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A local journey: wining and dining our way through Niagara Wine Country

By Rick VanSickle

Like you, I love to eat. And probably just like you, I love to eat with people who love to eat as much as I do. No surprise there.

And while the food is important, where it comes from and the wine you choose to pair with it is the ultimate recipe for success. That is the theme for this whimsical post about food, wine, and people. And how Niagara plays a considerable role in all those elements.

Niagara wine
From L-R at Butlers’ Grant: Rick and Maureen VanSickle and Carolyn Hurst, with David Harder and Heather Ravelle, a fun table to be seated at.

The most magical month in Niagara is undisputedly July. It is when we move permanently outdoors to enjoy all the good things we like to do — sports, walks, eating, imbibing in local wines, visiting wineries, sharing with friends, and planning those backyard soirées we’ve been thinking about all winter long. It’s a busy month and our calendars (and bellies) are full of the goodness it brings.

Al fresco is how we eat, whether that means at a winery restaurant, at our own homes and especially planning a party with numerous guests. And that is how it went down for at least two events I want to share with you in this post.

The first was tied into the big i4C (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration) held annually in Niagara when there isn’t pandemic ruining everything. The four days of non-stop i4C’ing can grind one down until you scream UNCLE and head to the sanctity of your own confines to regroup only to do it all again. I have participated fully and completely in the past and have learned from experience to pace myself and just choose the events that appeal to my own selfish wants and needs.

This year it was one single event, a spectacular lunch at the Butlers’ Grant Vineyard and estate on the Twenty Mile Bench owned by Westcott Vineyards’ Grant Westcott and Carolyn Hurst and purchased in 2018, adding Riesling and Cabernet Franc to the predominantly Pinot/Chard portfolio. The food was prepared by Chef Andrew McLeod (above), owner of Bolete in downtown St. Catharines, and who Hurst calls “one of the best chefs in the country.” Can McLeod and his team pull off an all-Chardonnay wine pairing lunch with success? Read on to find out.

The other event was a bit more personal — a private dinner under the stars in our backyard with several courses of small bites paired with an array of local and international wines either from our cellar or with what guests brought. It was a night fraught with looming disaster as heavy rains pounded Niagara relentlessly until a couple of hours before the party was to start. Miraculously, it dried up just as guests began to arrive and were pouring their first bubbly. We had a Plan B, but it was nowhere as interesting as Plan A.

Crucial to both events was sourcing local ingredients (where possible) and pairing the food with local VQA wines (with a few exceptions at the backyard fête). In-season, local organic greens, foraged mushrooms, and fruits were some of the mainstays of McLeod’s three-course meal, other than the lobster (seafood supplier) and the guinea fowls he sourced from a farm near Waterloo. As for our meal, all vegetables were sourced at roadside fruit and veggie stands in Niagara, all desserts from small, independent bakeries, meat from our favourite local butcher in Ridgeway, and charcuterie from Chz Plz in Port Dalhousie. The seafood (spot prawns and wild sockeye salmon) all came from Organic Oceans in B.C., shipped frozen in two days from sustainably caught methods.

This is how it all out went down.

Westcott, Bolete put on a
Chardonnay show with a view

Arriving at the stunning Butlers’ Grant Vineyard on a warm, sunny Niagara day, we were greeted with a glass of the vibrant Westcott Brilliant Traditional Method Sparkling 2013, a blend of 66% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay. As we walked up through the vineyard to the estate and looked down the escarpment, the full impact of this historic site comes into view. It’s breathtaking.

We are seated comfortably at one of the various tables under a large tent, with views to the vineyard. My wife Maureen and I are seated with co-owner of Westcott, Carolyn Hurst, and David Harder and Heather Ravelle. The first course is a garden green and strawberry salad featuring fresh and macerated strawberries, organic greens, sorrels, mosto cotto vinaigrette, honey whipped ricotta and puffed quinoa. The Chardonnays paired with this enticing dish were the gorgeous Block 76 2021 and Butlers’ Grant 2019.

Hurst has one stipulation for chefs when they are hired to serve food at events like this. The food is paired to the wine, not the other way around. The chef’s challenge is to tweak his/her dishes to best work with the wines. Here, and in all the following courses, McLeod has done it brilliantly; nothing was out of place and it all integrated and enhanced both the food and wine.

The second course was lobster ravioli made with homemade pasta, butter poached lobster, tomato, pancetta, tarragon Chardonnay cream sauce and parmesan. The richness of the lobster and cream sauce called for equally rich wines, and the Reserve Chardonnay and Butlers’ Grant Chardonnay from the 2016 and 2020 vintages, both warm years, matched this decadent pairing beautifully. I can’t remember a dish more perfectly paired than this one.

The third and final course was an interesting one. Chef McLeod drove to Wallenstein (in Waterloo County) to personally pick out the guinea fowl from “Farmer Frank” that was pan roasted with foraged mushrooms, thyme pearl barley risotto, smoked gouda, and jus gras. Again, another perfectly paired course with the 2015 Reserve Chardonnay that was an absolute stunner, still fresh and minerally, and the 2021 Reserve Chardonnay that is sourced from the very best parcels at the Home Farm Vineyard. This is another minerally-laden, flinty Chard with ripe pear, lemon chiffon, apple skin, elegant spice notes and a creamy texture.

It all made for a perfect Niagara afternoon among the vines.

A home feast that flirted with disaster

The rain just would not stop. And not like a drop here and a drop there; it came down in sheets from the moment we awoke until a very large miracle happened. It stopped two hours before our guests arrived and never started again.

We had planned our little dinner party for weeks. It was always going to be an outdoor affair built around little bites with wines to match the various courses. We had to get things right with this wine savvy crowd and there was no way to do that inside at our humble abode. So, when the skies cleared, we knew we had cleared our first hurdle.

This is what we served and how we paired the dishes served on biodegradable paper plates and utensils to the plethora of wines we selected and what others brought. Note … we took no photos, other than the shots of the wine, so the photos you see here are from various websites where ingredients were sourced.

The warmup act

Herding your guests means keeping them busy while the tardiest of the other guests finally show up. No matter how many times you say, “be here at 5,” no one arrives at 5. They come in waves and there are always stragglers. This is the correct time to have ample bubbles to serve for the early arrivals and a giant plate of charcuterie for grazing while the herd is herded. Maureen and I don’t like to sweat the charcuterie board, so we outsource this simple, yet important part of the meal. Chz Plz is a small but mighty cheese and charcuterie emporium in the heart of Port Dalhousie. You can mix and match the meat and cheeses, add on, and purchase whatever size you want. For our soirée, we ordered a large box and added extra cheese and crisps. The wine paired with it was a bright and simple Cabernet Franc-based De Chanceny Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé (NV), just a little something to wet your whistle while scouring for goodies on the meat and cheese board. One of our guests brought a lovely Pommery Brut Rosé Royal Champagne (NV), which out-classed the crémant by a country mile. Show off!

The big opening

Maureen found this great recipe for shrimp bisque (full recipe and video here) while looking for something different to make with some leftover shrimp we had a while back. We loved the dish and included in our backyard bash. It’s not quite a chowder, and it’s not quite a soup. While it was popular a century ago with for luncheon parties, it is now coming back in style. The plan was to serve two Chardonnays (2027 Cellars Wismer Vineyard-Foxcroft Block Chardonnay 2018 and The Farm Chardonnay 2021) as the pairing, but the spicy bite in this bisque required something with a little more sweetness. The perfect foil for the spice and shrimp was both the Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling 2012 and the Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2016 (in magnum). Probably the best pairing of the night, or close to it. The Chardonnays came in handy to bridge the next course.

The middle dish

The shrimp above and the salmon for this course were sourced from Organic Ocean Seafood based in B.C. where we generally buy most of our high-end seafood. The wild B.C. spot prawns and the wild sockeye salmon (troll caught) just can’t be beat for freshness and quality from this sustainable seafood company. You order up and it arrives frozen solid in two or three days. Fantastic! This salmon dish was prepared simply as we were trying to do everything we could on the BBQ. The salmon was grilled on a cedar plank with a light brush and several lemon slices. The beautiful pink colour of the fish and the flavour tells you all you need to know about quality salmon, so you do not want to mess around with it at all. It was served with a simple Caesar salad (with croutons withheld for the two celiacs in the crowd). The pairing, of course, for this dish was all Pinot — Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Old Vines Pinot Noir 2020 and Fèlsina Nero di Nubi Pinot Nero 2010 (Italy). One guest put us to work and made the Fèlsina an options game, which no one guessed correctly that it was an Italian Pinot. It was so different from the Bachelder, a bit leaner and more tannic, but nonetheless, interesting. Two other Pinots were on standby — Cloudsley Cellars Glen Elgin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 and Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard One Barrel Old Vines Pinot Noir 2016 — but were not called upon as our guests were still finishing up the various bottles already started. Into the cellar they have gone.

The pièce de résistance

Even before the salmon course was on the grill, we seared the cowboy steak at high heat in a cast iron pan to get a crust that sealed in the juices and then we let it slowly cook on the upper rack of the BBQ. The cowboy cut is like a tomahawk steak but with a shorter bone. When we need the best cuts of meat in all of Niagara, we call up Shawn Murphy at Your Farm Gate in Ridgeway. It’s a bit of a hike but he’s the best butcher/chef in the region, in my opinion. We cooked the gorgeous cut of beef as simply as possible with only a rub of sea salt and black/red peppercorns and sliced it off the bone in strips of tender, juicy, glorious pieces of meat. If you have a chef friend in your contact list, like I do with Chef McLeod at Bolete, you just might be lucky enough to score some of his au jus that took our beef from a 10 to a full-on 11. Glorious. Maureen finished the plate with small-sized, smashed potatoes, leeks and corn that was grilled on the BBQ (all purchased locally at roadside Niagara vegetable stands). The wines included Le Puy Emilien 2019 and a Chateau La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2006 (that a guest brought), both from Bordeaux, plus a Scopone Brunello di Montalcino 2013 in magnum (guest bottle) and a League of Farmers Cabernet Franc 2020. All superb choices with that hunk of beef. Oh, did I mention the Sassicaia 2016? Well, that came a bit later … but, stunning, nonetheless.

The soft landing

It’s the hardest part of the meal, the closing course, and what to serve with it? First of all, there were two people out of the nine at this dinner who couldn’t eat wheat, which makes it tough finding just the right desserts. We started with the easy part and hit up the new Cacao Crémeux cake and pastry shop in downtown St. Catharines. We were impressed with the selection of pastries and the detail that went into each piece. We bought seven treats and went hunting for gluten-free desserts. You would be surprised at how difficult that is, and just before giving up we discovered The Keto Crumb Bakery, also in downtown St. Catharines. It’s Niagara’s first 100% keto, gluten free and sugar free bakery and provided our last two guests with the perfect dessert offering. No wines were offered up to pair with the late-night treats (sorry) but there were plenty of options to sip and savour to come as we chatted into the wee hours of a glorious night of eating, friends, wine, and frivolity.