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Good things happen when food and wine come together for a fun evening

By Rick VanSickle

When three bon vivants get together and attempt to out bon vivant each other on a subject they know all too well, it makes for an enjoyable evening of food, wine, and quick-witted banter.

The event, a winemaker dinner hosted by John Nadeau (centre in top photo) and featuring the wines from Donald Ziraldo (left) and 2027 Cellars’ Kevin Panagapka (right), was held at the Twisted Pig Italian Kitchen in Port Dalhousie on a recent Wednesday evening and was reminiscent of those pre-COVID days when such things took place in a crowded room filled with good friends, laughter and a steady flow of well curated wine and food pairings.

Niagara wine

The Twisted Pig, owned by Mike Burgess and his wife Robyn, has quickly established a loyal following after only opening in 2000 in the middle of COVID. Nadeau, a regular at the restaurant, made sure his first curated winemaker dinner was there and called on Niagara’s most famous wine personality and long-time friend, Ziraldo (above), and 2027 owner/winemaker Panagapka (below), who Ziraldo called the future of winemaking in Niagara, to be the first star attractions.

Ziraldo, yeah, he only started the modern wine industry in Canada back in 1975 with the creation of Inniskillin along with Karl Kaiser, is an accomplished and eloquent speaker and it was no different on this night. It’s a little easier when he is surrounded by many of his closest friends and the rest devoted fans of the legend, but none-the-less his stories from the early Inniskillin days to present day with his own Ziraldo Icewine brand and his newest venture into Prosecco bookended a momentous career spanning more than 50 years.

He spent a lot of time recognizing those guests at the dinner who have touched his life in one way or another. He heaped praise on Debi Pratt, his long-time Inniskillin associate and the third pillar in the trio that made Ontario’s first winery since Prohibition the success it was. Ziraldo also made sure to recognize the wine people in attendance — Peller’s head of winemaking, Craig McDonald, well-travelled winemaker Jay Johnston, the team at Niagara College, including new winemaker Allison Findlay, and The Farm’s Jeff and Terri Neudorf. He singled out many others, including long-time friends Wendy Cheropita, a Niagara-on-the-Lake councillor with a long-time career in wine, and David Harder, a partner at Hope & Harder Insurance Brokers Inc.

He directed most of his remarks to the winemakers of today. “If we are going to lift this industry up, we need to support the next generation of winemakers,” he said. “And we need to concentrate on quality.”

Panagapka soaked in the praise from Ziraldo on his wines as the legend explained to the guests how he has mentored the virtual winemaker and brand owner since he first tasted his wines and was impressed. The admiration for each other was palpable and refreshing.

Panagapka has become an engaging speaker, weaving stories with humility and self-deprecating humour. He has always downplayed his own role in making his wines, some of the finest Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in the region. “Pinot Noir is my obsession and always will be,” he said. “What I love about it is that it is so hard to make. I just get out of the way of it.”

Panagapka also announced at the dinner that he and his family just purchased a farm in Lincoln and will by planting grapes on the property to finally realize his long-time goal of becoming a full-fledged winery after years of virtual winemaking as he and his wife Jodi Raymond built the brand into the success it is today.

The evening began with a lobster crostini appetizer made with house-made Stracciatella, butter-poached lobster and pistachio. That was paired nicely with the Ziraldo Prosecco, the only non-Niagara wine on the agenda.

Ziraldo used to represent Dievole (Mario Schwenn’s winery) wine from Tuscany in Canada, while Schwenn represented Inniskillin Icewine in Italy. “We became close friends, and I am Godfather to his son. Starting the Prosecco project seemed most appropriate since Prosecco is from the Friuli-Venezia-Guliano region where my parents originated and where I also make a Picolit, called Bianco di Fagagna.”

Prosecco wines, akin to ‘frizzante’ or lightly sparkling, are all made using the Charmat winemaking method. Ziraldo is making in-roads on getting this brand into markets in Canada and the U.S. and even Bulgaria (now, that’s a whole different story!). He calls it “such a good value wine” that sells in $25 range for the entry-level version.

It paired nicely with the poached lobster with its subtle, but persistent, effervesce, crisp citrus/lemon, peach, apple, and freshness on the finish. This Prosecco will be coming to Vintages stores this summer, but you can buy it here at Archives Wine and Spirits or through Wine House Imports.

Then it was Panagapka’s turn to pour his 2027 Cellar’s wines. First up was a tasty, seared scallop dish with puffed quinoa, coconut sea foam and pineapple Riesling gel. The wine chosen was an un-bottled, upcoming 2027 Riesling from the 2021 vintage. What a delightful wine and a triumphant return of single-vineyard (Wismer-Foxcroft) Rieslings to the 2027 portfolio that has skipped a few vintages. The sweet-tart fruit and minerally laden Riesling was perfect with the succulent scallops.

The next two creations, a duo of Arctic char, featured a 2027 Chardonnay and a 2027 Pinot Noir. It was an exploration into the age-old question: red wine with fish? Or not?

First up was a citrus and white balsamic marinated Arctic char ceviche, which paired rather brilliantly with Panagapka’s bold and ripe 2027 Cellars Grimsby Hillside Vineyard Chardonnay 2020. This, to me, was the better pairing with char, a fish that tastes (and looks) much like salmon and can stand up to both white and red wines. The 2020 vintage of this Chardonnay is not like the prior Chardonnay vintages Panagapka has made. This one has a decidedly fleshy feel with super ripe fruit that I found to be a deliciously perfect match from both a textural and flavour point of view. The other char pairing was grilled and served with orange rosemary barley risotto and grilled fennel and paired with the 2027 Cellars King Street Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020. Again, another wine from the ripe 2020 vintage and a completely satisfactory pairing, if not just a wee bit overpowering with the char.

Panagapka called his 2020 Pinot more Oregon in style than Niagara. “It’s a little bit of an anomaly for me,” he said noting the higher abv (13.8%), riper fruits and firmer structure. “Everything was clean in 2022. It was the very best ever, ever, ever vintage,” he confidently declared.

The main for this winemakers’ dinner was a duo of venison. The first version was a peppercorn and juniper crusted venison striploin served with sautéed broccolini and root vegetable dauphinoise, the second rendition with a braised venison shoulder with a Cabernet Franc cherry demi glacé.

Panagapka brought a fairly big 2027 Wismer-Foxcroft Cabernet Franc, again from the 2020 vintage, and it was just about the most ideal wine you could pair with venison. Bold, rich, mulled herbs, spice and rousing acidity made that wild meat sing in the mouth. A beautiful pairing.

And, finally, if you had room for it, the evening ended as it began, with a Ziraldo offering, this time his namesake Riesling icewine paired magnificently with lemon tiramisu, made with lemon zabaglione, mascarpone, earl grey soaked lady finger and lemon sugar.

Ziraldo’s Riesling Icewine ($90 for a 375 mL bottle) is such a decadent icewine, with notes of candied lemon, compoted apricot, honey notes and juicy acidity, that folded seamlessly into the citrusy, creamy tiramisu.

The Ziraldo icewines are made at Inniskillin, the winery that he and Kaiser founded in 1974 and eventually became part of the Vincor group and later the Constellation group (now Arterra Canada). Ziraldo only recently returned to the winery he founded and has taken a role to help continue to share the Inniskillin story supporting its legacy in producing quality wines since 1974.

I asked owner Burgess how he and Twisted Pig Chef Jesse Prior designed the menu for this dinner. “It was a unique challenge that we had a lot of fun with. It challenged us to work backwards in a sense,” he said. “We received a blueprint of which wines we were working with, and the first thing we did was figure out which order we wanted to present them in.”

Burgess said that for the most part the menu and wines went from lighter to heavier. “When we design features in house, we just worry about the food, and we can always find a wine in house to pair with it. When we did this menu, we had to work with and complement the wines, so we identified flavour notes and profiles we wanted to get with the food.”

Organizer Nadeau was consulted, said Burgess, and “he challenged us to find a protein that we could present two ways, to pair with a white and a red. We decided on Icelandic Arctic char, and chose to pair it with Kevin’s Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. That was one of the most enjoyable parts of the menu in my opinion, as it showcased the versatility of the ingredients and the wines. Two entirely different dining experiences.”

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of food, wine, friends that Nadeau concluded by promising more of them in the future. “I want to showcase what Niagara is capable of,” he said.

The 2027 wines in review

2027 Cellars Grimsby-Hillside Chardonnay 2020 ($40, 94 points) — This Lincoln-Lakeshore sub-appellation, where Panagapka sources this Chardonnay, is gaining quite the reputation for its terroir-driven wines, with 2027, Thomas Bachelder and Leaning Post (among others) all crafting stellar Chards from this vineyard. “I think it’s got some amazing potential,” says Panagapka. The fruit for the 2027 version is hand harvested, whole cluster pressed, wild fermented (but no malo) and aged for 18 months in 20% new Burgundian oak. It’s tightly wound right now, but let it breathe and notes of fresh pear, saline/flinty minerality, apple skin, bergamot, and a lovely, balanced approach to the oak spice accents emerge. It opens up on the palate and shows some weight with richer pear, yellow apple, toasted almonds, vanilla bean and spice, flinty/stony notes and pure elegance and finesse on the lifted and long finish. Such a beautiful expression of Niagara Chardonnay, but please give it some time. Can cellar 5+ years.

2027 Cellars King Street Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020 ($40, 91 points) — This is both typical and atypical of a 2027 wine — typical because Panagapka has always taken what the vintage delivers and atypical because at 13.8% abv, it’s just a little over the edge of his comfort zone. But that’s what the warm 2020 gave him and he rolled with it. This Pinot has a deep-rooted and bold nose of brambly raspberries, dark cherries, subtle cassis, earthy notes, and integrated spice notes. It’s dripping in black cherries on the palate with a smooth texture and then anise, wild raspberries, bramble, and spices in a rich and sassy style that still maintains finesse on the vibrant finish. So, not typical of the more restrained 2027 style, but certainly in line with the vintage. Can age 5+ years.

2027 Cellars Wismer Vineyard-Foxcroft Block Cabernet Franc 2020 ($50, 94 points) — Cabernet Franc is set for a breakout vintage in Niagara with the ripe 2020s now being released. This beauty from Panagapka’s favourite source for grapes, the Wismer Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench, is an exceptional example of how well this variety can perform in perfect conditions. Now, some Cabernet Franc fans might favour the leaner vintages to better enjoy the bright herbaceous notes that define this grape, but I believe this riper, meatier style has appeal to a wider audience. The grapes for this wine were picked at optimum ripeness and the wine was aged for 12 months in Burgundian French oak (40% new) and finished at 14.7% abv, in stark contrast to the CF below. Panagapka calls this “super Cab” the best he’s ever produced in Niagara. It has a uber-charged nose of brambly wild raspberries, cassis, herbaceous accents, dried Cuban tobacco, and savoury oak spices in a dense and pure style that is both inviting and, frankly, exciting. There is even more complexity on the palate with richness and power ahead of thick, brambly red and dark fruits, mocha, savoury spices, integrated thyme/herb notes and layers of interest through a long and finessed finish. This has the stuffing and the ripe tannins to cellar 10+ years (maybe more).