A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Oxley Estate’s current experiment with geotextiles. Murray and Ann Wilson of Oxley had mentioned that in researching the idea they met with – and learned from – a winery in Prince Edward County that has been using them. That winery was Sugarbush Vineyards.
Last week when I was in the County, I stopped in at Sugarbush to speak with Rob and Sally Peck – owners of Sugarbush – about their experience using geotextiles to protect their vines. They’ve been using them since winter 2011-2012. Rob explained that they tried them because they were looking for an alternative way to protect the vines because he doesn’t think burying them – which is standard in the County – is good for the vines or the soil. (Wineries in the County have bene burying their vines for years to protect them from the cold, harsh weather that often moves through Prince Edward County.)
Rob was generous with his time and was kind enough to allow me to video him answering my questions about geotextiles. Click here to see the video.
After the chat about geotextiles we had a tasting of the three remaining wines they have in stock: Viognier, Riesling, and Cab Franc. (They’re running low but Rob assured us that they’ll restock soon – it’s just they’ve not had a chance to do any bottling!) Of the three, we all went home with some 2017 Riesling – it was flinty and refreshing.
Keeping up with what’s new in the Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment regions each year usually means checking out new wineries. Keeping up with what’s new in the Erie, Pelee Island, Coast (EPIC) wine region means visiting old favourites that are kicking it up a notch and becoming destination wineries.
I’ve just returned from the region and here’s a taste (no pun intended) of what I’m talking about…
North 42 Degrees Estate
My first stop last weekend was to North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. A couple years ago they had posted artists’ drawings of the restaurant they were planning. It looked impressive from the drawings, but it also looked like it might take awhile to build. Then, at some point last year I thought I read an announcement that they had opened the restaurant.
So, in planning my trip, I went on their website to find out a bit about the restaurant – things like the menu and the hours. Their website made no mention of the restaurant, so I figured it wasn’t yet open. Just to be sure, however, I also checked their Facebook page. On it there was reference to various special events at Bistro 42, but nothing indicating they had regular hours of service. Curious to see what was going on, I planned to stop there.
To my terrific surprise, at the far end of the driveway I saw the new building. It looks as though it organically sprung forth from the ground. In the front there’s a trio of huge beams reaching up at odd angles to support a massive front portico. Similar beams support a glass room off to one side. The main part of the building looks like a two+ story glass cathedral.
From the inside, the feel is more intimate than you’d expect. The main floor features the tasting room and a room that houses Serenity Lavender, which is owned by the same couple who own the winery. When I visited the winery, the door to the lavender store was wide open and – though I love the smell of lavender – I wondered how folks at the tasting bar might find the clash of smells.
Though I couldn’t stay for a meal that day, the host graciously encouraged me to check out the main dining room upstairs and I’m glad I did. The view over the vineyard was lovely – even in the dead of winter. I can imagine it is spectacular in summer and fall.
Their menu features small and shareable plates, as well as a nice selection of salads and mains. As it was just after Valentine’s Day, they also had a special menu that weekend. From the crowds, it looks like it’s quite a popular spot. Now that I know it’s open, next time I’m headed to the region, I’ll make a reservation at Bistro 42 – I can’t wait to try it.
Oxley Estate Winery
The restaurant at Oxley Estate Winery keeps landing on different “best” lists. I think it’s been on Open Table’s list of best winery restaurants and most recently their list of “most romantic” restaurants. I’m really not surprised that it’s on so many “best of” lists. The atmosphere is casual (the restaurant was, after all, a barn at one point) but elegant and the service is friendly and knowledgeable. All those things are notable, but the food is really the main event here. Chef Aaron Lynn has been at Oxley for about five years. Over that time, he has created all sorts of dishes and he has really grown. His regular, seasonal menu is always interesting, but the special dinner menus really showcase his talent.
I was lucky enough to enjoy dinner there last weekend when they were featuring a Valentine’s Day menu. The Crab Toast appetizer was nothing short of divine. Huge chunks of crab with a luscious hollandaise atop a perfectly toasted brioche. Because rib eye is my all-time favourite cut, I couldn’t resist the bison ribeye. When I ordered it medium well, the server gently mentioned that the chef recommends rare or medium, as bison is so lean. I took the advice and I’m glad I did. It was perfect.
My dinner companion was equally happy with her choices of a Wild Mushroom Pastie as her appetizer and Potato Wrapped Halibut for her main.
Next time you’re headed to the region, make a reservation there. Trust me, you’ll be sorry if you can’t get in …
Other Notable EPIC destinations
CREW – Colchester Ridge Estate Winery – is right next door to North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. A huge new building is going up at CREW. Currently, their small tasting room is at the far end of their driveway in a non-descript building. The new building is far along, but wasn’t quite finished, so I didn’t snoop around. But, given its size and location in the front of the property, it wouldn’t surprise me if they too are planning a restaurant or some other food-serving facility.
As for new things happening at another winery I always enjoy – Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards – they are now making cider. (Cider is hard to come by in the region – it’s not taken off there like it has elsewhere in the Province.) Their Iler Road Cider, which is no doubt named after the street the winery is on. is made from 100% Essex County Apples. So now, in addition to their wines and The Vines restaurant, there’s yet another reason to visit Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards.
As pretty much the whole province has experienced spurts of on-again/off-again arctic cold, it’s only natural to wonder (even worry) about what these extreme temperatures must be doing to the vines.
After the last polar vortex winter a few years ago, I couldn’t help notice how many wineries have purchased wind machines. And who can blame them, when a fraction of a degree more warmth in the air swirling around the vines on a cold night can make the difference between a healthy yield and an increase in the amount of bunches that end up as verjus.
On the recent family day weekend, I visited the EPIC wine region (Essex, Pelee Island, Coast) on the shores of Lake Erie. Though the region is further south than other regions in Ontario, it’s not immune to extreme weather. Indeed, wineries in the area no doubt vividly remember 2014 when they lost most of their crop due to cold winter temperatures.
A few weeks before my visit, I was in touch with Ann Wilson of Oxley Estate Winery. I asked her whether they were concerned about this winter’s extremes. She basically said that they manage what they can manage, but they won’t know till spring what the impact really is. But then she added a comment that intrigued me. She said it’ll be interesting to see whether their experiment in “blanketing” their Merlot and Syrah pays off.
I didn’t get a chance to ask what that meant, but as I headed to the region, I kept my eyes out to see if I could figure out what she was talking about. As I neared Oxley on County Road 50, I saw white, pup-tent like coverings on various rows of vines on the corner of one of their properties. Clearly this was what she was talking about. After stopping to snap a few pictures, I found Ann and Murray and asked them about it.
They said they heard that some wineries in Prince Edward County (PEC) and Quebec have used these blankets (geotextiles) as a way of protecting the vines and that the wineries have had success with them. So, last year Murray and Ann visited PEC to learn more about it.
They decided to give it a try this winter. According to Murray, the idea behind the blankets is to create kind of a greenhouse effect atop the vines. When the geotextile gets wet, it freezes and then the warmth of the sun and the heat from the ground stay trapped beneath the blanket.
While it sounds simple, actually placing the blankets on is quite labour intensive, he said. For one thing, they have to prune in the fall, rather than in the late winter/early spring. They also have to lower the trellis wire and tie the canes to the lower wire. Then they have to find a way to deal with the metal poles that run the length of the row to hold up the trellis system. One of the blanket edges has a wire on it that helps keep it down, but the other edge they weight down with dirt.
Since this system is not widely used, the timing of when they’ll remove the blanket is another matter. The fact that there aren’t many wineries using this system means there’s limited experience to draw on. And, since the growing season starts sooner in the EPIC region than in PEC, it’s a decision Oxley will have to make on its own.
I think many local growers will be paying close attention to how this trial works at Oxley. One thing’s for sure, they couldn’t have picked a better winter to test this technique. If it’s successful and proves worth the added time and expense, growers will have another tool to help manage the impact of climate change.
I’ve started a new feature on the website – a video series focusing on the founders of the Ontario wine industry. The passing of Karl Kaiser in December 2017 got me thinking about the fact that it’s not just the industry that’s maturing…
So, I thought it would be interesting to interview some of the folks instrumental in bringing old world wines to Canada. That’s the idea behind The Founders Series of interviews.
The folks featured in these videos had a vision of what Ontario’s climate and land could produce. They were risk takers, hard workers, and “all in”. They were competitors, yet collegial, knowing that while they were making their own wine and creating their own brands, they were also building an industry.
I’ve set up a dedicated page for linking to the video interviews – it’s called The Founders Series.
The first video in The Founders Series is of Herbert Konzelmann, owner and founder of Konzelmann Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. At 81, Mr. Konzelmann is still the driving force behind the winery that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
One of the things I especially enjoy about driving around wine country is seeing the lush, straight rows of vines tethered to the delicate-looking trellises. I love seeing vineyards because they remind me that the delicious nectar that I so enjoy has its start on a farm.
And, when I visit a winery, I love seeing all the gleaming stainless-steel tanks and rooms full of beautiful, hand crafted barrels. At the same time, thinking about the huge investment required for all the specialized winemaking equipment makes me catch my breath.
The winery owners I’ve met come from all different backgrounds. For some, it’s their fir st or only business. For others, it’s a second career, or even a retirement project. And yet, despite the differences, they do have some things in common. The most obvious commonality is their passion for wine. But beyond that, they also are all risk takers and careful business persons (well, at least those who manage to make a go of it).
Though I’ve always assumed the business of owning a winery was risky, a recent writing assignment I got from the Chartered Insurance Professionals (CIP) Society gave me a whole new appreciation of the types of risks involved. The CIP Society asked me to write a paper on insurance issues faced by wineries. It was a fun and interesting assignment that gave me an excuse to “talk business” with people involved in the Canadian wine industry.
The primary audience for the paper was insurance professionals, so the paper is admittedly a bit technical. But, for those of you who – like me – are inherently interested in the business of owning a winery – you might find the paper interesting.
The CIP Society has graciously given me permission to share the paper – called “From Rootstock to Bottle” – with my readers. You can find it by clicking here.
This weekend the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake are hosting a new event called Dig our Roots. Unlike the popular passport programs, the idea behind this event is to learn more about the unique properties of the appellation from the roots up. For the event, each winery designed its own unique “experience” around the general theme. Stratus Vineyards put together a tutored tasting with the intriguing title: Tried and True, Quirky and New.
Stratus, which opened in 2005, is best known for its luscious blends – the signature Stratus Red and Stratus White, as well as its more moderately priced Wildass Red and Wildass White. To create the blends, winemaker J-L Groux started playing around with growing some grapes you don’t find too often in the region (for example, Tempranillo and Tannat).
These experiments proved rewarding in many ways. Besides providing varieties that add colour and depth to their magnificent assemblages, Stratus has also released some as single variety wines. The tasting was designed to showcase some of these varieties.
Ben Nicks, senior wine consultant, led the fascinating seminar. From the comfort of the large private tasting room that overlooks the vineyard, Nicks explained the unique geography of the 55-acres. The show-and-tell wasn’t limited to the wines – to show the different strata that lies below the surface, he showed us an oversize glass vase containing a cut-away sample of the vineyard’s soil.
He also described some unusual aspects of the winemaking processing. For example, he explained the difference between domestic yeast, wild yeast, and the process they often use (for example, with their Chardonnay), which is to simply rely on the yeast that naturally adheres to the grapes.
It was also fascinating to learn about why and how they aerate wines during the fermentation process. I had heard Nicks describe micro-oxygenation before and how they use a hydrosieve and I was interested in hearing more about it. After the seminar he was kind enough to take my friend and me into the production area for a look at the sieve. He even let me shoot a short video of him describing how it works. You can find the video here.
And of course, during the seminar we tasted some wine – six different varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Cab Franc (Stratus’ most widely planted variety), Tempranillo, and Tannat. And, to reinforce the fact that winemaking is an interesting combination of art and science, they provided facts and figures about each wine, including the year the vines were planted, the number of blocks planted of each type, the specific harvest dates for each, and the exact number of days each spent in oak.
An aptly-named event
Hats off to Stratus Vineyards and to the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake for the innovative Dig our Roots event. It’s clear that the experiences created under this aptly-named title are meant to provide wine enthusiasts with a unique way of learning about the appellation – from roots to bottle.
There are a number of things that make Ravine special – the wines are lovely, they have one of the best restaurants in the area, and it’s a family-friendly place.
What I think a lot of visitors don’t know is that the house at Ravine has an especially interesting history. Though I knew the unusual history of the building, when I was there earlier in February, I thought it would be interesting to ask some of the staff about it. To my delight, Sally, one of the retail associates was happy to tell us about it. She was so knowledgeable, I asked her if she would let me shoot a short video of her telling us the story. She kindly agreed and you can watch the video here.
After I got back, I decided to dig up my original description of Ravine – the one that was included in the app back in 2012. My description of the winery is still on point, so I thought I’d re-publish it here – for those who might not have seen it:
Tucked Away Gem
I had never heard much about Ravine Vineyards and had really never even driven past it. So, when I went looking for it, I knew I’d be surprised. Turns out I was surprised and charmed. There’s something about the clean lines and symmetric look of the restored historic Georgian home that appeals to my aesthetic sense. Then, when I noticed what looked like food being served on the charming patio, I was more than intrigued. (More on the surprises about the food in a minute.)
Walking into the house you step back into history. The home is lovingly maintained and information is thoughtfully on hand for folks like me who didn’t know of the rich – and unusual – history of the unusual home. Though I knew a bit about the history of Niagara-on-the-Lake, I had never heard of the Wm. Woodruff House – the house that replaced the original 1802 house of David Secord that used to stand on the property before being almost totally destroyed (the original fireplace and chimney from the original house still exist) by the Americans toward the end of the War of 1812.
But the history of the home does not end with its being rebuilt after the fire and eventually purchase by William Woodruff and his brother Richard in 1824. The Woodruffs expanded the house and in the early 20th century three to four families lived in it at a time. In the 1960s the house was sold a couple of times and in 1967 it was sold to a couple from Caledon Ontario (a town north-west of Toronto) who dismantled it, numbering all the posts and beams, and moved to Caledon where it was reassembled. In 1992 the house was sold and moved to Bond Head, Ontario. Then in 2001 it was sold and moved to Port Hope, Ontario. Finally, in 2003 it was sold to Norma Jane and Blair Harber who returned it to the village of St. Davids and it became the hospitality centre of Ravine Vineyards on the Lowrey Farm.
Of course, the buildings are just part of the story of any winery. Another important story is the terroir – and the property Ravine Vineyard Estate is also noteworthy. Ravine Vineyards’ 34-acres of vines are on the St. Davids Bench, which is about 20 percent warmer than other locations in the region.
The 100-acre Lowrey farm has been in Norma Jane’s family (the Lowreys) since the 1860s. The family grew tree fruit and grapes and through the mid-1970s they sold their crop (mainly Labrusca grapes) to another local winery. The vineyard then went fallow for a period until 2003 when Norma and her husband decided to plant vinifera grapes on the 34 acres and to found Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. The winery is certified organic.
To some, February is the last hospitable month in Ontario. (I say “to some” because, well, it’s actually one of my favourite months!) But, the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake have the perfect antidote to those who think the only good thing about February is that it’s only 28 days long – The Days of Wine & Chocolate. The Passport program runs every weekend (Friday-Sunday) in February. As the name implies, the 20 participating wineries have paired one of their wines with something that has chocolate as an ingredient.
The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake invited me to attend and so a girlfriend and I hit the road yesterday, despite the snowy forecast. It so happened that I took this friend last year, so I tried to find some places she had not been to. On our drive down, I mentioned that I had been thinking about the route we might take to make it a bit different from last year. She didn’t seem to care – she was just excited to be spending a day in wine country. That’s the right attitude for sure!
The day ended up being so fun and relaxing. The wineries were quieter than they might otherwise be for such an event – but that meant that we had more opportunities to chat with winery folks, which is one of best things about visiting Ontario wineries. You can learn so much and most folks you come across are only too happy to chat.
One of our favourite encounters of the day was at Inniskillin Wines. That was one of our early stops and our timing was great – apparently a large crowd had just come and gone. Mamiko – the woman pouring – was an absolute delight. They were featuring their 2014 Reserve merlot with a dark chocolate chili with white chocolate sour cream and green onions. She explained why she thought their chili was so much better than what she makes at home – “the chef here uses lots of wine when he cooks – at home I don’t use as much, but it makes it much better!”
We both really enjoyed the pairing – and the white chocolate in the sour cream was absolutely delicious.
My friend had never been to Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, so that was on my list of places to stop. It’s a lovely spot. Though it’s quite large, it feels secluded and cozy. Though I’ve been there many times, it seems every time I go there, there’s something unexpected. (Last time it was the beautiful free-range hens and rooster roaming through the fines.) This time it was an ice skating rink nestled in a spot between the restaurant and the vineyard. A staff member was out on the ice with a snow blower, with a family waiting to hit the ice. It turns out the rink is open to the public – free of charge – and the gang that was there were locals who have been there before. (One of moms there explained that one of the kids on the ice had learned to skate there.) It’s a home-made rink – so if it’s cold enough for ice, it’s open. What fun!
When we looked at the list of pairings, I mentioned to my friend that I was surprised to see that PondView Estate Winery was serving pork back ribs, as they served that last year, though this year they are serving it with one of my favourite Pondview wines: their Bella Terra Reserve Cab Sauv. My girlfriend had the right outlook – she said, “Well, if there’s something you’re good at – and the ribs are awesome – why not stick to it!” How right she is – so off we went.
Another fun thing about this kind of passport program is that they often host the pairing in different locations in the winery that you might not normally get a chance to see on a regular visit. PondView, for example has set up the tasting in their fermentation room. I’ve been in there before, but this was the first time I saw what looked like ice frozen on the outside of some of the stainless tanks. Naturally, I asked about that. Apparently, the ice crystals are on tanks where they are doing cold fermenting. (Something I’ll have to ask about next time I’m chatting with a winemaker!)
At Reif Estate Winery we got into another back room that I’d never been in before. A big, but cozy space, thanks to the barrel-lined black walls. Very different… (and check out the clever re-purposed barrel).
Another place we made a point of stopping at was Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery. We wanted to check out Wayne’s ice rink – I mean, really… It was a popular spot, as you’d expect. The crowd was definitely more millennial than boomer (my demographic) – so it has a different vibe – very fun and VERY popular. The winery has a separate building where the spirits are. Neither of us are into whisky, but cream whisky is… well, dessert, which we are into. We had to try it. It is quite nice – think Bailey’s Irish Cream, with (to me) a hint of cocoa.
Another surprise was that there were a few families with kids. I thought that was unusual, but the little ones were happy – and the wineries all serve non-alcoholic drinks for those with a designated driver passport. In watching the children, it’s clear that they enjoyed trying different things as much as their parents did.
We ended our day back at the restaurant at Ravine. We didn’t have a reservation, but they had room for us and, to our delightful surprise, the were running a prix fixe special that was unbelievable: any appetizer, main and dessert from the regular menu for $35. What a treat! I had smoked arctic char, braised short rib of beef (normally $36 alone), and sticky toffee pudding. My friend had the mushrooms on toast, pork loin, and a chocolate tart. The food was spectacular and the service was exceptional. If you’ve not been to the restaurant at Ravine, I can’t recommend it enough.
On the way home we were talking about the day. In terms of favourites, we especially enjoyed the savory food (Inniskillin, Pondview, and Jackson-Triggs). My favourite pairing was Jackson-Triggs’ 2016 Grand Reserve Pinot Noir and the smoked chicken and chocolate cheddar panini with mushrooms and preserved cherries. My favourite wine was the 2013 Stratus ‘Weather Report’ Red.
Yesterday I was down in Niagara-on-the-Lake for my second round of Taste the Season. Like last week, a girlfriend and I made a day of it.
Also like last weekend, our first stop was less than inspiring. I was looking forward to stopping in at The Lakeview Wine Company because it’s been awhile since I was there and they re-built the tasting room. (It used to be a modified construction site trailer that they inherited when they bought 20 Bees Winery.) The new building is quite spectacular and worth seeing, especially if you remember their previous digs.
Unfortunately, the Taste the Season pairing was not as exciting as the new building. In fact, the butternut squash gnocchi was a bit of a disaster, despite the effort. The caterers had set up a lovely prep station and they were sautéing the mushrooms and carefully plating each with a lot of love. Lakeview chose a nice wine to pair the gnocchi with – their 2016 FRESH Riesling Gewürzt blend. The crisp, refreshing wine was quite nice – and very reasonably priced ($12.95) – but the gnocchi was hard (you had to stab it with a fork to pick it up). Disappointing, to say the least. But, there were plenty of other places to try, so I was sure the day would improve.
My plan was to visit wineries on or near Niagara Stone Road – the highway that runs through the heart of the region. So, our next stop was Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery and Distillery. Though it opened earlier this year, I hadn’t yet stopped in. The Gretzky brand is part of the Peller family of wines and it’s been around for a number of years, but the venue is new. Also new is the addition of a line of whiskys.
The winery is a two-winged expanse situated on a can’t-miss-it location along one edge of one of the (newish) traffic circles on Niagara Stone Road. Everything about it is designed to impress. The first thing you notice as you walk up to it is the beautiful copper and stainless steel still that’s visible through the two-story window in the front of the building on the left. Our guess was that the Taste the Season event was going on in the other building. But, before going in, I wanted to poke around toward the back, to see the buildings from a different perspective.
I’m sure glad we did, as there are some delightful surprises there: an inviting bar that looked cozy enough to enjoy a drink even in the dead of winter – especially since it’s next to an ice skating arena they’ve built – a very nice touch! Though it was too warm for ice at this point – you know it’ll be a big draw once the temperature drops. Honestly – you can’t help but think that’s just the kind of arena Walter Grezky probably set up every winter in the back yard for Wayne and his friends …
As for the Taste the Season offering at Gretzky’s – well, they were serving their 2016 No. 99 Baco Noir ($15.95) paired with white bean, smoked paprika and ham hock cassoulet. Apparently, the cassoulet was prepared by the well-known restaurant at Trius – one of the other Peller wineries. As the server was getting ready to serve us, she made sure to mention there was bacon in, asking us if we were ok with that. Sadly, the bland white bean soup they served bore no resemblance to cassoulet. I couldn’t believe it was from Trius’ well-known restaurant. The wine was alright, but nothing to write home about and certainly no way to know whether it would pair well with real cassoulet.
After the shockingly bad offering from the Trius kitchen, I was curious to see what they were serving up as part of Taste the Season at Trius Winery at Hillebrand. So, we stopped in there next. Well, talk about night and day. As you can see from the photo – at Trius they were serving exquisite miniature cones filled with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and pickled red onion paired with their 2016 Trius Chardonnay ($15.10). The petite cones were to die for and the unoaked Chardonnay was perfect with it. It’s hard to believe that the same kitchen that turned out that little bit of heaven made that tasteless white bean soup at Gretzky’s. I guess it happens…
Our next stop was Pillitteri Estates Winery – one of the few places featuring dessert. They were serving a cinnamon candied pecan crusted pumpkin cookie paired with their 2015 Canada 150 Select late Harvest Vidal. Though I didn’t much care for the texture of the cooking, the wine was terrific and it paired well. The wine is an exceptional late harvest and a terrific value ($15 for 200 ml). Of all the wines I enjoyed as part of the 2017 Taste the Season event, I think this wine offered the best value and would make a great gift for anyone who enjoys a dessert wine.
I was keen to stop at Stratus Vineyards, which I generally think of for their reds, because they were featuring their 2015 Stratus Weather Report Chardonnay ($28.00) paired with “Fat Chance” smoked salmon. After the exquisite salmon-based appetizer at Trius, I thought the simplicity of the Stratus pairing might be a bit of a let down. I could not be more wrong. The buttery, melt-in-your-mouth salmon and the light oak of the Chardonnay proved the best pairing of the day. Another reason the pairing was so inspired is it actually represents something simple enough that all of us could serve our guests. Hats off to Stratus for the pairing – and for spreading the word about Imant Malins’ Fat Chance salmon, which is locally-sourced.
The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake provided me with two passes to the month-long event. As I’ve said before, I think the passport programs are a terrific idea and a great value. They’re brilliant because you can visit 25 wineries per passport and you have the entire month to use them. Also, they’re fully transferrable so you can share them with different friends.
There’s one more weekend to enjoy Taste the Season. If you don’t have a chance to get out next weekend, mark your calendar for February – they’ll be running the Days of Wine and Chocolate.
As a friend mentioned the other day, November is kind of a buffer month – it’s a time to re-charge before the busy holiday season and, for many of us, time to start to think about what we might serve – both in terms of food and wine – at our holiday get togethers.
With all this in mind, the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake have a holiday tradition called “Taste the Season” – it’s one of their popular passport programs and it runs every weekend (Fridays through Sundays) in November.
I was given two passes to the event by the tourism folks and a girlfriend and I spent Sunday popping in to different wineries to sample their food/wine pairings. It was a dreary day, which might be why most of the places we stopped in at were not overly busy. Mind you, that was great as far as we were concerned because it meant more of an opportunity to speak with the folks at the wineries about the recent harvest, and about the wines and food.
The choice of which wineries we visited was based strictly on our route. We started at Niagara College Teaching Winery, which is right off the QEW. I hate to say it, but I was very disappointed with the pairing there. They were serving their 2011 Dean’s List Pinot Noir ($17.15) with a grilled zucchini, tomato, and Havarti tart. It sounded so promising, but was a total disappointment because the tart was stone cold. It’s true, it was early, so they had just opened, but no wine would taste good with the fat of the cold pastry dough. Too bad…
Fortunately, the day improved quickly at our next stop – Chȃteau des Charmes. They too were serving a Pinot Noir (their 2015 Estate Grown & Bottle Pinot) ($16.95). They paired it with a delicious smoked chili spiced meat ball served in a lovely little bamboo cup with some tomato fondue and parmesan cheese. (The food was catered by Vintage Inns.)
Our next stop was Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery – always one of my favourite spots. The served their 2014 Sand & Gravel Redcoat ($18.95) paired with a beef stew with a parmesan pastry. I was surprised when they served the wine in a plastic throw-away glass, but I figured it’s because of the numbers of people that come through for the tasting. The server – clearly concerned about the presentation – gave us a card offering a complimentary tasting flight at the tasting bar where, he assured us, “they use proper glassware”. We promptly went over to the other room and one of the wines I chose to (re)sample was the Sand & Gravel Redcoat. I’m glad I did – though I enjoyed it well enough in the plastic cup, in a real glass is was quite nice. In fact, that’s the wine I ended up purchasing.
Another stop we made was Marynissen Estate Winery. They were serving a 2015 Gewürztraminer ($16.00) with a warm corn and red pepper bisque. The server made a point to tell everyone that it wasn’t a particularly sweet Gewürzt – I guess many folks are put off Gewürzt because they associate it with sweetness. I didn’t care much for the wine – I actually found it a bit too dry for – but the soup was delicious. Indeed, when we were re-capping the day, my friend and I agreed that the soup was our favourite of all the food samples.
Inniskillin Wines gets kudos for an innovative pairing: their 2015 Vidal Icewine ($29.95) paired with aged cheddar grilled cheese with a garden tomato chutney on top. I think it’s a terrific idea to show people that icewine isn’t just for dessert. They also get high marks for a very simple, but effective presentation. Though the server didn’t know we’d be taking a photo – he made sure that the name of the winery was visible on the napkin. (Nicely done!)
Our last stop was Peller Estates. They were serving their 2016 Private Reserve Gamay Noir ($19.95) with a smoked pork and duck terrine. That pairing a true standout. The wine on its own was light and refreshing (as you’d expect from a Gamay) and it balanced the richness of the terrine quite well. (It was my friend’s favourite wine of the day, by the way) Also, there was a young chef (I’d guess a chef-in-training) serving the terrine and he happily answered my questions about the difference between terrines and pates. It’s opportunities to speak with folks from the wineries that are familiar with food and wine that make these events really enjoyable.
We ended the day with a long, late, relaxing lunch as the Restaurant at Peller Estates, which was lovely.
If all goes according to plan, I will be headed down to Niagara-on-the-Lake next weekend with another girlfriend to see what some of the other wineries are up to. Stay tuned – or better yet – head out with some friends and enjoy Taste the Season yourself.