Niagara chefs

More than 800 guests took part in the Cuvée Grand Tasting last Friday. (CCOVI Photo)

By Michael Lowe

It was a grand night at the 30th Cuvée Grand Tasting last Friday. The winemakers pulled out all the stops and local chefs matched their enthusiasm in style.

Here’s a taste of what over 800 guests had to sample from.

Niagara wine

Before the grand tasting kicks off, media get a peek at the wines on offer and, thankfully, there are a few nibbles, including salumi, prosciutto and cheeses from The Righteous Monger (above photo) to ready the palate for the onslaught of wine on the slate for the evening.

Good thing, too — with no less than 48 wineries showcasing two of their winemakers’ favourite wines, it is a tasting that is not for the timid.

Ontario wine

Immediately following the award ceremonies we make a mad dash for the food purveyors’ tables in an effort to beat the crowd. We first sample plates from The Restaurant at Bench Brewery. Not slated to open until June, the kitchen will be run by Chef Erik Peacock. His creations tonight are a nut and seed ‘roast’ with Brussels sprout salad and carrot purée and smoked wild boar tourtiere with parsnip purée.

Niagara food

Next on our list is a perfectly seared sea scallop from Karma Kameleon Gastropub (above photos). Citrus marinated vegetables and cilantro cream provide contrasting acidity, texture and balance to the inherent sweetness of the scallop. This first taste of the food from Karma Kameleon strikes a chord that resonates and sets the tone for the night. It is a restaurant that shoots right to the top of my must-visit list — and their menu is tempting.

Between bites, visits to wine stations to seek out the best wines on show find us at Burning Kiln Winery chatting with winemaker Lydia Tomek (above photo). She pours her Cureman’s Chard 2016 and Prime Kiln Dried Pinot Noir 2016. Both show beautiful balance, layers of flavours and notable length on the palate — two of my favourite wines of the night.

Over at Zees Grill are dishes of zesty grilled, chilled chili-lime shrimp with corn salsa and savoury mini Yorkshire pudding with piquant wasabi aioli and roasted beef striploin (photo above).

Scotiabank Centre’s own Chef James Price of Centreplate never fails deliver at Cuvée. His dishes included succulent lamb with miso and parsnip ‘grits’ and a monkfish preparation called Funky Monk’ey.

Carefully developed flavours, rich reductions and attention to technique prevail. The sweet earthiness of the parsnip pairs beautifully with the lamb and the monkfish — aka poor-man’s lobster — complement the fresh mushrooms from Fresh Niagara Mushrooms and smoky bacon by Nathan Young from In the Smoke Cookery.

Left to right in the photo above are the offerings from Treadwell Cuisine and Jackson- Triggs. Treadwell featured Albacore tuna with pickled mushrooms, soy mayonnaise and porcini crisp as well as a beef cheek slider on a milk bun with Upper Canada Niagara Gold cheese and spicy mayonnaise. Chef Tim Mackiddie of JT dished out red wine smoked pork belly, hominy grits, house-cured lardo and collard green slaw. His second dish was a black truffle infused fresh mozzarella with roasted sunchokes and raw beet salad — a dish that just screams for pinot noir.

Benchmark Restaurant served a tasty, mildly-spiced smoked Cajun andouille sausage meatball with creamy celery root slaw and jambalaya sauce (left- photo above). Hobnob Restaurant, located at the Charles Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake offered plates of seared, citrus-cured salmon with pickled fennel/cucumber slaw, dill vodka ‘pearls’ and squid-ink tuille. A bite-sized, sweet and savoury icewine chicken liver parfait was a nice finishing touch.

The festivities carried on into the after party where guests sipped on craft beer, sparkling wine and danced to the sounds of The Associates (photo above) — a fitting end to the evening. But, the celebration does not stop there.

 Included with your Grand Tasting ticket is a Cuvée en Route touring pass. Tastings of wine, some pulled from the winery’s library, or other special reserve wines are included at many of the participating wineries. We spent most of the following weekend doing just that — seeing what was in store for Cuvée attendees. At Reif Estate Winery we indulged with a flight of their kiln-dried series paired with exquisite cheeses (photo above). It was a rare chance to try wines of this tier.

Other stops include Vieni Estates and Kacaba Vineyards. At Vieni I taste one of the wines I missed at the Grand Tasting — a refreshing sparkler (above photo, left) that is an amazing value at only $13.95. Kacaba’s red wine program is one of the best in Niagara. Tasting through their portfolio of Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon and single vineyard and Reserve Syrah (above photo, right) is always a treat.

On a leisurely drive home I stop in at Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery. Although the winery is not a participating winery this year, I have an ulterior motive — congratulating Sue-Ann on her award at Cuvée, the Tony Aspler Cuvée Award of Excellence.

Luckily, she is releasing two new wines and is on hand to lead the tasting. We chat about the award, I taste her food pairings with the wines, and share some food stories before bidding her a fond farewell.

So, there you have it — a celebration of Ontario wines right here in Niagara. Thirty years and counting, Cuvée continues to deliver an outstanding opportunity to experience great wine and food. The dedication of CCOVI and the work by the many volunteers is commendable. Next year, the celebration coincides with my wife’s birthday. What a party that will be!