By Rick VanSickle
When you have that insatiable desire to celebrate all that it is to be Canadian what is one to do?
Well, here’s an idea.
Grab some friends, throw the skates in the back of car, don tuque, scarf, your favourite hockey jersey and head to Gretzky Estates Winery and Distillery on Niagara Stone Road. It is here that the Peller family along with the Great One himself have built an adult version of Disneyland for Canadians — whisky, wine, skating, touring, noshing and chilling.
We did just that recently. Five of us made our way to the Gretzky’s place, two of us with our own skates while the rest were able to rent some very fine CCMs right there.
We were greeted enthusiastically at the grand entrance by a very helpful young man named Richard, who led us out to the rink and put us immediately in the hands of one Mr. Zac Kvas, yeah, that’s him above.
Now, Kvas is the most important person you need to know at Gretzky. Hell, he’s one of the most important slingers-of-booze-people you need to know period. Kvas (or as one visitor on TripAdvisor recently dubbed him: “Zackzky”) is simply the best mixologist there is in Niagara (challengers???). I first encountered him at Backhouse (mixing), then later at Ravine Estate Winery (working harvest) and now at the holy grail of local cocktail mixing, Gretzky’s.
We order a round of drinks and Kvas sets us up with five Hickory Smoked Apple Manhattans and places them in easy reach of the rink. We do a lap, have a sip, do another lap, sip … you get the idea.
The drinks are spicy and savoury, made with three different Gretzky whiskies all crafted at the estate distillery. In fact, one of the things that attracted Zackzky to Gretzky’s was the chance to work with 100% spirits from the estate (no outside alcohol at all) and mixed with a crazy, endless, creative and original onslaught of all manner of syrups, botanicals, spices and juices that he concocts himself when he’s off the clock. The man lives, breathes and dreams about making the world a better place through cocktails.
As Kvas mixed us up another batch of drinks, I couldn’t resist a photo with my buddy John Raithby from Toronto (thanks, Richard). Note the Canadian flag in the background. Note the Canadian Curling Brier championship on TV in the background. Note the tuques. Note the Dawson City hockey jersey. What you can’t see? The hockey skates and The Guess Who blaring from the speakers. Because … WE ARE CANADIAN. That’s why.
Kvas’s next whisky cocktail was a smooth and tasty Saskatoon Sour (very top photo), again with a savoury note and a clean finish. He then gave us a preview of a summer cocktail he’s working on called the Teana Colada. His version of the Piña Colada uses whisky and home-brewed tea to bring similar flavours to the old standard. What did I tell you? He’s pure genius.
Pigs are flying (and other rosé stories)
So, on Saturday, Toronto wine scribe André Proulx is releasing a rosé he made with winemaker Vadim Chelekhov using fruit from Ridgepoint Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench and the winemaking facilities at Rockway Vineyards.
The When Pigs Fly Pinot Noir Rosé hits the shelves Saturday at Rockway for $20 a bottle.
I had a preview of the wine. Here’s my review.
When Pigs Fly Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 ($20, released at Rockway Vineyards Saturday, 89 points) — It shows a pale salmon colour in the bottle and glass and has a refreshing nose of savoury red berries and a subtle note of quince. It’s crisp and dry on the palate with an array of red fruits that show some complexity and dimension — not easy to do with this style. As Proulx says: “The crisp acidity makes this wine easy to drink and your mouth will be begging for the next sip. Drink it with whatever the hell you want as long as you pair it with good company and a second glass.”
Two Sisters Rosé 2017 ($35, 91 points) — We’re starting to see lots of wonderful Niagara rosés hit the shelves in Niagara. I came across this classic version from Two Sisters, with its gorgeously slim, tall, tapered and clear glass bottle and cork closure that screamed elegance from the get-go. The mostly Merlot blend shows a pale pink colour with notes of crushed red berries and cranberries in a refreshing style on the nose. It has pop on the palate with an elegant melange of red fruits that were all together presented in a dry, refreshing style. Good juice.
The Bizarro world of the LCBO
Yesterday (March 15) was a big day for LCBO honchos. They got in a cavalcade of cars (I just made that up, I have no idea how they got there) and headed to Niagara for the grand opening of the new Winona LCBO store, one of the jewels on a huge piece of newly reconditioned land anchored by Costco, and situated at the gateway to Niagara.
Speeches were led by LCBO boss George Soleas who was applauded by those in attendance and shown in a short video posted on Twitter @LCBOnews when he mentioned the 340 Ontario wines on the shelves of the new store.
After seeing that and a few other choice tweets about the opening, I had to head over and check it out.
What I found was shocking. Shocking because I thought the days of the LCBO confusing Cellared in Canada (CIC or Canadian International Blend wines, whatever you want to call them) were long over. But no. The new store’s Ontario wine section consisted of a full aisle of VQA Ontario wines and then another aisle that had a sign reading: “Our Wine Country, 100% Ontario” and loaded with an array of wines that on first blush look like they are all from Ontario.
The trouble was, a large portion of those wines were CIC wines — wines that deceptively look Canadian but are actually anything but Canadian. They are made from imported grapes with a minimum of 25% Ontario grapes tossed in there to make it all legit and satisfy their blending licence. There is very little difference between the labels on those wines or the VQA wines further down the shelf. One has VQA on the label, the other doesn’t. One has in small type convoluted words that mention something about the composition of the blend, the others don’t. Few people if any understand what it means anyway.
These wines trade off the good name of 100% Ontario wines, and those who make them, and have no business on the same shelf as VQA wines or, for that matter, anywhere even near the real Ontario wines. They should be moved as far away as possible from the VQA wines.
That the new LCBO store at the gateway of Niagara, at the opening ceremony, with the head of the LCBO in attendance, would stock ICB wines on the same shelf as VQA wines is an embarrassment, in my opinion.
By 10:30 a.m. Friday, Astrid Brummer, LCBO category manager for Ontario wines, had responded via twitter with this comment: “Dearest Rick, there is no fail here. The VQA section is followed by the start of the ICB section. Very simple.”
I’ll leave it at that.
Let’s be franc
Honsberger Estate Winery in Jordan is one of those hidden gems in Niagara that keeps upping its game. For the first time, the family estate winery and farm opened a restaurant in the off-months when the pizza oven isn’t churning out thousands of pizzas on the bistro patio.
The menu is smallish but dynamic with a buzz-worthy range of dishes to please everyone in your group. If you want to check out, better hurry … it’s only open until the cooking moves outdoors.
The estate also just re-released a small amount of its 2015 Cabernet Franc made by winemaker Kelly Baker.
Honsberger Estate Cabernet Franc 2015 ($27, 90 points) — A bright, juicy, brambly nose of raspberries, herbs and light spice notes. This is drinking Franc punctuated by an array of red fruits, underlying herbs and earth with good acidity keeping it lively and fresh through the finish. Drink now or hold 3+ years.
Niagara wines at Vintages Saturday
Henry of Pelham Estate Riesling 2016 ($18, 88 points) — Sourced from the estate’s Short Hills Bench from vines 30+ years old. The nose shows juicy lime, citrus rind, grapefruit and tangerine notes. There are sublime mineral notes on the palate to go with tangy citrus, pear, apple and racy acidity to keep the sweetness in balance.
Jackson-Triggs Entourage Grand Reserve Brut 2014 ($30, 91 points) — This Pinot/Chard blend spends 24 months on the lees. It shows an elegant combination of biscuit, citrus, apple, vanilla toast and brioche on the nose. It’s lively and perky on the palate with bright citrus, green apple and added toast and vanilla on a refreshing finish.
Other Niagara wines released Saturday, but not reviewed:
• Lakeview Cellars Riesling Icewine 2016 ($35 for 200 mL)
• Fielding Unoaked Chardonnay 2016 ($15)
• Trius Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2016 ($20)
• Tzafona Cellars Cold Climate Unoaked Chardonnay 2015 ($23)
• Megalomaniac Groundbreaker Red 2016 ($20)
• Redstone Limestone Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 ($22)
• Tzafona Cellars Cold Climate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($30)
• Vieni Pinot Noir 2015 ($17)
• Wildass Merlot 2016 ($19)
• Chateau des Charmes Cuvée D’Andrée Rosé 2016 ($16)