Food by VICE

How Norman Hardie Is Blurring the Line Between Old and New World Wines

We spoke to Norman Hardie about making wines in Canada’s harsh and changing climate, and why his wines hold up against Burgundy’s finest.

by Nick Rose
Apr 22 2016, 8:00pm

All photos by Johnny CY Lam.

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"Napoleon said that, 'An army marches on its stomach.' He forgot that in Russia, and he lost."

Winemaker Norman Hardie is pointing to the well-worn stove that has fed untold numbers of staff, winemakers, restaurateurs, food writers, and friends.

"We eat very well here, and we've had over 10,000 meals around this stove," Hardie ponders. "How do you communicate? Around food. When we eat well and we're around the table, we communicate, we learn, and we make it better. That's what that stove is."

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Norman Hardie. All photos by Johnny CY Lam.

Any force needs to be well-provisioned, especially one led by a frontiersman like Norman Hardie, whose lifelong obsession with Old World wines has found an unlikely home in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Despite being only 200 kilometers east of Toronto, Prince Edward County shares a very similar soil makeup and latitude with Burgundy—a place that has left an inedible mark on Hardie's psyche.

"I spent a year in Burgundy when I was 22," Hardie recounts. "You know, once you taste a great Burgundy, you're done… you're done. That was it, life just became expensive from that moment on."

After earning sommelier certification from the University of Dijon in Burgundy, Hardie put his training to work for seven years at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. Despite eventually becoming head sommelier, Hardie had a nagging sense that there was something he hadn't fully grasped. "If I was going to be a true critic, and I was truly going to understand wine, I had to understand how it was made."

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That's when Hardie says he traded in his Armani suit for farm clothes and headed out on a six-year winemaking odyssey which would bring him to Burgundy, Oregon, California, South Africa, New Zealand, and, oddly enough, right back to Ontario.

"I was looking for a limestone-based, cool climate similar to Burgundy," Hardie recounts. "Then, someone said, 'You should go look at this place called Prince Edward County,' and I'm thinking, like Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island, because no one knew what the County was in those days. There was nothing here—like, nothing."

But the County turned out to be a very appropriate location for Hardie to begin blurring the line between Old World wine and New World wines. "Burgundy is based on clay and limestone and a relatively cool climate, so I got some soil maps out from Brock University and I correlated flavour profiles with soil types. And I said, 'This is great. It's right near Toronto, and Montreal is around the corner.'"

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"When I drove in here in 2001, I got off the highway, and had a look at the soils and was like, 'OK, there's a catch.' These soils are beautiful, this is what I've seen in Burgundy, so why are there no grapes? And the reason being every year we get minus 25 or colder. And minus 25 is the death knell."

Like all Canadian winemakers, Hardie is on the front lines of Canada's harsh and changing climate. For the most part, that means protecting vines from the cold by burying them underground in the winter. In the spring, it means doing everything possible—from lighting hay on fire to windmill towers and renting helicopters—to minimize the effects of a spring frost that can ravage a year's work in mere hours.

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"What I'm finding is there is change," Hardie says. "I don't know if it's really getting much warmer, but what I'm noticing is that we're getting more extremes. Two years ago, we hit minus 39 Celsius in the County—that temperature hadn't happened on this farm in 20 years. We've seen higher highs, lower lows, more wind, and the frosts are coming in a lot harder now. We used to get like little mild ones. We used to be able to put fires around the fields and lots of smoke and that used to work."

Mention the date May 23, 2015 to any winemaker in Prince Edward County and you will get looks of dismay and consternation. As grapevines were blossoming across the County, a nasty frost swooped in in the middle of the night and wiped out swathes of grape flowers.

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"What a horrible night. We had we were setting up for a great crop and a great year ahead of us, and we just got nuked. We lit tons of fires. We saved 20 percent of our crop, and if we hadn't lit those fires, we would have gotten zero. So, yeah, it was a horrible year. Just horrible. But, you know, it reminded me, once again, that Mother Nature is all powerful. "

Another force of nature that Hardie has to contend with, albeit more willingly, is the enthusiasm of Canadian restaurant owners eager to spread the word of a Canadian wine that can hold its own against French counterparts. David McMillan is chef and co-owner of Joe Beef in Montreal, and one of many singing the praises of Norman Hardie.

"After 25 years in the restaurant industry, you taste a lot of Burgundy—a lot of fine Burgundy," McMillan says. "The best wineries in California and Oregon were never close to fine white Burgundy. People have to know that the finest white wines in all of North America, without a doubt, are coming from the limestone soils of Prince Edward County, especially the wine that Norman Hardie makes. People still haven't figured out that these are world-class chardonnay and pinot."

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Hardie's ability to blur the line between Old and New World sensibilities is not lost on a Burgundy obsessive like McMillan. "The line is blurred. What's also to be noted here is the very low alcohol content of these wines, that's very much in line with the alcohol in Burgundian wines. People try to make very expensive chardonnay in California but they're getting 14 percent white wines. But Norman is making world-class chardonnays and getting 11.5 or 12 degrees, growing out of the same soils, ultimately, as Burgundian wines. These are the greatest white wines in North America."

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Hardie's first exchange with McMillan was a lively one. "David called me at 4 AM one morning and he had had several bottles of my wine one night—let's put it that way—and he said, 'I've never tasted wines like this in the New World. This is Burgundy in my glass but it comes from down the street!'"

But it's not just Hardie's fellow countrymen who are preaching the Prince Edward County gospel; the Old World is also starting to pay attention to wines of the True North. Fred Savart is a Champagne producer from Écueil, in Northeastern France. He is a champion of the old school but, for him, the quality and complexity of Hardie's wine is on par with some of Burgundy's finest.

"As a winemaker and hardcore wine enthusiast, I'm always on the lookout for new things," Savart says. "I really love the pinots of Burgundy, and, of course, Champagne. When [private wine importer] Vanya Filipovic brought me two bottles of Norman's for a blind taste test, they were amazing. For a couple of the tasters there, it brought them right to Burgundy. It's highly drinkable and the terroir really comes through; so does his mastery of grape growing."

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And while Hardie's wines can be mistaken for Burgundies, even by Frenchmen, they remain quintessentially Canadian.

"I think we're in an amazing position in Canada," he says. "The soil and climate are the foundation; and we have clay and limestone and relatively cool climate. So we have Old World soils and climate in the New World. We're seeing successes in markets like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, and London—markets that don't need to buy Canadian wine. We're 30 to 40 dollars cheaper than the same quality Burgundy, and I think that's part of the excitement. I think the world is just starting to discover it."

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While Hardie is known above all for his pinots and chardonnays, the true flagships of the vineyard are his Cuvée "L" blends, which are an ode to his sister and the years where everything comes together.

"It's a homage and my sister whose name was Lisa—whose name is Lisa. She died in a freak accident in Costa Rica and I thought that I'd name my best wine after her. We don't really talk about it, but we make sure that the L's are truly something special. She is my sister, and I'll do my best for her. That's what it is. We don't make it every year, because not every year is as good as her."