Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Report from: Wine & Herb Festival - May26/27, 2007

Twice a year, spring and fall, the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake (17 of them) band together to showcase the region and the wines. In the fall they have “Taste the Season” a pairing of wines with seasonal food and treats. In the spring they have the “Wine and Herb Festival”, where wineries are assigned an herb to pair up with one of their wines. Now I heard three or four different versions of how the wineries get their herb designation: one, is that they are randomly selected out of a hat; another had them submitting wines to a selection committee, who then doled out the herbs based on what goes with what; another said, “someone up there hates us, that’s why we got stuck with …”. My favourite of all the ways was the one I heard from a winery owner who said, “I have no clue, my wife deals with that.” But however they come about, each winery still has to come up with a matching food for their wine. This year – unlike previous years – the passport was only printed with the pairing herb, instead of the complete description of the food being offered up. A good marketing ploy, because now instead of skipping over unwanted food items (grilled portobellos with fennel anyone?), as I had done in the past, I pretty much had to walk through the door to find out what was being served; though I do understand the pairings were available on the web closer to the start of the event. In past years I had avoided anything with mushrooms and crazy meats – but this year I walked into every winery wondering what was on the menu based solely on the herb and wine (e.g.: Niagara College 205 Unoaked Chardonnay and lemon balm) … which thankfully lead me to try a wild mushroom dish; more on that later. So without further ado here is my list of the best and, unfortunately, disappointing aspects of this year’s Wine and Herb Festival.

Best Wine:

This year many of the wineries focused on their 2004 wines (9 - 2004; 5 - 2005; 1 – 2006) but this winery pulled something out from way back in the stellar 2002 vintage – which is cheating a bit I guess, but hey, you gotta be memorable. Marynissen’s 2002 Cabernet-Merlot ($14.95) is a great easy drinking experience, with mellow tannins, good red fruit and strawberry flavours and 5 more years of cellaring potential.

Best Food:

Coyote’s Run put a little thought into their food, not the most creative (everyone knows that lox and cream cheese goes together) but it worked remarkably well. Their herb was thyme and they served smoked salmon and cream cheese on a pizza-sized slice of thyme roasted flatbread. Lailey Vineyard offered up a crostini topped with aged cheddar and a homemade basil pesto – the combination was divine. And finally, Jackson-Triggs offered up a small, yet tasty shortbread cookie with 3-year-old cheddar drizzled with lavender infused honey. Note to wineries: cheese seems to work well, in whatever form it takes.

Best Pairing:

There were only a few wineries where the pairing transcended the ordinary: you sip the wine, taste the food, sip again and the taste truly exploded in your mouth leading to shock, awe and surprise – the kind of moment where you say “ooh, that’s nice.” Inniskillin pulled it off with a wild mushroom soup with coriander paired with their earthy Pinot Noir 2004 from the Montague Estate Vineyard ($24.95). The wine was earthy with strawberry and rhubarb tones, and it just sang on the palate when matched up with the soup … this review is coming from a guy who hates the ‘shroom, maybe I’ll have to reconsider my food choices, or just puree my ‘shrooms. Konzelmann inspired the tongue with their summery combination of Salmon Gravlox (fresh dill marinated salmon with a dollop of cream fresh) and their 2005 Pinot Blanc (best value wine of the day at $9.95). This wine had light apple and orange blossom flavours that meshed well with the tasty salmon treat. Hillebrand wowed the crowd, and their tastebuds, by pairing a Parmesan-Oregano oat cookie with your choice of two wines (the only winery to offer that kind of choice): a 2005 Gamay Noir – which brought out the oregano flavours; or a 2006 Muscat – which highlighted the sweetness of the cookie (both wines $11.95). And now I wanna know how to bake those cookies.

Most Disappointing:

Two of the three wineries in this category took the lazy way out to produce a pairing. Sunnybrook served “Parsley Focasia Bread” with their Ironwood Hard Cider. Their herb was parsley – heck parsley’s a garnish for anything and everything; they could have made something more inviting and sprinkle parsley on it. This cube of bread was nothing to write home about and a huge disappointment especially for such an easy herb. Same can be said for Marynissen – sure they served up the best wine of the weekend, but they dumbed it down with “Rosemary Bread” cubes, though they did offer three different olive oils to dip it in – but why give me the “hairy eyeball” when I take a second cube. The whole loaf would have cost them no more than $3.29, and the size of the cube made it worth maybe .5 of a cent; factor in the dip of oil and my whole tasting cost maybe 2 cents … the garlic dip was good though, which is why I took a third piece when no one was looking. Finally, Reif served a rolled crepe with goat cheese, chive and apricot. Good try, but the chive flavour did not translate through the crepe and neither did the apricot … even more disappointing, the 2004 Barrel-Aged Vidal was spoiled (sherry nose and sour taste). When I pointed this out the girl behind the barrels she smiled and nodded, waited a few seconds, then gave me the tasting notes she had been given to memorize for the day. Worst of all, this white wine was served warm, I expected much more from this pairing, and this winery – especially with all the accolades of late for their First Growth wines.

What’s With The …:

Some wineries just made me scratch my heads in wonderment, “what were they thinking” -wise. Starting with Peller Estates, the wine was good – a 2005 Dry Riesling – but the marjoram chicken rilette (poached and pureed chicken) in a tartlet was more tartlet than chicken. The doughy taste of the tart overwhelmed the mouth and the herb did not come through. I do give them marks for presentation though; it looked really appetizing. Stonechurch served a Beouf Bourgogne with bay leaf and red wine sauce – quite tasty – and paired it with a 2004 Shiraz Reserve … not a bad pairing. But the wine was non-VQA. During a festival to showcase the wines of Niagara-on-the-Lake should you not serve a VQA wine with your pairing? I was told it was because 2005 was a short crop and wiped out much of their grapes, but this was a 2004 wine, was there not a 2006 white you could have released? There was, in fact, a 2004 Cabernet Franc with VQA designation available to them. Bad decision on the winery’s part. I suspect the Beouf Bourgogne could have been made with dashes of Franc instead of the splash of Shiraz without effecting too much. Finally, Strewn got the big “X” of the day for their pairing of Terrayo Polenta Canape with black bean salsa and their 2004 Cabernet Franc. The wine had a wonderful nose of pepper, cedar and vanilla, while in the mouth cinnamon, vanilla with red and black fruit … but when mixed with the gritty polenta created a funky feel in the mouth and the wine turned from lush to pencil shaving bitter (think the graphite part) with a sour aftertaste. Buy the wine for $11.95 and pair it with a burger.

And that’s my run down of the highs and lows of this year’s Wine and Herb Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I look forward to November’s Taste the Season event, where wineries once again put their thinking caps on and try to impress the judges (you and me) with their pairing prowess.

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