Monday, May 12, 2008

Report from ... Wine and Herb Festival – Niagara-on-the-Lake – May 3, 2008

I have to start off by saying that The Wineries of Niagara on the Lake host the best festivals in the Niagara area: Taste the Season in November and the Wine and Herb Festival in May. They are well organized, have great themes and allow patrons to set their own pace, plus they have impressed upon their members a uniformity of quality at each winery; not just talking about the wines here now, this is more in respect to the food pairing.

Each year there is a subtle tweak that improves the event. This year’s tweak was a big jump in innovation – though a very simple idea. Three weeks prior to the event they had a winery get together, where the food and wine pairings were on display for the other wineries to get a taste of. This seemingly little thing paid off big dividends with lots of cross-promotion between the wineries, it was like nothing I have ever seen before in the area. Inniskillin told me to try Sunnybrook; Cattail pointed me in the direction of the other wineries doing goat cheese pairings (Hillebrand and Reif); Reif told me about Lailey’s Sausage combination – and so on and so on.

At the beginning of the day we set our sights on 8 wineries, based on the herbs we liked. By the time the dust on the day had settled we had hit 14 wineries with very few disappointments along the way. Now, this festival is designed for all month enjoyment – your passport is good for each weekend in May – but we did not have another free weekend day to come back so we had to fit this all in on the one day … I remind you, do not try this at home, I am a professional.

The “we”, this time round, are Erica (a Riesling fanatic and foodie) and myself. At the end of our 14-winery assault we each picked our favourites, put them in order and discussed the outcome. Amazingly our final decisions paralleled each other, in most cases:

Best Wine …
We differed on the best wine and best foods of the day. Erica liked the Hillebrand 2007 Dry Riesling finding it very much to her liking as a Riesling-fan, while I leaned red, with the Inniskillin 2006 Reserve Pinot Noir – though as a devout white drinker Erica did admit that she “would drink that red”.

Best Food …
This was an easy one … Coyote’s Run Freshly Grilled Lemon Basil shrimp was a real highlight followed closely by the Cattail Savoury concoction – simple yet very tasty.

The Pairings …

The Wine and Herb Festival used to be called the Herb and Wine Festival, the name change came about because they felt the festival should be about the wine, not the herbs. I beg to differ, the festival is about the pairing, hence the food with the wine – I can come down for just the wine anytime, and so should you – but a chance to try the wine with a nibbly to match, that brings out the inner foodie in all of us, and of course, the amateur food and wine matcher. Doing the tour with a foodie was interesting. While she focused on the food and saw the wine an afterthought, I saw it the other way around (though having done this for a few years now I was better at putting it all together). In the end we had some highly animated discussions to reach our final consensus about where each winery fit into the scoring chart with me plugging the wine and Erica making the case for the food.

We took into consideration the food and wine together: the taste of the food + the taste of the wine + the togetherness combination in the mouth – we used a ten point scale for grading.

Cattail Creek – 10/10 … this little winery is making some big noise these days. They follow up their Ontario Wine Awards Riesling victory with a stellar pairing, created by Treadwell’s. “We gave them the wine, told them our herb and let them do their magic.” The pairing seems simple, but worked to perfection: crostini topped with organic monforte goat cheese drizzled with savoury infused honey, paired with their new Sauvignon Blanc – everything just popped with this one … so good I managed to scam another.

Inniskillin – 9.5/10 … like the Phoenix rising from the ashes Inniskillin pulls it off. Regular readers will know that Inniskillin ended up on the bottom of my last two Niagara Festival reports (Icewine and Cuvee), but at the Wine and Herb they pulled up their socks and got back on track. Dill Coq au Vin made with, and paired with, their 2006 Reserve Pinot Noir … delicious. They would have scored a 10, but there was just a hint of a funny aftertaste when drinking the wine after the pairing. But together they meshed beautifully.

Lailey Vineyard and Reif Estate – 8/10 … both wineries got this score with very different pairings. Lailey went with the simple, tried and true, if a little unimaginative – meat with Cabernet Sauvignon; while Reif went innovative, and a touch sweet, a possible disaster, but it worked wonderfully well. Lailey paired their 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon with Free Range Bershire pork and rosemary sausage, soaked in a reduction of Cab Sauv, rosemary and cassis jam; there was even a touch of the ironic: it was served to you by a vegetarian. On the other hand, their neighbour at Reif went with a pizza topped with pear, lavender infused goat cheese and a spreading of Gamay Rosee jelly, paired with the Gamay Rosee. Sounds odds, but it was delicious. Maybe Reif should by all rights get an extra half point for taking a risk with their food.

Coyote’s Run and Niagara College – 7/10 … sometimes I have to turn it over to the foodie to give me the complete picture. At these two wineries I had different reactions. I loved the Lemon Basil grilled on the bar-be shrimp at Coyote’s Run (and I usually don’t like shrimp), but the smokiness took away from the delicacy of the unoaked Chardonnay. At Niagara College I liked the Gewurztraminer, but not a fan of the spring roll’s generous use of cilantro in the mix, it just seemed to take over the entire taste. But, in the end, you have to rely on your sources. My foodie told me that the Gewurzt and Cilantro pairing went okay by her, and she very much enjoyed the shrimp pairing and would have gladly had another. I also accidentally discovered that the Pinot Blanc at Coyote’s Run also made for a good wine to pair with the shrimp – give it a try when you’re there.

Konzelmann and Marynissen – 6/10 … respectively they had basil and oregano. Konzelmann made a bean and chickpea salad served in mini-taco bowl paired with their 2006 Shiraz, very tasty and a party planners dream, plus it was probably one of the healthier dishes on offer today. Marynissen’s also pulled off a “good-for-you” dish: a Meditterrean inspired antipasto with olives, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and boccacini cheese, served with an oregano and sea salt baguette and paired with their 2003 Cabernet – a little more complicated to prepare than the beans I am sure.

Sunnybrook Farm – 5/10 … now what do you do with mint? You serve it in a jelly that tops Havarti cheese on a multi-grain cracker and pair it with a strawberry wine. Sounds a little off, and I’m not too sure the pairing worked together in the mouth, but separately they were fun and enjoyable. My only head-scratcher this afternoon was told to me by my server at Sunnybrook; I asked why the wine was not vintage dated and was told quite plainly: “Fruit wine does not age like regular wine, in ten years the wine will taste exactly the same as it does today.” If some fruit winery would like to step forward and explain this to me I would be deeply interested.

Jackson-Triggs – 4/10 … usually a highlight but J-T turned into a disappointment with their sage infused cheesecake with cherry chutney topping (reduced in the paired wine – 2005 Proprietors’ Reserve Meritage). No perceptible sage in the cheesecake, and while the chutney and wine would have matched well together, the addition of the cheesecake did not add anything of substance to the combination. The upside – the consistency of the cheesecake was melt-in-your-mouth.

Chateau des Charmes – 4/10 … this score has the potential to go up. The Chateau paired their 2006 Aligote with an apple, chicken and thyme tartlet – but the crust of the tartlet proved to be too thick and overwhelming for the interior … the taste was nothing but dough. Madame Bosc was about the winery and approached us to discuss the pairing, she agreed the tart overwhelmed the filling and said that next week she would have it thinned – or as my foodie suggested, “why not serve it on a simple cracker”. The highlight of the morning was the Brut we shared with Madame at 11:30. Next weekend I would expect this 4 to be at least a 6 or 7 if Madame has her way.

Stonechurch – 3/10 … liked the garlic and chive cream cheese tart … simple and tasty – but once again Stonechurch gets slapped for pairing their entry with a non-VQA wine (2005 Shiraz) – yes they did have the choice of 2 other wines, if you wished, and thankfully both the Riesling and Cabernet-Merlot were VQA – but people walking in wanted the pairing listed in the book, which was the Shiraz, and that’s a Washington blend. I know Stonechurch is pretty open about it, but in no way should they be highlighting this wine at this event. Shame on you.

Hillebrand – 2/10 … how do you screw up this amazing Riesling? By pairing it with an overwhelming, ill-conceived food. Hillebrand took their 2007 Dry Riesling and paired it with a terragon infused goat cheese wrapped in smoked salmon, sounds good right? But then they put it on thick chewy piece of pumpernickel bread five times the size of the smoked salmon round. When you popped it into your mouth all you got was the overwhelming taste of pumpernickel. Get rid of the bread and this score goes way up.

Finally … special mention goes to the gentlemen at Palatine Hills, who raised the bar on parsley. They could have taken the easy way out and sprinkled parsley on potatoes or fish or anything else, heck I’ve been served parsley bread; but they outdid themselves by pairing an unoaked Chardonnay with a “parsley root puree on a toasted rice cracker with parsley pesto and sea salt” … so surprised was I that I had no idea what kind to score it – hence the special mention … it really is worth trying.

Another successful Wine and Herb Festival, and it gets better every year. This year, with only 4 wineries getting a grade below 5 (three of which can turn it around with simple fixes) this was the best year yet; and the cross promotion and pass-good-for-all-weekends are just more ways they have improved it. An event not to be missed; and a great time to let your inner “foodie” and “matchie” out for the weekend (or four). This festival is going to be the one to beat for the foreseeable future in Niagara.

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