A few days in The County

I’m just back from a few days touring around Prince Edward County with two food and wine-loving friends. My friend Sandy and I were visiting Susan and her dozen chickens, who live just outside Belleville. 

Before arriving at Susan’s, Sandy and I did a bit of exploring of the western end of Prince Edward County (The County). Our first stop was Loch Mór Cider Co. on Danforth Road in Hillier. Sandy had been there before and she raved about their sour cherry cider. I warned her that I don’t tend to like flavoured ciders, but she assured me it was dry and delicious. We shared their Flight 1, which included their Hopped Cider; Savvy Pomme Sparkling, which is made using Russet apples; Sour Cherry; and Pommeau, which is a fortified cider.

We both loved the Hopped Cider and I must agree – the dark amber Sour Cherry is delicious. The County is known for its ciders and the Loch Mór Ciders do The County proud. Their tasting room is comfortable and their large patio overlooking the young orchard is very relaxing. They serve light bites that they source locally and that change often, but there’s likely to be something you’ll enjoy with a tasting flight or with a glass of your favourite cider.  

From there we drove into Wellington for lunch at LaCondesa – a Mexican restaurant I went to last year for the first time and I loved it. They do tacos and tostadas. We ordered two tacos each and they were as good as I remembered. It’s a cute spot with lots of space indoors and a small, well shaded front patio. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a casual, tasty dining option in Wellington.

The next day Sandy, Susan, and I headed back to explore the southern and more eastern end of The County. Susan was kind enough to be the designated driver and our first stop was Lighthall Vineyards in Milford. We had all been there before, but not recently. They have expanded their tasting area and have also started making cheese. (They buy ewe’s milk from a local farmer and they craft the cheese at the winery.)

Sandy and I shared their White flight, which included their Riesling 2022, Pinot Gri 2021, Foundation Chardonnay 2021, which is aged in egg-shaped cement barrels, and their Estate Chardonnay 2019, which is lightly oaked. They do a lovely job of pairing each wine in their flights with their cheeses. My favourite wine was their Estate Chardonnay 2019. My favourite cheese was Frenchie, which they served with their Riesling. All their cheeses are very nice and we noticed them sold at other shops in The County, which speaks to their popularity.

at Lighthall Vineyards

Our next stop was Exultet Estates, which is also in Milford. Exultet is unusual in that it doesn’t advertise. It’s open to the public, but you won’t find it in the WineCountryOntario guide or even in the Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce map. In 2004 Gerard and Lia Spinosa purchased a 200-acre former cheese factory and planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Vidal. Gerard is the winemaker and Lia leads the tastings. Their wines have have won many awards and they are focused on high end restaurants, but you can buy their wine at the winery.

Lia Spinosa of Exultet

It’s definitely worth finding, especially if you like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They offer flights that feature “a splash” of six of your choice. Lia is very knowledgeable about the different expressions of the wine that the winemaker (her husband) was focusing on for each offering and it’s nice to compare different craftings of the same variety.

From Exultet we headed to County Road 8 where we came across Del-Gatto Estates. This is another winery you won’t find in the WineCountryOntario guide. The three of us had all been to Del-Gatto before but not since before the pandemic – so we stopped in. When I looked at the tasting menu, I noticed the 2020 Petite Pearl. I asked what that is and the woman helping us said, “it’s Petite Pearl”. I was still confused, so I asked, “but what variety of grape is in it?” She explained the grape is called Petit Pearl, which is wintery hearty. She explained that they’re the only winery in The County that features winter hearty varietals.

I looked at the tasting menu again and saw that a Frontenac Noir and Marquette and then I understood. I asked her if those varietals grow in places like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and she said yes, though they source theirs from Minnesota. I know that the winemakers in The County bury the vines to guard against the cold, so it makes sense to use varieties that are particularly cold hearty. They also have some of the more traditional varietals (Pinto Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Vidal for example). The service is friendly and it’s a lovely spot to try something different.

Our next stop was Cressy Mustard on County Road 8, near Waupoos Estates Winery. I had never heard of it, but Susan is a fan and she was determined to find it. I was expecting a farm stand of some sort. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to a shop that sells all sorts of Cressy Mustards and relishes, they have a bit of a café. It was truly our lucky day – they were featuring pickerel tacos and truffle fries. We shared an order of each and they were amazing. The basket of fries was HUGE and about the crispiest I’ve ever had – not to mention the truffle aioli and shaved parm that was on top. Go for the mustard – stay for a bite!

We ended the day stopping at Lake on the Mountain Provincial Park. As the name implies – there’s a lovely lake that is located on a crest that sits about 60 metres up with views of the surrounding waters of Picton Bay. We stopped briefly and walked around the small boardwalk along the edge of the lake – but our main destination was the beautiful patio across the street at the Miller House Café. The view from the patio is spectacular! Directly below is the ferry dock for the Glenora Ferry, which is so fun to watch.

The Miller House has a lovely menu of unique light fare including “flambées” (which are elongated flatbreads with different toppings), creative platters (similar to charcuterie boards), and tartines (toasted French bread with different toppings).   

I only get to The County about once a year – and every time I go, I think I should go more often. It’s hilly and curvy and fun to drive around. Every curve brings a surprise – you might see a field with cows or sheep, or rows of vines, or an apple orchard, or a beach with a sailboat off in the distance! And every time I go there, I’m surprised at how many new great cafes and restaurants there are, not to mention great wineries, cideries, distilleries, and more.

Hollyhocks a Miller House Cafe

SIAL Canada 2023 – (New-to-Me) Ideas and Products

Walking around SIAL Canada was a bit like wandering through a westernized souk – so much to take in and marvel at. A world where you’re generally familiar with many things but at the same time many items are different enough that they seem new to you.

So, in today’s blog I’m going to write about some products that I found particularly noteworthy. In the few instances where I’m confident they’re new to the market (for example, if they were exhibiting in the Start-Up area of the show), I’ll note that.

Canadian Lobster Oil – This product is brand new and it is amazing. The flavour is delicate and subtly lobster-y. It was developed by Chef Jérôme Ferrer of Europa, a Relais & Châteaux restaurant in Montreal. Chef Ferrer roasts hundreds of pounds of lobster shells to distill the flavour of lobster to which he adds a soupçon of ingredients including carrots, maple syrup, spices, Labrador Tea Leaves, and Dune Pepper. He then infused this magic essence into Canadian canola oil to create this uniquely Canadian product.

Chef Jérôme Ferrer

It’s reasonably priced (it will retail for about $20 for 375 ml.) and thanks to the high smoke point of canola oil, its cooking uses are limited only by one’s imagination. I can’t wait to try it as a drizzle on pizza, soup, salads, risotto, and so on. The first thing I’m going to try it in is homemade mayo!  

The packaging is beautiful – the delicate pink-hued oil is in a fashionable glass bottle that’s sealed with a generous crimson wax top. It’s clearly packaged for gift giving and for showing off on one’s table. It’s so new that they’re still working on the distribution – but keep an eye out for it in gourmet stores near you.  

La Presserie Premium Cold Pressed Cocktail Mixers – this product won the Bronze SIAL Innovation 2023 Award. (Interestingly, this Scarborough-based company’s Cold Pressed Plant-Based Dressings and Dips won the Bronze Award for product innovation at SIAL 2022 in Montreal – clearly they’re doing a lot right.) The frozen cocktail mixes come in six flavours, including my favourite: mojito. Each 213 ml. bottle is enough for two cocktails – you simply defrost the concentrate in the fridge and fill two tall glasses with ice. Then you pour half the bottle in each glass and add about 1.5 oz of whatever type of liquor you want (rum in the case of a mojito), then top it up with some club soda and voila – you have a sophisticated, complex-flavoured cocktail with almost no effort. (Or, if you prefer a non-alcoholic cocktail just substitute club soda for the liquor.)  

These mixers were a huge hit at the show – and rightly so. La Presserie is well known for its cold press products – things like juices, smoothies, and dressings. They don’t add water, refined sugars, or artificial ingredients. So, if you taste the mojito mix on its own, it pretty much tastes like the perfect mix of just lime juice, mint, and agave. You can find the cocktail mixes at select grocery stores (I think the person I was talking to mentioned Longos) and other food stores, as well as on-line.

Enercheez – this snack product has been around for some time, but I’d never seen it or heard of it. Their booth was among the Dairy Farmer’s of Canada section so I knew it was cheese-related but when I saw it, I thought it was popcorn that might be cheese flavoured. As soon as I picked up a piece to pop it in my mouth, however, I realized it was too heavy to be a piece of popcorn. 

This clever product is, in fact, dehydrated cheddar cheese! Mountain Munchies Inc., the BC company that makes it, promotes it as a high protein, zero carb snack. It has no preservatives or additives. You can eat it out of the bag, or you can use it to add crunch to salads or in soups (instead of croutons), for example. For cheese-lovers and folks on the go, it’s a convenient way to bring cheese with you without having to worry about keeping it cold. What a terrific – and delicious — idea! It’s available on-line and at an interesting variety of stores (for example Mountain Equipment Coop, select Sobeys, and many other places)

Freezo – I like cold coffee drinks so I was drawn to this powder that’s for the consumer to make frozen coffee frappes at home. Freezchino was created over 15 years ago but it was for the food industry only. During pandemic lockdowns folks were looking for a way of making coffee frappes at home, so the company adapted the product for home use. Just add ice cubes, milk, and Freezo to your blender and blend for a couple minutes and you have a delicious creamy concoction. It’s new to the market (it was in the Start-Up section of the show) and the classic and lite version are available on-line.

HealTea – This product won second place in the Start-Up Pitch Competition. HealTeas are herbal drinks in individual servings (355 ml cans). It’s meant as a convenient, healthy alternative beverage for folks on the go or for those who just want something different. I like tea and when I saw the name, I thought it’s just canned herbal iced tea. As soon as I tried it, I realized it’s not canned ice tea – it’s really very different and quite delicious.

I don’t know how they came up with the flavours, but they hit on really great combinations: Ginger and Camomile is probably the most traditional; they also have Nettle and Rosemary; and Peppermint and Dandelion. I tried them all and enjoyed them all – though I think my favourite is Peppermint and Dandelion. They have found the perfect balance of herbal flavour with a bit of maple syrup and lemon juice and each is only 35 calories. All the flavours are available in sparkling or still, which I think is brilliant. They are available on-line and in select grocery stores.

Siip – this Toronto-based start-up won first prize in the Start-Up Pitch Competition. The husband and wife who created this product used to have a soup restaurant in downtown Toronto. They realized some of their restaurant customers were taking a serving of soup back to their office to enjoy later in the workday as a healthy snack. So, they set out to create an instant broth that folks could have at home or at the office.

They created a line of powdered broths that you enjoy by simply adding to a cup of boiling water. Their roasted chicken bone broth has 8 grams of protein per serving and their beef bone broth has 10 grams of protein, plus 5 grams of collagen. They also have a vegan broth that contains 600 mg of adaptogenic mushrooms. It is available on-line and in select stores.

Nomzicles – these are fudgesicles that are made without refined sugar. These delightful 110 calorie desserts are made with only four ingredients: spring water, cashews, dates, and cocoa. They have been around a few years, though I had never seen them. They’re available on-line and at select stores. At SIAL they were being handed out from an adorable, old-fashioned ice box bicycle that would be great at corporate events, street festivals, and farmers markets. (I asked the young woman who I chatted with at the Nomz booth about whether they have used that little bicycle at local events and they have not, though maybe after the success they had at SIAL they’ll consider getting it out to events in the Toronto area.)   

Boobie Latte by Milksta – I saw the pitch for this product at the Start-Up Pitch Competition. It was created by a Canadian certified breastfeeding specialist for women who are nursing and who want to enjoy a plant-based latte without the guilt of caffeine. I couldn’t find the Milksta booth so I didn’t actually try this product – but I thought it was interesting that a company is focused on creating products specifically to help satisfy breastfeeding women’s cravings in a healthy way. The products are available on-line.  

And of course, in my previous blog I mentioned two other new Canadian drinks that I really enjoyed: Piquette, the zero alcohol wine-style beverage, and Copper Rose Vodka.

SIAL Canada 2023 – Wine and Spirits?

Because SIAL is about food innovation, I wasn’t sure if there’d be any wineries or distilleries there. But beverages are important to restaurants and the hospitality industry, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw a booth for Benjamin Bridge, a Nova Scotia winery. (They have a few products at the LCBO, but I’ve never seen them at a wine show in Ontario, for example.) They were at SIAL promoting Piquette – a zero alcohol product they describe as a “wine-style beverage”.

Piquette is a light, refreshing carbonated drink with lovely citrus notes. It is packaged in attractively decorated, black slim cans (250 ml). I think it’d be great to take along on a picnic. It’s vegan-friendly and gluten-free, which I know matters to some folks.

The sales rep at the booth when I first tried it explained that to make Piquette they use the skins from grapes after they are crushed for their wines. So, like many resourceful wineries, they’re creatively making use of their inputs and expanding into other market segments.

Today, when I went back to the booth to take a picture, Jean-Benoit Deslauriers (JB), the winemaker at Benjamin Bridge, was chatting with a few people about Piquette. He said that part of the reason they decided to make a non-alcoholic line is because they see the writing on the wall: alcoholic beverage consumption is dropping and they expect it to continue to decline.

JeanBenoit Deslauriers

JB said that they made a conscious decision to not make a zero-alcohol wine. He explained that while there are plenty of tasty zero-alcohol beers, he thinks taking the alcohol out of a product that is only 5%-6% alcohol is pretty easy. But the higher alcohol content of wine means that to get it to zero-alcohol you have to processes it so much you aren’t left with much taste. So instead of starting with wine and taking the alcohol out, they set out to build a beverage from the bottom up – focusing on making something that’s tasty and refreshing.

Though he’s proud of Piquette – JB is careful to point out that it’s not a zero-alcohol WINE.

Here’s a short video of JB sheepishly admitting that Piquette doesn’t “do a very good job of emulating wine.” (You may need to turn up the volume to hear JB as there’s a fair bit of background noise.) I found his confession amusing and as he was describing what Piquette isn’t, my thought was “so what that it’s not wine – it is delicious!” And of course, in the end, JB and the folks at Benjamin Bridge clearly realized they have a winner – even if it’s not wine!

The only hard liquor I saw at SIAL was Copper Rose Vodka, a brand new entry on the Canadian spirits market. The Windsor-based distillery launched earlier this year and they decided to promote their rye-based premium vodka at SIAL Canada. Dan Maddox, one of the founders, explained that the product is distilled 12 times. By comparison, Belvedere – another premium rye-based vodka – is distilled four times.

I like vodka in a cocktail, but it’s not something I’ve ever enjoyed straight up. Indeed, as I was chatting with Dan, I was trying to think of a polite way to decline trying it, as I was worried my face might reflexively contort in some odd way if I didn’t like it. But Dan and Melissa Roberts, the other co-founder, were so enthusiastic, I couldn’t say no.

Melissa Roberts and Dan Maddox of Copper Rose Distillery

I have to say, the Copper Rose Vodka went down very easily – it is excellent. I can only imagine what it would be like in a cocktail! And I’m happy to report that its price point is equally impressive. Dan explained a bit about their business model and how they sell the by-product from the distillation process for bitters. Because of this, the retail price is really reasonable: $39.00. (It is not yet available in the LCBO but it is available for purchase on-line.)

Trends in non-alcoholic beverages was a hot topic at SIAL and I’ll write more about it in a coming blog, so stay tuned.

SIAL Canada 2023 – Food Innovation

SIAL Canada is the largest food innovation trade show in North America. Since 2010 it has alternated between Montreal and Toronto and after a four-year hiatus it’s back in Toronto. The three-day expo features some 800 exhibitors from all over the world.

I’ve been following SIAL Canada for a few years and I was really excited to attend the show. So, my next few blog posts will be about some of the different things I saw, tasted, and enjoyed at SIAL Canada.

SIAL Canada 2023: Inspire Food Business

The word that best sums up how I felt today (day one of the show) is overwhelmed. I knew there would be lots to see, but I hadn’t expected to see booths from literally all over the world. As I expected, there were many, many, many booths featuring individual vendors – food producers, food distributors, packaging companies, and so on. But there were also groups of booths sponsored by different countries, different regions within countries, trade associations, etc., that showcased foods and products of those regions.

Walking around felt like being on vacation wandering through fabulous foreign markets where you can sample this and that and chat with vendors who are happy to talk with you about their products and countries. And with every corner you turned, you found yourself in a different part of the world.

Images: Brazil’s innovative booth, featuring a swing; The Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Toronto; The state of North Carolina; a vendor from Algiers taking a photo of his booth just after setting it up; multiple rows of booths from Turkey.

And of course, there were some little things I noticed that tickled me. I loved watching one cheese producer setting up his booth. After putting out the cheeses, he delicately garnished each with fresh edible flowers – making a feast for the eyes as well as the palette.

As they were setting up for the international cheese competition, I noticed what looked like a clarinet case on a chair. It seemed odd to me until I saw one of the competition judges open up the case to take out a cheese knife! I was quite surprise, as I would have thought the event organizer would have provided knives. When I blurted out, “You brought your own knife?” the judge looked at me with surprise and said, “Of course!” Turns out, a few the judges brought their own knives…

Pre-release event at Henry of Pelham

This afternoon Henry of Pelham hosted a pre-release of six wines, including its 2021 BIN 106 ‘Lost Boys” Baco Noir. This is a limited edition wine that is well worth heading to the winery to snag before it runs out. It’s from some of the oldest vines in the region (planted in 1984) and it is luscious. I’ve always thought of Baco as being one of Henry of Pelham’s outstanding offerings and so I was looking forward to trying it – but this exceeded my expectations!

Daniel Speck

I was talking to Lawrence Behler, the winemaker, about how much I enjoy Henry or Pelham’s Bacos and he said the winery has always treated Baco with a great deal of respect. I think he hit the nail on the head and I think that is particularly evident in the 2021 BIN 106.

On our way to the winery, I confessed to my friend that I didn’t know who the winemaker was. So naturally, that was the first question I asked Daniel Speck, one of the brothers who own the winery. I was so pleased to learn that it was Lawrence, who I first met at an ice wine weekend when he was the winemaker at Peller Estates in 2008. After that he headed to Colio in the Lake Erie North Shore region (Harrow) and then I knew he went out west for a time. After that I lost track of him – but he’s back in the Niagara, which is great news.

Lawrence Buhler, winemaker

The other standout for me at the tasting was their 2021 The Shadow Rock Sauvignon Blanc. Daniel Speck was pouring it and he explained that this particular parcel is near a pond. In the late afternoon it gets partially blocked and the slight coolness from the shadow helps the fruit develop different from other parts of the vineyard. Apparently, it’s also interesting because being near the pond the darkness brings out the night insects and frogs and it gets pretty lively in that patch. One other important note about the wine that makes it different from other Sauvignon Blanc is that it is lightly oaked, which makes it – yes, a Fumé Sauvignon Blanc. I asked Daniel why they decided to de-stress the “fumé” and he explained that they did so because some people think they don’t like oaked whites and so sometimes they won’t even try it. Go figure…

I’ve always enjoyed a nice Fumé Blanc – and The Shadow Rock is delicious. It has the grapefruit and pear you expect from a Sauvignon Blanc but the bit of oak gives it a round, fuller mouth feel. Next time you’re at Henry of Pelham be sure to try it – it might surprise you. Indeed, among today’s crowd, it clearly was a big hit – by the time we got to the retail shop to buy some, they had run short of it. They will have it re-stocked tomorrow morning, so we ordered it. I look forward to serving it to some friends this summer. I won’t tell them it’s an oaked Sauvignon Blanc until after they’ve tried it. I’ll be they will enjoy it and will be more open to trying a fumé blanc in the future.

The other wines introduced at the tasting were: the 2021 Dry River Riesling, the 2020 Smith & Smith Gamay, the 2020 Cabernet-Merlot Speck Family Reserve, and the 2020 Pinot Noir Speck Family Reserve.

A side trip to Jordan Village

On our way to Henry of Pelham we were a bit hungry so we decided to stop at Jordan Village to see if we could grab a bite. The GPS had us turning from Nineteenth Street onto Wismer Street and then to Main Street in Jordan Village. Well – that was a no go, as Main Street in Jordan Village is completely closed for construction. Fortunately, if you stay on Nineteenth Street (rather than turning onto Wismer St.) the Jordan Village parking area is open and you park and walk through the Village around the construction (which is supposed to be completed this summer, so we were told).

We knew there was a coffee shop in the Village but we didn’t know the name. Well, it turns out is now the RPM Bakehouse and it’s run by the folks who run the restaurant at Pearl Morissette winery. They had a lovely light menu featuring interesting sandwiches on their house made breads, as well as some coffee shop type sweets. There was indoor and outdoor seating and so we had a light lunch outside (in mid-April!). The Bakehouse was an excellent find – a very nice choice when you’re in the mood for more than just a muffin and coffee but not quite a full-service meal. It’s definitely a place to remember and return to.

RPM Bakenhouse

Winter Flights in Niagara

Though we were unsure what the roads might be like after the snowstorm that swept through on Friday night to Saturday morning, a friend and I had tickets to Mahabharata at the Shaw Festival so we headed out extra early yesterday. The roads had been cleared beautifully – and traffic was almost non-existent, but best of all, the sun shone.

We had planning on stopping by a couple wineries and we were able to stick to the plan. The snow was so fresh I couldn’t resist stopping for a quick photo of Peninsula Ridge, as it looked particularly beautiful.

We continued on to Redstone Winery where we shared a flight.

Enomatic at work at Redstone

Then on to Domaine Queylus where we shared a flight of four plus a few more. It’s been a long time since I stopped at Domaine Queylus and I can’t tell you how impressed we were with all the wines we tried – hats off to winemaker Kelly Mason.

I was also impressed that they have a menu with some light fare that you can enjoy while there. Friends often ask me for recommendations of Niagara region wineries and after our experience yesterday, I’m definitely adding Domaine Queylus to my list of must-try wineries.

Chile comes to Toronto

Though the focus of this blog is wines of Ontario, there’s a big world out there and it’s always nice to learn about what other countries are doing. So, when wineries of other countries host wine events in your home town – if you have the chance to partake – you should.

I always look forward to events curated by Wines of Chile – a non-profit organization of Chilean wine producers dedicated to promoting Chilean wines. Yesterday they hosted Drink Chile 2022, which featured a number of events here in Toronto – including a Masterclass Tasting and a consumer walk around tasting featuring over 120 wines. 

With the pandemic, it’s been a few years since we’ve had such events, so I was looking forward to it – particularly the masterclass, which featured Amanda Barnes DipWSET and John Szabo, Master Sommelier. Barnes, an award-winning wine writer and the author of The South America Wine Guide, presented four themed flights that showed the amazing ranges of varietals and styles produced in Chile.

The second flight, for example, was meant to showcase Chile’s interpretation of what we typically think of as Mediterranean Reds. The first two wines in this flight were País – a variety that I’d never heard of, much less tried. Known in California as the Mission grape, it is one of the oldest cultivated grapes in the Americas.

The first of the País was Garcés Silva’s Catalino País 2019 (Vintages 25638). The wine is made from 100-year-old vines from the Maule Valley. The second País, also from the Maule Valley, was Las Veletas’ Almaule País 2021 (not currently available from the LCBO), which was from much younger vines. I much preferred the Almaule País, but my friend preferred the Catalino País! That’s what makes these tastings so special – the chance to compare the same variety as interpreted by different winemakers. Having now been introduced to the País, I made sure to try a few other examples of it during the walk around tasting.

I think a lot of people feel daunted at the prospect of picking up wine from a region they might not know much about. If you’re in that camp, next time Wines of Chile comes to town – go. It is an unparalleled opportunity to learn by talking with winemakers and wine agents AND to taste all sorts of wines at all price points. I know I left with a few Chilean wines added to my list of favourites that I can’t wait to share with friends.

Always a good idea to stop in…

A cousin who lives in the States was bringing an Italian visitor to the Falls and so we decided to meet in Niagara-on-the-Lake for dinner.

Yesterday was a beautiful – HOT – summer day and so I left Toronto a bit early to enjoy the drive and to pop into a couple of wineries. My main stop was Redstone Winery because I wanted to try their Bistro Riesling 2019, Niagara Peninsula – it was one of the Platinum award winners in the 2022 National Wine Awards of Canada. It isn’t available at the LCBO, and at a very reasonable $14.95, I thought it was worth a stop.

Redstone Winery’s Inviting Patio

I’ve been to Redstone Winery before – but it’s been a few years, and I’ve never been there in the height of summer. What a difference sunshine makes. I parked in the side lot, figuring I’d walk around to the front, where the tasting room is. But, the expansive back patio drew me in. It was lovely! I didn’t have time to stop for a bite, but it’s now high on my list to return to for an al fresco lunch.

The Bistro Riesling didn’t disappoint. It’s dry and minerally – my ideal Ontario Riesling. During Covid I had been enjoying Tawse Riesling 2019, Niagara Peninsula, which was a Gold medal winner in the same wine awards that the Redstone Bistro Riesling won Platinum. Given that Tawse and Redstone are sister wineries – and the Tawse Riesling I like is sold out – I needed to find another reasonable Riesling. The Redstone Bistro fit the bill perfectly.

The other stop I wanted to make was to Cave Spring’s new Vineyard Tasting Room. For those of us who associate Cave Spring with Jordan Village, seeing arrows for Cave Spring on King Street that point UP a narrow road to the top of the Escarpment was confusing. But, always game to explore – and not daunted by a sign that says “no exit” (you can always turn around, after all), I drove up the road.

Cave Spring’s Vineyard Tasting Room

SO glad I did. At the top was what I was looking for – a brand new, huge, two-story see-through building surrounded by a beautiful vineyard-facing patio. The building has been open for a couple weeks, but they’re still putting some of the final touches on it. Regardless, the tasting bar is functioning, so I decided to try a few of their Rieslings. Their Riesling Dolomite has always been one of my favourites and since it’s not sold at the LCBO, I couldn’t leave without a bottle.

Cave Spring’s See-through Tasting Room’s Panoramic View

Cave Spring still has its tasting room in Jordan Village – that’s where they do their processing. But this vineyard-side spot will serve them well. It would be lovely to pass an hour or two with some wine and a nibble – either a charcuterie board or a dip and chip option. Again, another place I look forward to going back to when I have more time.

Though my winery visits were brief yesterday, it was nice to become reacquainted with the area. It was also a good reminder of how lucky we are to be so near such lovely spots.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

A hot summer Sunday with no plans. What better time to pop into a winery, I thought. Since I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake last week, I thought I’d check out something in the Niagara Escarpment region.

I decided on Henry of Pelham Family Estate because, according to their website, they were having live music (Ron Hoover, apparently) from noon to three p.m. and because The Coach House Café, which is run by Chef Erik Peacock, is open.

I got there at about 1 p.m. and parked and didn’t see where the music might be. I stopped in the tasting room and asked and was told there was no music today – it was yesterday. I mentioned that I thought I read it was going to be both Saturday and Sunday. The woman explained that unfortunately, the musicians told them yesterday that they wouldn’t be returning today.

I was very disappointed. I get that it’s not the winery’s fault – and maybe I should have phoned before making the 100+ km drive. But, I figured since it was on their website, I would just be bothering them if I phoned, especially if they’re busy.

Anyway, music or not, I could still enjoy some wine and a bite. So, I ordered a tasting flight. I’ve always loved Henry of Pelham’s Baco Noir so I ended up with a sample of their 2019 Old Vines Baco and their 2019 Spec Family Reserve Baco Noir, in addition to a sample of their Cuvée Catharine Rosé Brut. I told them I wanted to have something at the Café and they graciously brought the flight out to my table.

The Café menu was limited, which is not unusual. I was intrigued by this starter: Nachos, Lobster Queso, Cotija, Pico de Gallo, Avocado Salsa Verde, Lime Crema. I thought perhaps there was a comma missing between “lobster” and “queso” and I asked the server. She explained that it’s not a typo – it’s melted cheese that’s flavoured or infused with lobster. She assured me it didn’t taste fishy and I assured her that wasn’t a concern, as I had hoped there might be actual lobster on the nachos. She said no, but that the lobster queso is pink from the lobster and is very good.

I wasn’t sure about the lobster queso, so I decided to order one of the sandwiches instead. When I said I wanted fries with it, she said that they don’t have fries but that they have potato chips instead. Man – it wasn’t my day…

Rather than a sandwich and chips, I decided that the nachos sounded different enough that I should try them – after all, chefs are quite inventive in ways I’m not. Well, when the bowl arrived it looked interesting, though what I thought was probably the lobster queso was more like Velveeta orange than pink. Sadly, there was nothing that made you even imagine lobster had anything to do with it. The nachos were pretty much ball park nachos in a nice bowl. Very, very disappointing. I thought about ordering something else, but I didn’t have a lot of faith that anything else on the menu would be worth trying and I certainly didn’t want any more disappointments.

No Disappointment with the Wines

Luckily, the wines didn’t disappoint at all. They do a very nice job on their traditional method sparklings and both Bacos were delicious. In the end, the one I enjoyed the most was the 2019 Old Vines Baco. They were out of the 2019 in the wine shop, but I’ve heard the 2020 vintage in Ontario is one of the best, so I brought home some 2020 Old Vines Baco Noir.

All the way home I debated about whether to do a post about my visit today. I try to accentuate the positive, but I’d be lying if I didn’t express some of my disappointment. In the end, I decided to write about my experience today because readers deserve to know that sometimes visits to wineries are not all you’d hope.

Bottom line – Henry of Pelham Family Estate is a lovely spot and worth going to for their wines (if not for the Café or any kind of entertainment that may be scheduled). There’s a lot of history there too, so be sure to walk around and definitely try their Baco Noirs – they are exceptional.

Sunday Fun – Enjoying Big Head Wines and a Variety of Pies

I’ve always been a fan of Big Head Wines and so when I got an email blast about a weekend event at the winery, I was intrigued. They were hosting a pop-up featuring General Assemblies Pizza. I had heard about GA pizza (as they are known) from some foodie friends but I’d never tried one.

So, a girlfriend and I decided to make a day of it. Given that traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels (even if other things aren’t quite), we headed down early on Sunday. I waited a bit too late in the week to get a reservation for a structured wine tasting, but they put our name on a waiting list. So, we agreed it would be good to arrive on the early side. They opened at 11.

Well, we were a tad earlier than necessary so we decided to go for a coffee. My friend knows Niagara-on-the-Lake like the back of her hand, so she suggested coffee at the Pie Plate. I had been there before and thought it was a brilliant suggestion. To our surprise, when we got there, we found out they moved. To our relief, we were told it’s now just around the corner at 1607 Four Mile Creek Road (rather than on Niagara Stone Road).

The new place is huge and it was hopping, which was nice to see. I have to say, as we watched people leave with two and three pie boxes each, I wondered whether there’d be much of a selection left. There was plenty to choose from and we could see a team of four busy rolling out dough for more pies in the glass-surrounded kitchen area. With my coffee I had a fabulous peach pie in tart form and my friend had a bacon and date scone.

Then we headed to Big Head Winery on Hunter Road. The pizza oven was set up next to a large tent where the sour dough, naturally leavened pizzas are crafted. Nearby there were stand-up tables where people could enjoy a glass of wine with their pizza.

I mentioned to the person who greeted us that we didn’t have a reservation for a tasting, but that we were on the waiting list. I told her we were happy to wait to see if there were any cancellations or if they could accommodate us. Andrzej Lipinski, the winemaker and owner, was at a nearby table speaking with a guest. We had met before and – though I don’t think he had any reason to remember me – so when he was free, we went up to him to say hello.

I asked him how the grapes are doing this year and he said, “So far, ok – but it’s too early to know.” He said he likes to pick late and there always the concern about possible downy mildew if there’s too much rain.

We talked about the fact that, though most Ontarians will remember 2020 as the year of the pandemic, for winemakers in Niagara, 2020 will be remembered as one of the best vintages ever. This year, in contrast to the lower yields of 2020, the vines are full of grapes. So full, in fact, that he’s had to prune bunches out. He also mentioned that 2021’s been a busy year for Big Head because they’re moving from their current location to a new place they’re building on Concession 6. They hope to be in there sometime this fall.

A new way of experiencing bubbly

Waiting a bit paid off. When space opened up in the tasting room, Andrzej led us through a tasting. He gave us the tasting menu, but I prefer to let the winemaker decide what to pour. He asked if we like bubbly and we both quickly confessed we do. (It’s my favourite thing to drink.) So, he started us with their non-vintage Big Bang Black, which spent 68 months on the lees.

He served it in a regular glass and with the wine sitting in the bottom of the wide bowl, it was difficult to see any bubbles. He scoffed when I mentioned I would have liked to have tried it in a flute because I thought it would be easier to see the bubbles. He explained that what matters is tasting the bubbles on your tongue – not seeing them climbing up the wall of a glass. So, we took another sip with this in mind. It was very interesting… I had never really thought about experiencing bubbles on my tongue. By the third sip, we were both sold. Not only did I leave with a bottle of Big Bang Black, I left with a new way of experiencing bubbly.

We ended up trying a number of reds and whites, with both of us preferring the reds. I think my friend might have been a bit concerned with my candor when he described a few of the whites as being very aromatic and I disagreed because I didn’t get much of a nose on a couple of them. I don’t think Andrzej minded though because he thinks that each person perceives different things in each wine. Mind you, he did tease me at one point saying maybe my nose is broke!

Always new things to learn

One of the reasons I love doing to tastings at wineries or with winemakers is to hear about various decisions they made for each wine. For example, I find it interested to hear why they decided to ferment in steel, or clay, or concrete, and so on. And, if they mention a term I’ve never heard, I don’t mind asking them to explain a bit about it. Most of the time they don’t mind answering because they appreciate people taking an interest in their work.

So, when Andrzej described that the 2018 Raw Malbec underwent “carbonic” and was fermented in concrete, I asked what carbonic means. He explained it’s where – before pressing – whole grapes are placed in a tank and fermented using carbon dioxide for a certain period. That basically starts the fermentation. It was also interesting to learn that Big Head’s “Raw” series are all unoaked.

Andrzej was very generous with his time and as it started to get busy, we realized others might want to speak with him too. So, we thanked him and said next time we’d see him in the new location. After putting the wine we purchased in a cooler in the trunk, the next decision was about pizza.

Choosing from a list that all sounded good

With a long list of options, we decided we’d order two pizzas and share them. We got the King ‘Shroom, which featured mushrooms with gorgonzola and mozzarella, and Loving Cup, which featured a ridiculously delicious amount of pepperoni, mozzarella, and parmesan. We also shared a glass of the Big Red, which we figured would be good with both.

The pizzas were fantastic. The crusts were about as thin as you can imagine while still being sturdy enough to support all the toppings. As we were starting on our second pieces, the person who brought the pizzas to our table passed by. I stopped him to ask what their top seller is. He thought for a moment and said, “To be honest, I think the two you ordered are our most popular. But you know, next time you should try the Dilly Goat – it’s amazing.”

I had seen a photo of it the Dilly Goat – it’s a sea of a green rappini-based sauce with goat cheese and zucchini and then grated cheese (I think it was Grana Padano, but I’m not sure) and a ton of fresh dill. Based on the recommendation, we figured we should try the Dilly Goat too, so we ordered a third pizza! It too was delish…

Taste of Normal

Our day at Niagara-on-the-Lake was fun and relaxing – a nice change of pace after many months of staying close to home due to the pandemic.

August and September are the perfect time to visit Ontario wineries. The vineyards are spectacularly lush right now and winemakers are around but not yet crazy busy with harvest and the crush.