Days of Wine and Chocolate Event is Underway

I played hooky from my real work today and a girlfriend and I stopped in at some wineries for the first day of the annual Days of Wine and Chocolate event. The wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake have been running this February event for some time but this was the first time I’ve been.

En route to the wineries we stopped in at Criveller Cakes in Niagara Falls – a fabulous European pastry and chocolate shop. While there, we sampled a few decadent desserts, so when we were choosing the wineries we’d stop in at, we made sure we stopped at a few that had pairings that didn’t involve dessert.Criveller Cakes IMG_2408

We stopped at four wineries – two that were featuring pairings with savory nibbles, and two that were featuring pairings with dessert items. Rancourt Winery served their lovely, oaky 2013 Chardonnay Reserve paired with Lobster Bisque with White Chocolate Shavings. The oak in the Chardonnay paired very well with the rich bisque.Rancourt Winery's Wine and Chocolate Pairing 2015 IMG_2429

Stratus was serving their 2010 Tollgate Fume Blanc paired with Roasted Fennel, Beet, & Dark Chocolate Salad prepared by Treadwell’s. One of the few tastes I really do not like is licorice – and fennel is basically a licorice-flavoured plant. So, let’s just say I was ambivalent about whether to stop in at Stratus. But, I do love Fume Blanc (and it’s not a particularly common wine these days in Ontario), so I thought I should be open to the idea. Well – I’m sure glad I did.

Stratus Wine and Chocolate Pairing 2015 IMG_2431The wine was gorgeous and the appetizer was exceptional. The roasting seemed to take away the (dreaded) licorice flavour and the sugars in the beets. The vinaigrette had little nuggets of chocolate, and a week bit of crunch and a lovely finish that brings the whole thing together. This pairing is one of the best I’ve had at such events. Don’t miss it – even one of the ingredients turns you off – the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ravine Vineyard's Wine and Chocolate 2015 Pairing IMG_2427Ravine Vineyards is serving their not-yet-released 2012 Sand & Gravel Cabernet Franc and they are pairing it with a light, tasty Chocolate Mint Opera Cake. The pastry chef at Ravine did a lovely job with the opera cake – just a hint of mint. This too was a surprisingly tasty pairing.

Our last stop was Jackson-Triggs. They are serving their 2012 Grand Reserve Shiraz paired with a Red Wine Chocolate Cake with Smoked Almond Cream. The Shiraz is very nice and it pairs well with the cake – but the cake was less delicate than other desserts we had sampled today, and I thought it had a bit too much cinnamon. (The spice might have been in the red wine reduction that they drizzled over the cake along with the smoked almond cream, rather than in the cake – it was hard to say.)

Jackson-Triggs Wine and Chocolate Pairing IMG_2436Days of Wine and Chocolate continues on Fridays-Sundays (11Jackson-Triggs Wine and Chocolate IMG_2434-5 p.m.) all month.

A Sampling from Taste the Season

Between the Lines Taste the Season-2014 IMG_2175A friend and I stopped in at six Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries participating in Taste the Season yesterday. It was great to see so many people out and I got the distinct impression that many folks started by sampling the wine that was featured as part of Taste the Season, but they then headed over to the tasting bar to try other wines.

Ravine Vineyards Taste the Season 2014 IMG_2172







My favorite pairing of the day was Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery’s 2012 Ravine Chardonnay paired with a rich chicken stew with mushrooms foraged by the chef. Delicious!

In terms of notable wines, both my friend and I both liked the 2012 Cabernet Merlot at Palatine Hills and we agreed that it seems like a wine that would be even better as it ages a bit. My friend’s favourite wine was Hinterbook’s 2011 Cabernet/Merlot. My favourite (despite the silly name) was Stratus’ 2011 Kabang Red, which is a blend at Stratus.Stratsu Taste the Season 2014 IMG_2183

It was also great to have a chance to try Lemberger, a varietal that I’ve never tried before. Between the Lines was featuring their 2012 Lemberger.

We also did an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting at OLiV, which is at Hinterbrook. We were both wowed by the infused oils and the different combinations. As one person doing the tasting with us said when we tried the OLiV Italian Herb Extra Virgin Olive Oil & OLiV Garlic Cilantro Balsamic, it was like liquid bruschetta!

Hinterbrook Oliv Shop Taste the Season 2014 IMG_2181Taste the Season continues the next two weekends – and I’ll be heading back to NOL to stop in at some of the other 20 wineries we didn’t get to yesterday.

Taste the Season 2014 Pairings

The wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake announced the pairings for their Taste the Season event, which starts Novemer 7, 2014 and runs for four weekends in November (Fridays –  Sundays).

Passports are on sale now for $44.25 (totalling $53.39 with the tax and service charge). There’s also a designated driver pass for $35 ($42.94 all in). Passports can be purchased on-line.

I’m planning on popping down to NOL for the event and I’ll do a posting then, but in the meanwhile here’s a list of the 26 wineries and the food pairings for 2014:

2012 Lemberger paired with venison goulash, braised red cabbage with cherries and buttery spatzle

2010 Estate Series Pinot Noir paired with mixed wild mushroom risotto drizzled with handcrafted rosemary oil and topped with shaved parmesan

Brut Sparkling Wine paired with brown butter roasted squash and dijon mascarpone strudel

2012 Cabernet Merlot paired with open faced focaccia charcuterie stack with a tomato basil chutney

2013 EastDell Estates Black Label Barrel Aged Chardonnay paired with creamy autumn potato and sweet leek bisque, made with full country cream and aged white cheddar

2011 Cabernet/Merlot paired with slow-cooked shredded steak and fusili compote

2012 Vidal Icewine paired with carmelized onion tart with Ontario goat cheese and thyme

2012 Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Riesling paired with cold water shrimp jambalaya with house cured taso ham

2008 Caroline Gamay Rose paired with Nutella opera slice

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon paired with slow cooked black angus Alberta beef topped with PEI lobster

2013 Cabernet Merlot paired with rustic pork terrine with maple smoked bacon and cranberry compote

2013 Red Blend paired with sundried tomato and olive tapenade on French bread

2012 Dean’s List Prodigy Icewine paired with spiced pumpkin cheesecake with a chocolate crust and ginger cream

2012 Cabernet Merlot paired with spiral of beef on infused quinoa enhanced with raspberry preserve and merlot wine reduction

2012 Private Reserve Cabernet Franc paired with carmelized onion pulled pork with roasted red pepper and feta compote on a peppercorn and shallot focaccia

2012 Oak Aged Chardonnay paired with chef Collin Goodine’s savoury sage and squash soup

2012 Bella Terra Cabernet Franc paired with 5 bean chili with pulled pork and ground beef on an open-face mini ciabatta bun

2009 Merlot paired with garlic teriyaki oven-roasted chicken wing

2012 Ravine Chardonnay paired with chicken and biscuits: farm chicken stew with foraged mushrooms, autumn vegetables and ravine puff pastry biscuits

2009 ‘Back Vintage’ Riesling Icewine paired with jalapeno pepper flatbread topped with Niagara pear, brie and icewine apricot glaze

2013 Sauvignon Blanc paired with herbed goat cheese and wood oven roasted vegetable tart

2013 Riesling paired with handmade speculaas, a Dutch cookie, with nutmeg, allspice, mace and other delectable spices and brushed almond spread

2012 Triomphe Cab Franc paired with duck confit/pear and brie phyllo tart

2011 Kabang Red paired with Treadwell “Farm to Table” tortière

2007 Riesling (Dry) Library Release paired with harvest vegetable terrine, fig, pear & orange compote on cured meat, aged Ontario cheddar

2013 Trius Cabernet Franc paired with spiced quinoa with chorizo sausage and a vine tomato sauce

Of lemons and lemonade …

Snapshot of Ann Sperling Sept 3 2014
Ann Sperling in the vineyard at Southbrook Vineyards

This week I was out at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Ann Sperling, Director, Winemaking and Viticulture, was kind enough to show me around the vineyard.

Seems the harvest in the Niagara region is going to be late this year (by about three weeks) because of the slow start after the harsh winter and the very wet spring and early summer. Fortunately, though some of us city folk have been complaining about the heat this past week, the growers are thankful for it, as it’s good for the grapes.

Walking through the vines, it was surprising how many of the individual clusters had grapes that were green and grapes that were a deep purple. I asked Ann about this and she explained that the reason for the different stages of ripeness on the same vine is because the primary, secondary, and tertiary buds broke in stages over a period that was longer than usual. The result is grapes in different stages of ripening.

Grapes harvested in the Green Harvest at Southbrook — Sept. 2014

She said it’s not unusual to have some green grapes among the ripe clusters and that’s why they go through the vineyard and do a “Green Harvest”. This involves trimming out the green grapes from the other ripe grapes. Normally, when they Green Harvest they just take off the less ripe bunches and drop them.



This year, however, because there’s a fair bit of green among the riper grapes, Southbrook is going to harvest the grapes from the Green Harvest. And, in the spirit of waste not, want not – this year Southbrook will be using them to make verjus.

Here is a short video of Ann Sperling explaining the Green Harvest.

(More) Snapshots from Sip & Sizzle

I was at Sip & Sizzle in Niagara-on-the-Lake again on Saturday. (Hats off to the NOL wineries for making the passports valid on any of the event days and for making them transferrable — that way you don’t have to feel that to “get your money’s worth” you need to stop in to an unreasonable number of wineries on one day or on one weekend! You can double your pleasure by spending time in NOL on different May weekends.)IMG_1685







There’s one more weekend for Sip & Sizzle 2014 and if you haven’t yet been to any of the participating wineries, here are some photos of what you’re missng…IMG_1707IMG_1698

Reif’s Taste the Terroir Experience

As I noted recently, last Saturday a girlfriend and I were taking in Sip & Sizzle and one of our stops was Reif Estate Winery. The winery was hopping but the tasting room/retail area was large enough to handle the crowd, and they had plenty of knowledgeable staff on hand. IMG_2459

To round out our day, we had booked a formal tasting with Archie Hood, one of Reif’s sommeliers. I’ve had the pleasure of being guided by Archie on a tasting at Reif before and I thought my friend would enjoy it. Reif has a few different tastings to choose from and the one we were doing was Taste the Terroir.



The formal tastings are set up on the back side of the tasting bar, which is nice because you have a bit of privacy to chat with Archie, but at the same time you have the relaxed buzz of people enjoying the winery. Archie started by explaining that we’d be sampling four wines paired with four different Ontario artisanal cheeses. The wines – the 2010 White Meritage (paired with Mountainoak Wild Nettle Gouda), the 2011 Chardonnay Reserve (paired with Gun’s Hill Farms’ Five Brothers, which is kind of a gouda/Swiss blend), the 2010 Merlot Reserve (paired with Thornloe Cheddar), and the 2012 Vidal Icewine (paired with Glengarry Celtic Blue Reserve) – were chosen because they’re representative of the terroir on which Reif’s grapes grow.

Archie gave us very specific instructions about the process he wanted us to follow in terms of tasting the wines and then the cheese – I’m not talking about the usual directions about holding up the glass and looking at the colour, then swirling it to open the bouquet, then smelling the nose, and so on. First we were to take a sip of the wine. Then we were to take a nibble of the cheese, chewing it for about 10 seconds. We were to then leave the cheese on the roof of our mouth and then take another sip of the wine, noting how the taste of both had transformed.IMG_2460

I don’t mind telling you I found the process a bit challenging and it took me a few tries before I got the hang of it. (My friend either fared batter, or was too embarrassed to admit finding it tricky.) As we proceeded through the flight, Archie explained different things about the wines, the cheeses and the science of what was going on with our taste buds and about why we were noticing different things. He was also more than willing to answer all matter of questions. For example, I asked about the selection of glassware, especially the fact that the Chardonnay was in a balloon glass.

The most delightful part of the tasting was the Ah-Ha moments each of us experienced. My personal Ah-Ha came when I had a mouth full of wine and cheese and I was clearly trying hard to notice the taste differences and Archie pointed to my mouth and encouraged me to swish the wine around. (I had kind of just been holding it in my mouth.) I did as he said and – oh man – what a difference! After swallowing I commented on it and Archie knowingly nodded. I knew immediately that this new “technique” (however simple it is) is something that would change my way of enjoying wine. Talk about a terrific learning experience!!

My girlfriend’s Ah-Ha moment came when she tasted Reif’s Magician, which Archie served us after learning that my friend and her family normally drink reds. The Magician is a Pinot Noir-Shiraz blend (60/40) with 30% of the grapes kiln dried. The way my friends face lit up on trying the Magician was nothing short of (pardon the pun) magic. When I saw her reaction, I had to spill the beans to Archie: I knew my friend liked reds but that she had a bias against Ontario reds. When she announced she’d be buying some to take home to her family, I knew that she was going to have to re-think her moratorium on Ontario reds. Talk about gratifying…

When we finished, I thanked – Archie for turning what could have been a very straightforward wine and cheese tasting into a memorable experience that I’m sure both of us will remember for a long time.

P.S. Don’t Forget: Sip & Sizzle continues this weekend and the last weekend of May!

Spring Fever Meets Sip & Sizzle

IMG_1651A friend and I were down in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOL) for Sip & Sizzle yesterday and it was obvious we weren’t the only ones who were so happy to finally see the first sings of spring! The weather was lovely – breezy and mainly sunny – and the fruit trees and forsythia have just started to bloom. We stopped at about a half dozen wineries (there are 26 participating in the passport event) and everywhere we went the wineries were hopping – it was SO nice to see.IMG_1663

The Sip & Sizzle event was clearly a draw – and rightly so. The food and wine pairings were truly inspiring. At Reif Estate Winery, for example, it was quite amazing how well their 2012 Empress (unoaked) Chardonnay paired with the mussels – if you don’t believe how the great pairings of food and wine bring out the best in both – Sip & Sizzle will convince you. (Another one of our favourite combinations was at Ravine Vineyards – they were serving the 2011 Sand and Gravel Cab Franc with a grilled lamb kabob.)

IMG_1646While Sip & Sizzle might have been what brought people out – it was clear that it wasn’t just a case of eat and run. People were taking their time to stop and enjoy other wines – sampling different new releases and old favourites. My friend and I also had a wonderful tutored Terroir Tasting at Reif with Archie Hood, one of their resident sommeliers – I’ll do a blog posting about that soon (no time today, as it’s Mother’s Day) – it was so much fun and quite memorable – so stay tuned for that.

IMG_1643Anyway — if you don’t already have Mother’s Day plans, or if you’re looking for something to enjoy with your Mother – head out to a few wineries, where spring is (finally) in bloom!

Sip & Sizzle – No Strategy Needed, but…

A girlfriend and I are headed down Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOL) this weekend for Sip & Sizzle and I can’t wait! It’s a new event with 26 participating wineries serving passport holders one of their VQA wines paired with sampling fresh off the grill (hence the sizzle).

We’re only going down for the day, so we’ll only have time to stop at five or six wineries. Fortunately, the event takes place every weekend in May so I’ll probably pop back down there later in the month to take in some others. This particular friend isn’t that familiar with the wineries down there and so I’m in charge of planning the day.

I’ve come up with a few different strategies and I’ll let her choose. Here are the ideas I’ve come up with for organizing the day:

  • By colour: I was looking at the list of what wine each winery is serving and I was pleasantly surprised by the split – looks to me like 12 are serving whites, 9 are serving reds, and 5 are serving rosés. Since rosés are such a terrific summer sipper, it’s tempting to focus on rosés, with a view toward picking up some bottles for sharing with friends over the summer. On the other hand, the list of whites being poured include some wines my friend might not be familiar with, or maybe is especially fond of – so that’s another option. Of course, if she’s looking forward to firing up the BBQ for some burgers, brats, chops, or steaks, maybe she’ll want to find a few reds to take home for enjoying with her dinner guests.
  • By Location: Planning the day based on a particular route may sound odd, but it is really fun. You’ll put your day in fates hands in terms of the wines and food you’ll sample, but in doing so, I’m sure you’ll discover lots of new favourites. The wineries in NOL tend to be clustered and so it’s really easy to hit five or six that are all near each other. For example, you might try wineries along the Niagara Parkway, or on Niagara Stone Road (aka Highway 55), or along the Lake.
  • By what they’re grilling: If you’re into grilling, or if you’re looking for new ways of serving some of your favourite BBQ foods, why not pick the wineries based on what they’re grilling up? You might be inspired to try different recipes this summer and you’ll find some great wines to serve with your summer BBQ creations.
  • By wineries you’ve never been to: Unless you’re a regular (or you’ve written a winery guide), chances are there are at least a handful of wineries in NOL that you’ve not stopped at. Well, why not use Sip & Sizzle as your reason to try those wineries you’ve never been to before.
  • By favourite: If you’ve got some favourites – and most of us do – Sip & Sizzle is a great way to reconnect – see how they fared during the winter, raise a toast to their wines, and see what they suggest goes well with something on the grill.

Sip & Sizzle is happening every weekend in May (Fridays-Sundays 11-5 p.m.). Passports are $43+HST ($35+HST for designated driver passports). You can order them on-line and pick them up at the Chamber of Commerce in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, 26 Queen St.

2014 Niagara Icewine Festival

If you’ve been housebound this past week because of the arctic blast that’s blanketing much of North America, take heart – the forecast is for milder weather soon. And fortunately, for those who might be anxious to get out and about, the Niagara Icewine Festival kicks off this weekend IMG_0778

The festival, which features wineries from Niagara and Jordan, is a terrific event that’s spread over three weekends: January 11/12, Jan. 18/19 and Jan 25/26. Participating wineries offer food samples that they match with their icewine.

IMG_0775Think block party – ice block, that is. There are ice sculptures and ice bars – and lots of icewine. Just dress warmly and bring a designated driver!

The first weekend centers on Jordan Village. Main Street in the Village becomes an ice sculpture/ice bar pedestrian zone, with numerous Twenty Valley wineries serving.

On the second weekend (Jan. 18/19) the main street in the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (Queen Street) holds the Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Celebrations. This event features similar festivities, with ice bars and food and icewine served with jazz and other entertainment.IMG_0803

The third weekend (Jan. 25/26) the Courthouse and the shops in the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake will be pouring wines from local wineries.

The Gossip on Stone Church – It’s Small Talk

On a recent visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake I set out to find Small Talk VineyardsIMG_0849 IMG_0841 IMG_0846. As I headed along Lakeshore Road I saw the sign for Irvine Road and I thought, “Oh, Small Talk must be near Stone Church, which should be right around here”.  When I saw the sign for the Stone Church Warehouse Outlet, I figured I was right.

But I became quite confused when I saw the Small Talk Vineyard sign on what I thought was Stone Church’s property. I pulled in and headed into the winery’s boutique. As soon as I saw the bright green painted wine barrel I realized something was different. I had seen a bunch of brightly coloured wine barrels along the edge of the vineyard property – they’re quite whimsical and hard to miss – and here was one in the boutique.

The confusion was put to rest when I spoke with staff who explained that Stone Church has re-branded and it is now Small Talk Vineyard. The Hunse family still owns the winery, but they’re shifting their focus to producing VQA and so they decided to re-brand.

The transition is on-going but they’re welcoming guests, so be sure you stop in and see the redesign – and try some of their VQA wines.