Sunday, October 14, 2012

Harvest in Prince Edward County

By Chadsey's Cairns wines (left to right): 2011 Gewurtztraminer, 2010 Riesling,
2011 Muscat, and 2011 Chenin Blanc
My friend, Robin, and I woke while the moon was up and stars were shining, and struck out on the 401 headed east.  We were travelling to Prince Edward County to help with the grape harvest at By Chadsey's Cairns.  It was *so early*.  I grew up going to Prince Edward County regularly.  My grandparents lived in Picton (just outside of it actually, on a large farm two properties down from the oft-beset Bergeron's exotic animal sanctuary).  They still had a party-line on their phone; when you picked up, an operator would answer and direct your call.  Mystifying.  My dad raced motorcycles at Shannonville many weekends in the summer, so we'd spend a lot of summer time in Picton, and Christmases too.  While I was growing up, there was no such thing as a wine scene in the County.  If I were to guess, I'd say that the serious endeavor of making wine on a commercial scale is only 10 to 15 years old.  In those ten years, an abundance of wine operations have sprung up.  Many of them are quite small, but some are large enough to sell wine in the LCBO, and while some are not very good, others are quite delicious indeed. Chadsey's is a small operation, and does not sell wine in the LCBO.  The wine they make is, however, really tasty.  More on this later, I promise. 

Robin and I watched the sun rise on our way out to help the good folks at Chadsey's bring in their last batch of grapes.  The harvest is three weeks early for them this year.  I had originally planned on going to pick later this month, but Richard, one of Chadsey's proprietors, sent me more and more urgent emails pushing the end-of-harvest forward.  The summer was so hot and so dry that everything was riper earlier, and needed to come off the vine.  In fact, this summer was so warm that Chadsey's got a fully ripe St. Laurent batch for the first time (as Richard called it, their 'heartbreak grape').  I'm looking forward to trying it in a couple of years.

Frost along the road
Robin and I arrived at 8 a.m. after an easy two hour drive, and got straight to work.  There was a frost the night before, but because this was the last pick, they didn't bother to light fires to keep it away.  When we pulled in, we could see the frost on the vines and the grass, sparkling in the morning sun.  Richard told us (with complete accuracy) that by one in the afternoon the green leaves of the vines would have turned brown and would be falling away.

Frost in Chadsey's yard, with grapevine
balls in the morning sun

The first task for us was to finish picking the last rows of Chenin Blanc.  For the second year ever, the Chenin Blanc and Riesling have been affected with Botrytis cinerea, or 'Noble Rot', so called because it shrivels the grapes by absorbing the water inside, and concentrating the sugars.  This allows for the creation of sweeter wines, on a spectrum of off-dry to full blown dessert-style.  With the Chenin, the Botrytis should allow for a really rich wine with just a touch of residual sugar.

Chenin Blanc with a few Botrytized berries - they taste
deliciously sweet
Though it's been pretty dry everywhere else, the past few weeks have been rainy in the County.  Being a large peninsula jutting into Lake Ontario, it has its own microclimate which means that the weather here can be significantly different from the weather in mainland places 30 or 40 minutes away.  The wet weather has led to harvesting urgency for another reason; both the Chenin and the Riesling have a kind of rot simply called 'sour rot', that is helped along by moist conditions and turns the berries orange and vinegary.  The vinegar smell is easy to notice on an affected bunch, which makes it easy for first-time pickers to identify and cut away.

A box of harvested Chenin
 Robin and I worked down our row harvesting Chenin and discussing how very cold our hands were, how very cold the morning was, how everything was starting to smell like vinegar, how sticky my gloves were getting, but how much easier grape picking is than blueberry harvesting.  Robin's parents have a blueberry farm in Prince Edward Island, which is one reason why I asked her along - I knew she would have an understanding for the labour side of this little adventure.

Robin cutting away sour rot from a bunch of Chenin 
Chadsey's has a really nice plot of land at the south-west edge of the peninsula.  The south-facing field of Chenin Blanc slopes gently towards Lake Ontario, which is just past the trees in the photo below.  Prince Edward County is a good place for grape growing when you consider soil type.  Almost nothing grows here but a bit of livestock.  There are stands of trees and marshes, but much of the peninsula is covered in the kind of scrub-growth that indicates a near complete lack of topsoil.  I imagine that people who were thinking about wine in the County were cheered by this.  Unfortunately, it's also pretty flat, so to get any kind of gradient is a stroke of good fortune.

Field of Chenin Blanc at Chadsey's
After taking a quick coffee break and eating some delicious home-made sugar doughnuts in Chadsey's beautiful barn, Robin and I were back to work, this time in the Riesling.  An entire feild of Riesling needed to be harvested so there was a lot to do.  The sun was warming us up so this part was far more pleasant in terms of cold-hands and cold-toes, though my gloves were so sticky by this point that the snippers were permanently stuck in my right hand.  No fear of dropping them!

Riesling bunch with some Botrytis
and some sour rot

Riesling bunch that is almost
completely affected by Botrytis
A few bunches of Riesling - everything we picked had
some degree of Botrytis on the bunch
Last year Chadsey's made their first off-dry Riesling with their Botrytized harvest.  This is their second year with Botrytis, which is very exciting for them.  Though the 2011 is not available to purchase yet, we were able to taste a little of it after picking, and it's lovely.  I will make a special trip to pick some up next fall.  In the grand tradition of off-dry Rieslings, the delicate sweetness was complemented by a zippiness that left the palate refreshed.  I think this year's wine will be equally delicious.  This was probably the third time that people had picked through the Riesling vines.  Robin and I were finding only small bunches, many with advanced Botrytis. 

Me picking Riesling bunches
off the vines
Richard, pouring us samples
After a few hours of Riesling harvesting and a hearty lunch of a selection of stews and chilis with bread and cheese and very good Chadsey's wine (a Gamay/Pinot Noir blend and the aforementioned 2011 Riesling), Robin and I had the chance to look around the wine operation.  The grapes are pressed and must is fermented on-site, mere steps from the vineyard.

Vida, co-proprietor of the vineyard, sorts through every basket of grapes *by hand* to ensure that no sour rot or unripe grapes get into the mix.  I suppose that with allowing volunteers to help with the harvest there has to be a certain quality control mechanism, but watching Vida do this labour-intensive work made me really appreciate the care that goes into Chadsey's wines.  It also made me think that we will never see them in the LCBO because they would be too expensive, after the cut that the LCBO would want to get, for people who think that Prince Edward County or Ontario generally cannot make a wine worth paying $35 for.  I disagree, but that doesn't matter in the court of public opinion, where people like their $15 shiraz.

Vita picking through Chenin Blanc

Grapes going through the destemmer, and out through the pump to the press outside.

The grape press sits outside the barn that Vida works in on cold days.  There are a few wooden barrels around for the red varieties that Chadsey's makes, and inside the barn are the large steel drums used for the whites.  There are three red varietals, Gamay, Pinot Noir, and St. Laurent, which is part of the Pinot family, and five white varietals, Chardonnay, Muscat, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Gewurtztraminer.  The whites do very well, being perfect for the climate in Ontario.

Robin examines the fresh grape must.  We caught drips and
tasted it - very good, but it gave no indication of
what it might turn out to be later on.  The suspense!
Stainless steel drums for the whites

The view through the slots on the
side of the press - green and purple
grape skins, the purple skins being
the Botrytis-berries
Although it's almost not fair since the wine is not available yet, I'll describe the 2011 Riesling to give a sense of their wines.  It was brilliant and clear, pale gold in the glass.  The nose was delicate and had aromas of yellow apple, white flowers, peach, and melon with a hint of honey and vaseline.  The palate was off-dry, silky and matched the nose, with more melon and honey coming through.  I mentioned the raciness of the wine, which cleaned the palate and left a lovely peach crumble finish.  Chadsey's wines can be purchased in the store at their winery, or ordered online.  Richard delivers to Toronto and Ottawa in the fall, though it might be to late for this year.  There is also a Wassailing in Prince Edward County at the beginning of December, to mark the end of the harvest.  Quite a few of the wineries are participating, and most have accommodations for the traveller-from-afar.

A pumpkin in the barn at Chadsey's
where we had our coffee and
lunch breaks. So festive!
I'd like to thank By Chadsey's Cairns for letting us come into their vineyard to help with the harvest.  I couldn't help but think about the impact each harvester might have on the outcome of the wine, and I think that there's great responsibility in picking these grapes.  I'm amazed at Vida and the way she goes through each basket to ensure the quality of the wine, and I'd like to thank her for letting Robin and I watch her and talk with her while she was working.  I'd like to thank Richard for talking to us about the vineyards and the wine he poured for us.  I'd also like to thank their staff for being patient and showing us the ropes.

Robin and her Riesling

Thanks also to Robin, you trooper, for getting up at 5:30 on a Saturday morning and hiking down to pick grapes with me.  It was a lot of fun, and you were a great sport about the cold and hard work (I was very happy to hear you say that it wasn't as hard as harvesting blueberries!).  Come visit soon and drink Chadsey's wine with me!

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