Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Report from: Six Barrels for Six Chefs – Huff Estates – August 1, 2007

Huff Estates … a beautiful August evening in the county … a cooling breeze blowing through the vineyard … the smell of wood burning fire and cooking foods wafting in the air. Billed as “The Event of the Year” and for here in the county it just might have been: Six Barrels for Six Chefs featured two wines, one from Huff Estates and one from Norman Hardie, taken out of six different barrels with food pairings done by local, celebrity and renowned chefs. In attendance this evening were Bryan Steele (The Old Prune in Stratford); Jamie Kennedy (JK Restaurant); Ryan Crawford (Stone Road Grill in NOTL); Hiro Yoshida (Hiro Sushi); Michael Stadtlander (Eigensinn Farm) and Michael Potter (Harvest Restaurant).

Six Barrels/Six Chefs was the brainchild of Frederic Picard (winemaker for Huff) and Bryan Steele who, as legend has it, over a barrel tasting, thought it would be interesting to “Illustrate the nuances between the same wine aged in different oak barrels and how each one could be elevated when paired with food prepared by a great chef.” And what a fun and fantastic evening of food and wine it was – and educational at the same time, though I doubt most saw it that way.

Before I go any further, allow me to get a bias out of the way: I am not a huge proponent of food and wine pairing; my philosophy has always been: pick a wine, open the wine, drink the wine, then decide what to eat – not based on the wine, but instead what you feel like eating. If I like the wine and I like what I have prepared for dinner, the question of “do they pair well” is moot. That said I have had one great food and wine pairing in my life, where the food and wine enhanced each other to “oh wow” proportions (for the record it was at Stoney Ridge with an old Chardonnay and a pear soup). Tonight I did not have an “oh wow” pairing moment … some of the wines were “wow” and some of the food was “wow”, but the two did not meet … and many who tasted along with me felt the same way. The other thing to mention about the wines is they are not finished wines but instead wines in progress – many of the wines we drank will be blended with other barrels to create a finished product. Hence the wines were a curiosity and learning experience to see what a barrel can impart into a wine.

The Evening: Check in was at Huff’s main building. Then you were handed a glass, a menu, your cutlery and away you went. The food stations were placed around the property and in the vineyard – set up in such a way that by starting at booth 1 and proceeding to booth 7 (dessert) you would tour the property: see the inn, walk through the vineyard and back to the main building where dessert was served on the upper patio … all the while tasting 6 wines (seven if you include the dessert wine).

The Wines: The wines were all from the 2006 vintage … Huff provided the Chardonnay, while Norman Hardie brought the Pinot Noir. Each station had a different wine, the first three were Chardonnay but aged in different barrels, with different toast levels (charring of the barrels’ interior), from different cooperage houses (makers of the barrels), and in some cases different sizes (228 liters or 500 liters) … some or all of these factors were different for each wine – the same applied for Norm’s three. The barrel differential was more noticeable with the Chardonnay then the Pinot Noir – in some cases it was hard to believe they were the same grapes, same year and that only their housing was different.

How’d it Taste: The best tasting Chardonnay (Huff) was Barrel #2 – a 500L barrel from Dargaud et Jaegle (cooper) with a medium toast. The larger barrel allowed the wood to integrate more slowly with the wine, giving it creamy vanilla and melted butter aromas with some citrus and asparagus backing it up. The taste followed the nose, but shucked the asparagus for white peach; a good round mouthfeel and pleasant finish made this one the heads and tails winner. Barrel #3 (heavy vanilla notes, well rounded) and Barrel #1 (too green) followed in that order.

In the Pinot department (Norman Hardie) Barrel #5, a 500L Mercurey (cooper) “grand cru” toast barrel was the stand out. A sweet nose of smoked choke cherries and strawberries while the taste was similar to the nose with cherry, strawberry, cranberry and some earthiness; fine tannins and an easy dry finish allowed this wine to flow through the mouth and end with a lip-smacking smile. Barrel #6 (cherry, strawberry, smoky earth) and Barrel #4 (beet root and cranberry) followed … all were very close in taste with very subtle differences, unlike the more striking differences between the Chardonnays.

The Food: All 6 chefs did an amazing job, cooking outdoors on some very primitive cooking surfaces like a BBQ station with the grill held up by a pile of rocks and the fire built on top of a flat-rock-table-top. Presentation was on a paper plate, except for Michael Stadtlander, who presented his on white pine bark – sometimes messy but so cool.

How’d it Taste: Winners on this night were Jamie Kennedy who made a delicious Yellow Perch which was encrusted with spices in a sauce that brought out the best tastes of both the crusting and the perch. And Michael Stadtlander, whose roasted pork served with green beans and roasted potatoes, was a highlight in taste and presentation (see at right).

The After Party: Back at the main building, a four piece live jazz band played on the lower patio – the musicians, I’m sure weren’t old enough to drink, let alone shave, but they were enjoyable and set the relaxed mood for the twilight hours. On the upstairs patio Huff’s First Frost dessert wine was being poured along with cake, coffee and water. The atmosphere was lively and the difference in people’s attire was amazing to behold. Some saw it as a more formal occasion wearing shirts and ties, while others took it as a summer evening out with shorts, t-shirts and summer dresses. But no matter how you were dressed everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves - laughter and the cacophony of conversation filled the air.

As I drove off down the long Huff driveway away from the event the chefs’ and their crews were cleaning up; bottles were being put away and staff nibbled on leftovers and sipped the remaining wine from glasses. As I turned onto Highway 1 for my journey back to the big smoke the sun was setting behind the main Huff building – silhouetting all who were left in attendance and basking them in the light of a beautiful summer’s eve.

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