Not all my travel inside this wonderful region I call home is for pure business purposes. We moved to Niagara for a reason, not just purely to be closer to the vines.
It is a friendly, safe and beautiful area of Southern Ontario that gives you a sense of community while still close enough to the big city that one doesn’t feel isolated or too far away for a quick cultural fix if needed. My children love the rowing, the golf, the hockey and the small feel to the community they live in and the life-long friendships they have made.
For me, a day spent enjoying wine country just for the pure pleasure of it, is a day well spent. Tasting wine and eating the food that’s masterfully paired beside it at wineries each and every week is one of life’s great joys.
Sitting down to a meal at any one of Niagara’s wine-focused, locally-inspired eateries is a pleasure I could not live without (or wouldn’t want to.)
And when a winery decides to create a wine dinner matched to their wines, I leap at the chance to indulge.
A number of food and wine experiences have rocked my world recently not the least of which was the Reif Estates Icewine Dinner.
Reif Estates in Niagara-on-the-Lake rolled out the red carpet for an icewine-inspired winemaker’s dinner at the glorious Grand Victorian mansion, located on the scenic Niagara Parkway, recently.
The mansion is set on 1.5 acres of gardens, surrounded by the vineyards of Reif Estate Winery, across from the Niagara River.
Today, the Grand Victorian is owned and run by Eva Kessel, who has spent considerable time lovingly restoring the grand estate back to its original condition. She operates the home as a guesthouse with six suites that are rented out at rates up to $225 per night.
The mansion and the wines from Reif is what brought 35 guests together to enjoy the magical winter pairings of Wine Country Catering chef Robin Howe’s creations matched to wines chosen by winery president Klaus Reif and winemaker Roberto DiDomenico.
The theme was icewine, with each dish incorporating that lush, sweet elixir in some form or another, and matched to table wines chosen by Reif and DiDomenico.
The challenge put to the chef and winemakers was a daunting one. First, how to cook with icewine in each dish, from hors d’oeuvres to starters to entrees and desserts and what wine from Reif’s substantial portfolio to pair with the food.
The evening started with a homemade sparking icewine cocktail, a concocted blend of icewine and sparkling wine that is something DiDomenico wants to make commercially in the coming year. It was a deliciously sweet and bubbly treat that worked well with Howe’s icewine-cured salmon gravlax on Yukon gold potato bilini with crème fraiche and icewine custard.
Other nibbles, such as skewered shrimp wrapped in pancetta and Thai basil with a chili-icewine glaze and mini sausages with icewine grainy mustard, were served with the new Reif Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($15) with grapefruit, citrus and grassy-green notes that paired brilliantly with the icewine-inspired starters.
But it was the main event that brought folks to the $130 per person event. We were summoned to one of two grand dining rooms, extravagantly decorated in icewine motive and comfortably bathed in the warm glow of candlelight. The room was radiant and took us back to more elegant times when the main meal was an elaborate affair best shared with friends around a big family dining table. It was a perfect setting on chilly winter’s night in wine country.
Our first course was a pan-sauteed filet of Ontario pickerel with a shellfish mélange in lobster saffron butter sauce spiked with Rief Icewine.
The wine chosen for the pairing was Reif’s Chardonnay Reserve 2009 ($20), with ripe apple, pear, pineapple and sweet spicy oak notes. The grapes for the Reif reserve wines, explained DiDomenico, are taken from the oldest vines on the estate, which yield less fruit but make wines with more intensity and richness.
I noted a touch of toasted spice and butter in the wine that played well with the fish and seafood and was exceptional with lobster and saffron. The sweet and subtle icewine flavours added dimension to the dish.
Our main was an icewine-glazed confit of Muscovy duck on a lightly curried cauliflower and sunchoke puree, caramelized onions and brussel sprout leaves paired with the exquisite Reif First Growth Pinot Noir 2007 ($50).
This was a sensational pairing, and a definite highlight of the evening.
Reif First Growth wines are only made in the very best vintages. The third release of this top series was made from the spectacular 2007 vintage. The other vintages for the First Growth wines were 2001 and 2002. No First Growths were made in either 2008 or 2009.
I first tried the 07 Pinot over a year ago paired with a warm salad of peppered pan seared cold-smoked salmon. The silky-smooth Pinot melted the bites of salmon in the mouth with its pretty and delicate red fruits and juicy acidity. It was a harmonious match with salmon.
But I found the Pinot now has softened and mellowed a bit, showing its bright red fruits while maintaining structure, acidity and texture. It was so fine with the Cabernet Franc icewine glaze on the crispy-skinned duck and brought symmetry in the mouth. The dark and savoury meat of the duck was so perfect with the red fruits, earth and spice of the Pinot. An absolute stunner.
For the closer, Howe made a chocolate icewine truffle cake with Reif’s own icewine ice cream and fresh berry coulis and, I thought, cleverly matched to an older, 2005 Reif Vidal Icewine.
The 05 Reif Vidal is one of Niagara’s most awarded icewines and, as it has matured, flavours of sweet toffee, caramel, spice and lush fruit compote have emerged. “It’s like a punch in the nose,” said DiDomenico. “It gets really intense.”
I thought it was brilliant with the icewine-infused gelato. I am more prone to match a red icewine with chocolate, but the maturity of the icewine added a new dimension to the flavour profile that somehow came together with the truffle cake.
It was a gorgeous evening of food and wine in a decadent surrounding.
Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel loves cheese, almost more than the wonderful collection of wines he produces at his Beamsville Bench property.
When he can combine the two, his world is a perfect place.
Once a year, Thiel dons his kitchen apron, fires up the raclette maker and invites friends, wine lovers and, well, pretty much anyone who wants to pop by, for a taste of his homemade Niagara Gold (made at the Upper Canada Cheese Company, which he also owns) raclette, all gooey and smeared on a bed of Yukon gold potatoes and served with Mario Pingue’s double smoked pork loin.
Niagara Gold is an Oka-style semi-soft, washed rind cheese with nutty, earthy, buttery flavours that are amplified when melted and served with Pingue’s pork loin.
Thiel likes to pair this with his Hidden Bench Estate Rielsing, a nervy-acidic, minerally and juicy wine that works brilliantly with the heavy, rich and warm cheese.
Raclette weekend at Hidden Bench is always a highlight for me every year.
After chowing down on cheese and pork loin, Thiel started digging through some recent releases of his portfolio and offered a little preview of the unreleased 2009 Locust Lane Pinot Noir. What a sensational Pinot! Beautiful raspberry, cherry and spice notes and amazing structure.
I also retried my Wines In Niagara White Wine of the Year for 2011, the Hidden Bench Tete du Cuvee Chardonnay 2008 ($45 and only a few bottles left). I must say, I’m even more convinced this was the best white released in Niagara last year. It is so beautiful and elegant. Here’s a previous review of the wine.
Hidden Bench Chardonnay Tete de Cuvee 2008 ($45, 94 points) —This is perfection in a glass, or as close to it as it comes. The top Chardonnay at the estate takes the best barrels of fruit from Locust Lane and Rosomel and blends them into this magnificent cuvee. The 2008 vintage, in my opinion, is one of the finest for Chardonnay Niagara has seen in a while. It was rainy during the summer, but heat and sun at the end of the season and an excellent veraison period contributed to ripe, elegant and balanced Chardonnays. The wine spends 15 months in French oak with weekly lees stirring for the first 10 months. It is bottled unfined and unfiltered and is fermented with indigenous yeast. The nose is spectacular with gorgeous minerality, bright lemon and white peach fruits and hinting at oak, nut and spice accents. It is a pure expression of the stony minerality derived from the Beamsville Bench’s clay-silt-limestone soil. It is such a gloriously layered and textured Chard, with citrus-lemon, laser-sharp acidity, stone fruit, and spicy notes that are integrated rather than over-powering. This beauty is the epitome of elegant Beamsville Bench Chardonnay, with a long, lingering finish. It is built to cellar up to 10 years. Hurry, though, very few bottles remain for sale.
I also took the opportunity to retry the Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche 2008. This wine is a favourite among hard-core wine geeks and I have been told more than once that it is the top white in the Hidden Bench portfolio in a lot of people’s minds.
I agree it’s a beautiful wine, but even Thiel admits it’s “a thinking man’s wine.” It’s so nuanced and, yes, even tightly wound still at this point. I love this wine but loved it more a day after I opened it. It’s a wine to lay down for a couple of years and then pit it against the Tete du Cuvee. Here’s a previous review.
Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Nuit Blanche 2009 ($40, winery, 91 points) — This is Hidden Bench’s proprietary single-vineyard white blend that consists of 90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Semillon. It is barrel fermented in neutral oak using wild yeasts. It is tight and youthful at the moment and decanting or aging is suggested. The nose, once opened up, shows grapefruit, smoke, herbs, melon and lime cordial. It has wonderful verve and intensity on the palate with expressive grapefruit-citrus notes and a touch of marzipan in a racy style. This wine will better integrate with time in the cellar.
Two words. Brioche Burger.
I enjoyed this tasty burger at Ravine Vineyard’s Bistro Restaurant while waiting for a wine tasting with Alex Harber to begin. I am still thinking about that brioche bun that sandwiched a generous helping of juicy ground beef, thick bacon and cheese. I washed it all down with a glass of Ravine’s Redcoat, a red blend that seems built to go with that burger created by chefs Collin Goodine and Paul Harber. So good.
I have spent a lot of time recently in Niagara judging and tasting wine for various award shows and major events coming up. Cuvee was an intense day of tasting over a 100 wines that were judged with winners to be announced a week this Friday at a black tie gala at the Fallsview Casino.
I also worked with a panel struck with the task of choosing the wines to be poured at the Brock University’s Expert Tasting taking place the day after the Cuvee Awards.
And, more recently, I joined sommeliers and winemakers to taste through a selection of Chardonnays that will be part of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration slated for July 20-21 in Niagara.
It was an intense day of clinical tasting at the Vineland Research Centre’s professional tasting lab with individual booths for the tasters, a red light environment (so the colour of the wine was not an influence) and an intense tasting over several hours.
Thank goodness the day was followed by a delicious meal and more wine at my favourite restaurant in Niagara — Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine where sommelier James and his father chef Stephen had set up a table for the tasters and organizers of I4C.
The panel included: Peter Lavoie (sommelier, The Prune, Stratford); Fred Gamula (Chef Sommelier, Prince of Wales, NOTL); Jennifer Huether-Vranjes, (Master Sommelier, MLSE Toronto); Bruce Wallner (Master Sommlier); Alan McGuinty (Wine Journalist); Amy Bowen (VRIC); Francois Morissette (Winemaker/proprietor Pearl Morissette Estate Winery, working behind the scenes); James Treadwell (sommelier, Treadwell Cuisine), Jimson Bienenstock (sommelier, Fairmont Royal York); Rob Power (winemaker, Creekside); and Peter Bodnar-Rod (Director – i4C and 13th Street Winery).
I4C organizers and others flooded the dinner table with an array of Chardonnays from around the world and older-vintage Niagara wines.
The Treadwell I4C dinner started with creamless mushroom soup with truffle and soy bean oil that went remarkably well with a Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir 1998 served in magnum.
My choice for the main was the roasted Lake Huron whitefish with creamed spinach, steamed P.E.I. mussels and béchamel sauce, which was a perfect match with so many of the wines on the table including the Evening Land Blue Label Etoile Pouilly-Fuisse Chardonnay 2009 from Maconnais, France, the Pyramid Valley Vineyards Field of Fire Chardonnay 2009 from New Zealand and, my favourite with the dish, the Tissot Chardonnay “Les Graviers” 2007 Chardonnay from the Jura region of France.
I had brought a bottle of Harry McWatters first Chardonnay (2010) from his project in the Okanagan Valley to share with the group. Here’s a review:
McWatters Collection Chardonnay 2010 ($25, 90 points) — This Okanagan Valley Chardonnay from the Sundial Vineyard is the second wine released by Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters and follows on the heels of his Meritage released last year. Lovely notes of apple, citrus and tropical fruit on the nose generously accented by oak spice and vanilla. The fruit is bright and succulent on the palate with good acid verve for balance and a lingering finish.