barrel rooms and bottling areas which employ about 50 people.
Pelee has over 65 wines now. This summer saw the release of two new lines aimed at growing numbers of people interested in sweeter wines, following the very successful marketing of plush, velvety wines in the U.S. The new VQA Island Time semi-sweet merlot and Island Time Riesling Vidal are meant to meet the demand for sweeter wines, which have always done well for Pelee in Alberta. At 235 grams of sugar per litre this would put Island Time at 2 to 3 on the old sweetness scale. “These wines are not complicated, you don’t have to think about it,” explains Lori Lupton, sales representative in Southwestern Ontario. “The aging market getting into wine and the younger people switching to wine are really enjoying these,” she says. Pelee has also released the Singing Moon label, a VQA sauvignon blanc, a VQA pinot blanc, and a VQA cabernet sauvignon merlot. Some of these have replaced some of the Alvar label as Pelee was looking for a more appealing designed label to compete in the rapidly growing marketplace.
Colio Estate Wines continues to enjoy the popularity of the Girls’ Night Out brand which now includes six wines and four flavoured wine beverages with fun names like Strawberry Samba and Tropical Tango. New to the line, and also in the sweeter category, is the crisp and refreshing Girls’ Night Out Sparkling. Colio is known as a sparkling wine maker and has charmat method tanks in its Harrow winery. Colio has recently added a new line of wines called Lake & River using grapes from their 200 acres in Essex near Lake Erie and also from 21 acres in Niagara near the Niagara River. These moderately priced wines are typical of Colio’s friendly attitude when it comes to pleasing people. The winery offers tastings at its Harrow retail outlet.
In between these two giants are nearly 20 other wineries and places to eat and enjoy the view of Lake Erie. A standout for scenery is Viewpoint Estate Winery, situated right on the shores of Erie on County Road 50. In season, it operates the Lakefront patio with offerings that include a charcuterie & cheese board.
If you’re more interested in what comes out of the lake than looking at it, venture inland a bit to a long-time Essex county favourite, Meadows by the Lake restaurant, near Harrow on County Road 41. The fresh yellow perch is the #1 seller, and for good reason, as it is moist and delicious. Co-owner Neda Thomas-Jahn says they sell about 8,000 pounds of perch a year, which they purchase from Taylor Fish Company in Wheatley. “We’re so spoiled here,” says Thomas-Jahn happily. They take great pride in their fish, serving it with homemade tartar sauce nicely flavoured with dill. Really helps soak up the wine!
Another way to wear off the wine is to participate in a Farm Dog Cycles tour of the area with Meg Balsillie and Liam Brennan. The couple were recently wed on the Balsillie family farm and their guests inquired where they could take a cycling tour of the wineries. Meg and Liam then started the business with beautiful Opus bicycles from Montreal. Liam has fitted them with reclaimed tobacco kiln wood baskets that hold six bottles of wine. They take small groups on their “one o’clock cruise” of three wineries along back roads for “local stories and crop touring,” says Liam. The business operates out of The Fruit Wagon, the Balsillie farm, which has an impressive roadside stand and gorgeous orchards, complete with row signs explaining the different fruits, vegetables and flowers being grown on the 35 acres.
Some smaller winery highlights along EPIC include North 42 Degrees Estate Winery on County Road 50. The winery shares its property with Serenity Lavender Farm. Owners Martin Gorski and Suzanne Dajczak take great pride in the stewardship of their land and resources. The winery operates on gravity flow and is energy efficient — the processing building is heated with energy produced by the fermentation process. Suzanne grows one acre of lavender and creates value added products including body products, culinary lavender and herbs de province. Martin is excited to be part of the emerging wine business as a long time family owner of property in Colchester. Martin’s 2012 cabernet franc recently won silver in the Lake Erie North Shore Wine awards. He produces 3,000 cases of estate wine (all grown on site) annually. “With our high calcium soils, sandy loam and warm winds, the sky is the limit,” says Martin.
As with all great wine tours, you simply can’t do it all in one day. Earlier this year we did another leg of the tour which included Oxley Estate Winery and Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards. Oxley is a renovated former vegetable farm/barn with a warm and inviting atmosphere cultivated by owner Ann Neydon Wilson, a transplanted Detroit lawyer who offers friendly tastings and a delicious lunch that includes local preserves. She loves living on the Oxley bluff and is very excited about their chardonnay, which recently won silver in Lake Erie North Shore wine awards.
Winemaker Rori McCaw at Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards near Oxley (closer inland towards the 401 and Tecumseh), is doing some exciting work with grapes as well. Cooper’s Hawk enjoys touring visitors through the vineyards where you may indeed see some hawks and other birds of prey. An environmentally forward winery, Cooper’s Hawk enjoys sharing the story of their sustainable practices.
EPIC was established by the rebranding of the former SWOVA — South Western Ontario Vintners Association. As Lynnette Bain, Tourism Windsor Essex explains, the trail is meeting a demand from visitors to the area. “The passionate group of wine makers and proprietors worked together to identify themselves in more simple terms. They needed the consumer to quickly identify who and where their wineries were. The group works together as ambassadors for the local industry to create awareness, market the wine and region, and educate their membership.” Whatever the name, this is a lovely escape from the 401 and within easy reach of London and area.
JANE ANTONIAK is Manager, Communications & Media Relations, King’s University College, Western University. She enjoys touring vineyards — usually with a glass in her hand!
BRUCE FYFE is a librarian at Western University and a regular contributing photographer to eatdrink magazine.