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Sweet and savoury pairings, plus some surprises, during Days of Wine and Chocolate in Niagara

By Michael Lowe

The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake are hosting their annual Days of Wine and Chocolate event, which began last weekend and runs each weekend in February.

I visited a few wineries to see what’s in store, and found a few more good reasons to tour the area at this time of year.

The Hare Wine Company is partnering their 2018 Jack Rabbit Red with a slice of seared flank steak topped with jelly made from the wine, dusted with cocoa and flakes of sea salt (photo above). The fruit-forward wine with youthful tannin was a great match with the rare beef and the fruit component. But, the first surprise of the day is up next.

During a discussion at the tasting bar after our samples, it’s revealed that a bottle of Hare’s most expensive, sold-out wine is open and I am offered a taste. The 2013 Cabernet Franc (very top photo), is made in the appassimento style and was selling for $120, making it one of the most expensive wines in the region. Getting the rare chance to taste it was an unexpected treat.

At Queenston Mile Vineyard you can sample their 2018 Mile High Sparkling Rosé paired with a light but decadent dessert. Chef Ross Midgley has created a white chocolate and strawberry trifle (photo above), which plays to the fruit notes in the wine beautifully.

During the seasonal events hosted by the wineries of NOTL, Pondview Estate Winery should be on your tour list. They have been turning out some tasty dishes paired with their wines and this year’s event follows suit. A rich, meaty, cocoa rubbed pork back rib is brushed with a chocolate infused barbecue sauce. It’s tender, moist and has a depth of flavour you’ll want to taste. Paired with their 2017 Cabernet Merlot, with its smoky, cocoa notes, it’s a winner of a pairing.

At Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery and Distillery, the aroma hits you as soon as the door opens— the enticing scent of simmering goodness. The dish on offer is a dark chocolate and chili beef with smoked cheddar that’s topped with sour cream and cocoa nibs. The richness of the dish is a perfect match with the dark fruit character of the 2016 Estate Series Red.

But, there’s more in store as we head outside. I spot mixologist extraordinaire Zac Kvas (left, photo above) behind the bar and can’t resist a diversion from the tour plan. This guy has a knack for dreaming up some amazing libations. Case in point, a cocktail called the Rusty Skate. Kvas has first infused the Red Cask Whisky with cardamom, star anise, orange and who-knows-what-else before mixing it into a drink that slides down so easy it could lead to trouble (photos above) — damn tasty indeed!

Before leaving Gretzky, we just had to pick up a fresh-baked pretzel with beer-infused mustard for the road.

Next up is one of Niagara’s newest wineries, Ferox by Fabian Reis. The renovations are still underway but it’s shaping up nicely. On the tour they are featuring Reis’s lovely 2017 Elements Rosé paired with a rillette of duck confit on a cocoa, buckwheat blini with pomegranate (photos above).

Konzelmann Estate Winery is serving a dark chocolate shortbread cookie made by Café Fifty-Four. The 2018 Merlot Reserve is a great match, showing nice cherry and mocha notes (left, photo above). We finish our day at Palatine Hills Estate Winery where a rich and tasty sample of Beef Bourguignon is on the menu (right, photo above). The smoky bacon and deep, dark sauce, laced with unsweetened chocolate, is a nice match with the 2017 vintage of their 1812 Red. The cabernet-merlot blend is a harmonious partner with the richness of the stew, and a great finish to our tour.

Days of Wine and Chocolate runs weekends in February so there’s plenty of time to pick up a touring pass. Regular passes cost $55, with a driver’s pass costing just $30 and are available here. The passes are a good value too. With 24 participating wineries, the cost works out to less than 3 bucks per pairing with the regular pass. It’s a deal not to be missed, and a great way to beat the winter blues.