A couple of decades ago, tourists came to Prince Edward County for the thrill of the great outdoors. Golden beaches. Glassy lakes. Rolling fields studded with photogenic dilapidated barns and mom-and-pop farm shops. Those things are still here, and people still come for them, but they’re no longer the main draw. Most weekenders who make the drive about 2.5 hours east from buzzy Toronto in summertime are keen to experience just one thing: Ontario’s most exciting new wine scene.
Practically an island, Prince Edward dangles by a thin strip of land from southern Ontario – it’s almost entirely surrounded by the gently lapping surf of Lake Ontario and dotted with other bodies of water. Because of its unusual climate, it has long produced excellent orchard fruit – and, as local winemakers have established in recent years, it is also capable of producing quality grapes.
But viticulture here is not simple. The icy, snowy winters can easily kill vines, so the plants must be protected so they can survive. In autumn, the vines are either ‘hilled up’ with earth or covered with a layer of protective fabric. In spring, when the thaw comes, they must be carefully uncovered again, as can be seen in Traynor Vineyards’ blog ‘A year in the vineyard’. Costs are high and yields are low.
But the effort is worth it: Prince Edward County’s wine scene is immensely exciting. While there is slowly a regional style being established – lean Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are particularly promising – there aren’t yet any fixed rules among the region’s three dozen or so producers. You’ll find some winemakers working with niche hybrid varieties such as Marechal Foch and Baco Noir. Redtail Vineyards produces pét-nats, carbonic maceration field blends and low-intervention Rieslings, and has even joined forces with local breweries. In comparison to the glossy, more conventional wineries in the long-established Niagara Peninsula region to the south of Toronto or the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s western province of British Columbia, Prince Edward County still feels edgy and pleasingly unpolished.
A tasting tour
Most of the wineries of note are clustered in the County’s west, hugged by Consecon Lake to the north and beachy Sandbanks Provincial Park to the south. Public transport is almost non-existent, so you’ll need a car to explore, but the drives are never far: usually five to ten minutes between cellar doors.
Start at Closson Chase, in Hillier, one of the County’s benchmark estates – it’s impossible to miss with its giant purple barn and picturesque church featuring a Beaune-style patterned roof. Inside at the tasting bar the elegant, precise Chardonnays should be the first thing you tackle. The Grande Cuvée comes with toasty, nutty notes and a fresh lick of acidity.
Just down the road heading west, innovative sparkling wine specialist Hinterland is an entirely different proposition. Ancestral-method rosé and Charmat-method Riesling-Vidal blends join a fortified, aperitif-style ratafia Chardonnay. The L’Imparfait range, meanwhile, is pushing the boundaries of County winemaking – made in conjunction with one of Canada’s top chefs, David McMillan, it includes a spontaneous-ferment Savagnin and a co-fermented Blaufränkisch and Gewurztraminer blend.
Somewhere between the two producers stylistically – and just a few minutes’ drive back east – you’ll find The Old Third Vineyard. Here owners Bruno François and Jens Korberg stick predominantly to leading County varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay), but all the wines are unfined and unfiltered. The tasting room, set in a vast old barn, is particularly atmospheric. Its pasta bar serves up fresh handmade pasta during peak summer season, too. If you’d like to keep tasting, you’ll find plenty more wines worth sipping. Further east, in Bloomfield, Huff Estates has an enticing, easy-drinking sparkling rosé Cuvée Janine, made with equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Keint-he in Wellington has earthy, cherried single-vineyard Pinot Noirs; nearby Grange makes Rieslings, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.
In most cases you won’t need appointments, although it’s always best to check, and you can book if you need to. Tasting fees (typically $7-$15 for a flight) are waived if you buy a bottle or two. It would be remiss not to mention the Norman Hardie Winery (see below), in Wellington. Although his name is under a cloud, there is no doubt that Black River Cheese Hardie is responsible for much of Prince Edward County’s success. The winery continues to make great wines, though there are many people who still boycott it on principle of the allegations that emerged in 2018.
Drinks enthusiasts don’t just come out to the County for the wines, though. The region is also gaining attention for its beers and ciders (remember that orchard fruit fact: this was once apple country). Gillingham Brewing Company makes tropical IPAs, a Belgian-style tripel and an oatmeal stout, served up on sun-warmed picnic benches. Crimson Cider Company produces an off-dry hopped cider, and The County Cider Company makes a Somerset-style bottling blended using bittersweet and bittersharp varieties and the estate’s Golden Russets.
Good drink and good food often go hand in hand – and they certainly do in Prince Edward County. As chefs and artisan makers have relocated from the likes of Toronto and Montreal, they’ve brought a new standard of dining to the area’s quaint main towns, Wellington, Bloomfield and Picton. Now you can feast on Mexican or Japanese fare as good as you’ll find in any major city, find a perfect frothy flat white made with locally roasted coffee beans or buy artisan goodies from a range of chic delis. But despite the trendy shift, the overall feel is authentic rather than overly fussy – you’ll still find homemade lemonade, traditional diners and dusty antique shops in the jumble.
And when you’re indulged to the brim? Prince Edward County has more to make you want to linger. Here’s where the region’s classic outdoor delights come in. You can spend an afternoon sunning yourself on powdery dunes at Sandbanks Provincial Park (see ‘My perfect weekend’, below), lapped by cool Lake Ontario waters. You can hire a kayak or canoe and paddle past forested shores, keeping eyes peeled for deer or coyotes. You can spend a Saturday night nibbling popcorn at a retro drive-in movie (see ‘Saturday’, below).
And when you’ve tired yourself out with all that exploring, there’s no need to hit the highway straight back to Toronto. In the last few years the County has seen an explosion in superb places to stay, which can easily transform your day trip into a brilliant gourmet long weekend. Whether you prefer a funky renovated motel such as The June, a Victorian-era stay like Merrill House or designer inn Mirazule (see below), you’ll find it all – and more – here.
My perfect weekend in Prince Edward County
Most must-visit wineries are in the County’s west, the side closest to Toronto, so dive into tastings as soon as you arrive, hitting the spots listed in this article. In between, line your stomach with a doorstop-sized sandwich at Flossie’s Sandwiches, a food kiosk in Hillier outside a cute garden shop, or vegan wraps and locally roasted coffee at Good Place in Wellington. But save room for dinner later at Flame & Smith in Bloomfield, where a Japanese-influenced menu includes hot-smoked hamachi. Finally, drop your bags at glossy design-forward pad Mirazule, 20 minutes southeast, where hosts Ian and Miguel await with a warm welcome and bottomless glasses of local Casa-Dea fizz.
Wake up to sweeping views of Lake Ontario (and Miguel’s home-baked banana loaf), then ready yourself for a day of old-school County charm. Start with nearby Vicki’s Veggies, an honesty shop heaving with sauces and preserves, then stock up on dairy-based delights at Black River Cheese, open since 1901. Further east, the scenic County Road 8 hugging the water carries you to cideries, more wineries and roadside shack Waupoos Tarts (2596 County Road) for gooey, sugary butter tarts – a classic Ontario treat. In the afternoon, explore Picton’s cute boutiques before dinner at downtown’s The Royal Hotel. Visiting in summer? Catch a post-sunset film at The Mustang Drive-In, a slice of retro rural Canadiana 10 minutes away.
Start your last day with a morning stroll along the powdery tree-lined dunes at Sandbanks Provincial Park by West Lake (check ontarioparks.com to book a permit in advance). You’ve probably picked up enough snacks for a picnic by now but, if not, grab a tasting platter of Canadian oysters at relaxed Sand & Pearl nearby. Follow with an ice cream at Slickers and homewares shopping in pretty Bloomfield, eight minutes away back along route 12, then work your way through the cideries and breweries just outside town. Stop off at nearby Oeno Gallery at Huff Estates for contemporary Canadian art, then as you meander back west towards Toronto, tick off any wineries you missed on Friday
Your Prince Edward County address book
Drake Devonshire, Wellington
This outpost of Toronto’s funky Drake Hotel in Wellington was the first hotel to draw cool city folk to the County. Rooms are plastered in colourful art and loud prints, and the restaurant serves up a first-rate maple syrup-infused Old Fashioned.
The intimacy of a B&B, with style straight out of Wallpaper* magazine. Anglo-Canadian couple Ian and Miguel built their dream contemporary home on a prime stretch of Lake Ontario waterfront, and offer a one-of-a-kind hotel experience. PEC stays don’t get more exclusive.
Wander the Resort, nr Wellington
Inspired by Canadian cottage culture, this sleek new lakefront resort has standalone designer cabins with open-plan kitchens, fire pits for toasting marshmallows and enough space to sleep four. The central clubhouse sells locally made goodies, including pottery from Picton’s Ye11ow Studio.
Restaurants & cafés
La Condesa, Wellington
Great Mexican food isn’t what you’d expect to find in rural Canada, but with a chef from Cancún and fabulous homemade tortillas, La Condesa is sublime. The tuna tostadas and cochinita tacos are unforgettable. Be aware, though, it’s no reservations, and very popular.
Norman Hardie, Wellington
Pizza and Pinot Noir – can you think of a better combo? The sunny terrace at one of the County’s most established wine producers really draws the crowds on warm summer days.
The Dining Room at The Royal, Picton
Chef Albert Ponzo has opened the County’s most exciting new restaurant in the heart of the newly refurbished Royal Hotel. Expect Fogo Island cod with béarnaise sauce or brown butter cappelletti with squash. Much of the produce comes from the hotel’s own farm.
The Marans, Picton
Eclectic, homely fare in downtown Picton. Also check out their casual café, Bantam, recently relocated to Closson Chase winery (see above).
Fifth Town, nr Waupoos East
This artisan cheese producer makes its goat cheddars and truffle-infused semi-softs in a certified eco-dairy in the County’s eastern reaches.
The main draw at this boutique spirits producer is supposed to be the small-batch rye whisky. But in-the-know shoppers don’t leave without a bottle of Kinsip’s whisky barrel-aged maple syrup in hand, too.
Slake Brewing, Picton
Maker of some of PEC’s most interesting beers – it even offers, when in stock, a grape ale infused with Gewurztraminer from Redtail Vineyards. The tasting room perched in the hills comes with great views, too.
How to get there
The nearest international airport to Prince Edward County is Toronto Pearson. UK travellers can fly from London Gatwick (7.5hrs) or Heathrow (8hrs). From Toronto head east on highway 407, then continue on the 401 – it’s a 2.5hr (210km) drive to Prince Edward County. Car hire options at Toronto Pearson include Avis, Hertz and National/Alamo.