Digging Stratus Vineyards’ Roots

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 at Stratus Vineyards

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.

Soil Sample from Stratus Vineyards

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.

For a taste of the seminar, click here for a short video of Nicks introducing the event and Stratus Vineyards.

A home with a storied history

Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery has always been one of my favourite spots.

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.

 

Winter, Wine, and Chocolate – these are a few of my favourite things!

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.

N/V Brut Sparkling Methode Traditionelle with bread pudding at Chateau des Charmes

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.

Mamiko behind the tasting bar at Inniskillen

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.

Inniskillin Wines
A great place to learn to skate — the rink at Ravine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

2014 Bella Terra Reserve Cab Sauv with pork back ribs

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.

Cold fermenting tanks at PondView

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!)

Cozy space at Reif Estate Winery
An inventive — and useful — re-purposing of a wine barrel at Reif

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Lacing up at Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery

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.

The rink at Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery

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.

There are still two more weekends to enjoy the Days of Wine & Chocolate and you can order your Passports ($45+ tax or $25 for designated drivers) online. I hope you have the opportunity to check it out.

More Taste the Season in Niagara-on-the-Lake

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.

Gnocchi at Lakeview Wine Co.

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.

 

Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery and Distillery

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.

Outdoor bar at Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery and Distillery
Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery and Distillery

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.

Smoked salmon cones at Trius Winery at Hillebrand

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.

Pillitteri Estates Winery Taste the Seasons 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fat Chance” Smoked Salmon at Stratus Vineyards

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.

Taste the Season – Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake

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.)

Taste the Season at Ravine Vineyards

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.

Taste the Season at Marynissen Estates

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.

Taste the Season at Inniskillin

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!)

Taste the Season at Peller Estates

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.

The Restaurant at Peller Estates

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.

 

Winemaker Amélie Boury’s Favourite Childhood Game Really Paid Off

Winemaker Amélie Boury

Like many winemakers, Château des Charmes’ Amélie Boury attributes a love for the outdoors and growing up on a farm as a reason she’s at home in the vineyard. But, she attributes her interest in winemaking to a creative game her mother played with her growing up. The “Nose Game”, as she referred to it, was “a simple game”: her mom told her to go outside and smell things and then come back and describe them to her.

She loved the game so much, as a young girl growing up in France, she initially thought about a career was in the perfume industry. Somewhere along the line, however, she focused her nosing talents on winemaking, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Amélie was gracious enough to show me around the cellar at Chateau des Charmes and to talk about winemaking –  the unglamorous parts and the joy of seeing people enjoy the wine she’s made. Here’s a video of our chat.

Sip & Sizzle through the long weekend — and next weekend

A friend and I popped down to Niagara-on-the-Lake yesterday for Sip & Sizzle. A few years ago we enjoyed this event, but I must say, this year the selections are even better. The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Konzelmann Estate Winery had invited me and I had plans to go earlier in the month but I didn’t get a chance to go earlier.

Grilled prawn at Chateau des Charmes

We stopped at Chateau des Charmes, Ravine Vineyards, The Hare Wince Col, Konzelmann Estate Winery, Strewn Winery, Peller Estates, and Two Sisters.

One of the fun things about these passport events is seeing how the wineries interpret the theme. Given the name, it’s easy to assume that the food would centre on something on the BBQ. Some wineries certainly did interpret the theme that way. For example, Château des Charmes is serving a grilled prawn atop a shoot and sprout salad with a garnish of a citrus zest emulsion paired with their newly released, refreshing 2016 Sauvignon Blanc.

Grilled Halloumi Cheese at The Hare Wine Co.

The Hare Wine Co. served with their 2016 Jack Rabbit White (a Riesling/Vidal/Gewürztraminer blend) with small pita wedge with a (very small) piece of Halloumi cheese marinated in tikka sauce and then melted a bit by frying it on the flat side of a panini press and then topped with a slice of canned peach.

Braised veal cheek rillettes with gnocchi at Konzelmann Estate Winery

Konzelmann Estate Winery served their 2015 Cab Sauv paired with braised veal cheek rillettes with parmesan and potato gnocchi in a grilled butter sauce. When I asked the person serving where the “sizzle” came in, she was a bit stumped. Then I re-read the description and saw that the food was created by a local restaurant called “Grill on King” – so, I guess Konzelmann at least had the spirit of the theme in mind.

Cabernet wild boar sausage at Peller Estates Winery

At the end of the day, my friend could not choose his favourite wine – he enjoyed them all. In terms of food, he liked what Peller Estates Winery served: cabernet wild boar sausage on a ciabatta bun with Quebec maple mustard, fried chili shallots and mustard seedlings served with their 2015 Private Reserve Gamay Noir. I think Peller’s choice of serving a hearty, tasty sausage is brilliant. It was a clear crowd pleaser – especially for the men who were there – and showing folks how well the wine pairs with something many of us will be gilling up this summer makes perfect sense.

Harissa grilled chicken thigh on mixed grains salad at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

In terms of food – I loved what Ravine Vineyards served: Rossco’s harissa grilled chicken thig on a mixed grain salad. Indeed, if there was one recipe I’d LOVE to get, it’s for the grain salad – so flavourful! I will confess that I didn’t much care for Ravine’s 2015 Cabernet Rosé – but, the food really paired well with it and it brought out the best in the wine.

Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery’s mixed grain salad — YUM!
Cod potato fritter with grilled zucchini, tomato and basil salad at Two Sisters Vineyards

The other food that I adored was Two Sisters’ cod potato fritter with a grilled zucchini, tomato and basil salad. It paired beautifully with their 2016 Sauvignon Blanc. The food was prepared by Kitchen 76, the restaurant at the winery. I’ve not yet eaten at Kitchen 76 because it seems rather pricey (even for NOL) but the fritter and salad were so tasty, maybe next time I’m looking to splurge on a meal, I’ll give it a try.

In terms of my favourite wines, I couldn’t choose just one. But, in whites the Sauvignon Blancs were the winners. That said, I ended up coming home with the well-priced 2016 Estate Grown Sauv Blanc from Château des Charmes ($14.95). The Two Sisters’ version was lovely, but at $34, I took a pass. In terms of reds, Konzelmann’s 2015 Cab Sauv was lovely and quite a bargain at $13.95.

 

If you’ve already got plans for this long weekend, don’t worry – Sip & Sizzle continues this weekend (Saturday and Sunday) and next weekend (Friday-Sunday).

Out and about at Days of Wine and Chocolate

It’s Family Day weekend here in Ontario – a long weekend designed to give folks a mid-winter break. Most years, that means a weekend of snow-filled activities. With an unusual early spring thaw (temperatures topping  10°C – over 50°F), I’m sure lots of folks had to change their plans.

Fortunately, for me and my friend Cory, the weather was perfect for a day of winery visiting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOL). As I mentioned in my last blog, the Wineries of NOL provided me with a couple of passes to the Days of Wine and Chocolate event that’is going on all month. Here are a few of the highlights of the day.

Our first stop of the day was Pondview Estate Winery. They were serving their 2013 Bella Terra Cab Sauv with ribs in a chocolate infused sauce. I have to say – Pondview never disappoints for these events. They always showcase one of their nicer wines and they always serve something tasty. This year was no exception. The ribs were outstanding. The Bella Terra is a lovely wine, but because they were serving in their barrel room, the glasses and the wine were very cold, which was a shame. Regardless, it was a great pairing and both of us agreed that it would be hard to beat.

The only pre-planned part of the day was lunch at Backhouse restaurant. I was keen to try the restaurant because I’ve sampled Chef Ryan Crawford’s charcuterie at different events. Crawford and his partner Beverley Hotchkiss opened the restaurant about 18 months ago and it has been very well received, so I made sure to make a reservation.

I knew exactly where it was (242 Mary Street in a small plaza where Mary Street intersects Niagara Stone Road), but from the outside, the restaurant is easy to miss. And, because the windows are all covered over, it almost looks like they’ve  gone out of business. Indeed, we followed a couple in and we overheard one of them saying to the hostess that he thought maybe it was closed. But, it’s so attractive and welcoming inside, you quickly forget about what the outside looks like!

The host asked us if we wanted a seat at the Chef’s bar or at a table. Normally I don’t like sitting at the bar – but it was clear that that was where the action was, and the seats were very comfortable looking. When I asked what she’d recommend, the hostess said, “Definitely the bar – that’s considered our premium seating”. So we took her suggestion – and boy were we glad we did.Sitting there gave us a chance to talk to the staff and watch as they lovingly plated different things. We didn’t want anything too heavy and since I knew that Chef Crawford is known for his charcuterie, we settled on the Backhouse Plate for 2 and a side order of frites. The Backhouse Plate features a selection of charcuterie, bread, cheeses, preserves, and pickled green beans and pickled sour cherries. It was delicious.

We had a peak at the dinner menu. They have some items a la cart, and a selection of tasting menus that sounded amazing. I’ll definitely be back to try a tasting menu – and I’ll definitely book the seats at the Chef’s bar. We purposely didn’t have dessert at the restaurant because we wanted to try some of the Days of Wine and Chocolate dessert pairings.

 

 

 

We had noticed that Trius Winery was serving S’mores, and that sound fun. Turns out we didn’t read the description that carefully, so we were surprised when it wasn’t a traditional S’more – it was S’more fudge. They paired it with their 2015 Gamay Noir. That turned out to be one of Cory’s favourite wines of the day – and the pairing made both somehow richer.

Another standout in terms of a wine/dessert pairing was at Pillitteri Estates. They were serving their 2013 Cab Merlot with a dark chocolate cup with milk chocolate mousse with a drizzle of Cab Merlot raspberry compote. The lightness of the milk chocolate mousse and the tartness of the compote paired very well with the wine.

 

 

 

 

Days of Wine and Chocolate — a Passport to Enjoyment

Have you ever participated in one of the coordinated passport events wineries run in a particular region? If you haven’t, you should… And if you have – let’s compare notes about it.

The Days of Wine and Chocolate event is currently going on all this month. The marketing folks at the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake gave me a pair of passports, and a friend and I checked it out on Friday.

The Basics

Passport programs are brilliantly straightforward. You buy the passport (the pass) and then head to your favourite participating winery – or better yet, one you’ve never tried! At each winery, you get a sample of some nibble and a wine they’ve paired with that delectable bite. The pairings are based on the theme – in the case of the Days of Wine and Chocolate you can guess what the theme is….IMG_3981

Planning Your Day?

Because I invited my friend, I felt responsible for planning our day a bit. I know my friend didn’t care – she looked at it as just a great way to spend some time together, which is another great excuse to order up a couple passports!

So, I decided to frame our day around a few specifics – a few specific pairings that intrigued me and a few wineries that I was especially interested in visiting. First, I wanted to stop in at The Hare Wine Company – it’s a brand new winery on Old Stone Road. I also planned on stopping in at Konzelmann Estate Winery – I thought it would be interesting to compare a brand new winery (Hare) with one of the original wineries of the area (Konzelmann). I also wanted to stop in at Lailey – it changed hands last year and I wanted to learn a bit more about their plans going forward.

I also had the list of what each winery was serving and I had marked some that I thought might be especially interesting. One of the impressive things about the Days of Wine and Chocolate theme is how creative the wineries are with incorporating chocolate into different food. For example, cocoa aioli on a smoked meat sandwich, chocolate drizzled popcorn, a dark chocolate and bacon brownie, dark chocolate mole sauce.

The Hare Wine Company

The Hare Wine Company has only been open about three months. I had perused their website before we left and it had a lot of interesting information about the loyalist history. But, you never get a sense of what the winery is aiming to be from a website – you need to see it in person to get that.IMG_3994

Sommelier and assistant cellar master Alina Trefry was excited to tell us about the winery and their plans. I had passed it before and was amazed at its size – not exactly a roadside stand. Alina explained the architecture and how well planned it is – everything from space to let food trucks into the courtyard, to the fact that the displays are all on wheels so they can move them around for different events and weddings and such. Here’s a short video of Alina talking a bit about the winery.

I had read that the building is crafted from re-claimed building materials and Alina confirmed that. As well, someone had given me a heads-up about one of the unique side rooms, so I asked about it. Indeed, they have a private tasting room off the main hall whose walls are made of old barrels. If you visit the winery and they aren’t too busy, ask if you can see it – the three dimensional effect is very neat!

They have 12 acres under vine: half are planted with Riesling and half with Vidal. They also locally source other grapes. They have four different series of wines in different price ranges – from their Jack Rabbit series ($14-$16 range) to their Noble series, which currently features a $120 Cab Franc appassimento blend. Here’s a short video of Alina describing the Noble series.

For Days of Wine and Chocolate they were serving the 2013 Crown Land Red with Ecuadorian bitter dark chocolate with freeze-dried strawberries. To be honest – when we read the description, it didn’t appeal to me OR my friend. But, we were there and it would have been rude to turn it down.IMG_3987

Well, what a delicious surprise. The chocolate and the Cab Franc were Delicious. Alina said the chocolate was made for them by a local chocolatier and, it featured a dusting of raspberry powder n addition to the freeze-dried strawberries. The whole thing – the chocolate and wine – creates an explosion of sweet and tart. I was hoping the chocolate was available for purchase at the winery, but it wasn’t. But, Alina was happy to share that it came from Willow Cakes and Pastries (Mary and Mississauga Streets in Niagara-on-the-Lake).

Lailey Winery

Our last stop of the day was Lailey Winery. As I mentioned, I knew that the winery, which used to be called Lailey Vineyard, has changed hands. The new owners are John Chang and Allison Lu. Besides the subtle name change, the first thing you notice that’s different is the totems – there’s one outside and one inside. The new owners also own wineries in BC and, as the woman who served us explained, the totems are meant to greet visitors and as a connection to the new owners’ ties to BC.

The other immediately noticeable difference is that the tasting room has tripled in size. When I mentioned that, our server explained it’s because they now get a lot of buses and it’s easier to accommodate groups.

Owner Allison has taken over the winemaking. (Derek Barnett is now working out of Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County.) Many of the wines on the shelves – including the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Fume that was featured in the Days of Wine and Chocolate pairing – are vintages that were crafted by Barnett.

Despite the reference to fume in the name, I didn’t pick up much smokiness in the Sauvignon Blanc. They paired it with a petite lemon tart that was to die for! Again, I asked who made the tarts and I was told they sourced it from the Watering Can in Vineland (3711 King Street) – definitely a café that would be worth checking out.

It will be interesting to watch how Lailey Winery will change. Rumour has it that they’ll focus primarily on icewine and that much of their production will be for export. We’ll see… Meanwhile, for the many folks who loved what Derek produced, stop in to stock up before it’s all gone.

Lunch

The only other pre-planning I had done was finding a place for lunch. I had a short list of places I had wanted to try. One of them was The Old Winery Restaurant on Niagara Stone Road. When I happened to ask someone at Konzelmann for lunch suggestions, he mentioned that one. So, that’s where we went. The menu’s diverse, the prices reasonable and the food and service were good. In short – it’s a place I feel confident recommending.

Grilled Chicken saltimbocca, Prosciutto, Fontina, Tapenade on a Kaiser
Grilled Chicken saltimbocca, Prosciutto, Fontina, Tapenade on a Kaiser

I’ll be heading down to NOL again for Days of Wine and Chocolate, and so stay tuned.  Oh – and watch for a separate post about Konzelmann – we did their Junk Food Pairing tasting, which was great!

Lamb burger with a greek salad
Lamb burger with a greek salad

 

Late Summer Visits … Icellars Estate Winery

Icellrs Estate Winery NOL IMG_3645As I mentioned in my last post – last week a friend and I headed down to the Niagara region to visit a few wineries. Our hope was to stop in at a some of the newer ones that we’d not been to. Because it was a Tuesday, I had told my friend that we’d be taking our chances, as some of the smaller – or newer – ones may not be open seven days a week.

Icellars Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake was one that I was interested in, but that is open by appointment – and I hadn’t made one. But, after a delightful visit to 16 Mile Cellar in Jordan, we continued to NOL. We came off the QEW at Glendale (by the White Oaks and Niagara Teaching College) and made our way on York Rd. to Concession 5.

Because I had seen a photo of the winery, from a distance I knew we were headed to the huge red industrial-looking building just beyond Coyote’s Run Estate Winery. There were no cars, but as we got to the door, Adnan opened it and welcomed us.

Given the name, my friend and I figured Icellars probably focused on icewine. We soon learned, however, that the winery name comes from the owner’s last name: Icel. It turns out, the gentleman who welcomed us was Adnan Icel, the owner and winemaker.

Adnan Icel of Icellars Estate Winery
Adnan Icel of Icellars Estate Winery

One of the first things I mentioned to Adnan was how attractive the winery’s logo – a stylized stag – is. With this, Adnan proudly explained that the chose the logo because it represents icons included on ancient drinking vessels from the Hittite region of Anatolia, which is in modern day Turkey. Adnan, who hails from Turkey, was also very happy to explain the 2000 year history of winemaking in Anatolia. He is a very captivating, genuine teacher and it was a fascinating history lesson…Icellrs Estate Winery NOL IMG_3648

Adnan is a mechanical engineer by training, but he has long had an interest in owning a farm. In about 2008, the family decided to grow grapes and Adnan set out to look for a property that is warm, as he is focused on producing big, bold reds. He purchased the 60 acre property on Concession 5 because the temperature in that area is consistently warm. Like its neighbor Coyote’s Run, Icel’s property has both red and black soil.

When I was asking how this year’s growing season has been, his engineering background emerged. He mentioned that he has installed two weather stations in the vineyard and is constantly monitoring the temperature. He even ran into the back and returned with his laptop to show us a graph showing that as of that morning, the August temperatures this year exceeded those in 2012, which was one of the best Ontario vintages.

Though it is a fairly large parcel (especially for a new winery), Adnan intends to keep the production small. He will make a few single varietals – for 2015 he expects to have a single varietal Cab Sauv and a Cab Franc – but he will also focus on blending. And, as another homage to his Anatolian roots, the Bordeaux-style blends will bare names that relate to Hittite history. So, for example, his 2014 Arinna, which is a blend of 66% Cab Sauv, 33% Merlot, and 1% Cab Franc, is name after a major Hittite winemaking city.

Icellars has four wines available at this point: 2014 Chardonnay, 2014 Merlot, 2014 Pinot Noir, and the 2014 Arinna, which was my favorite. Though it’s still quite young, it was quite complex. I can’t wait to see how it ages!

Be sure to check out Icellars’ website – it’s rich with information about the history of Hittite winemaking and there are lots of photos of archaeological finds from that region.