Friday, December 26, 2008

Drinking with Dave - Part 1 ... December 26, 2008

Dave is a wine merchant in Michigan (at Champane‘s Wine Cellars in Warren), for the record I do not owe him money, he is not my bookie, he does not own a piece of anything I am involved with nor do I own a piece of his life. We do not owe each other a favour, our daughter’s don’t go to the same school, our wives are not in a bridge club together. His mom does not know my mom, his dad was not in the French Foreign Legion with my pop - nor in any other legion, gang, group or club. We are not related in any way and have no other reason to get together other than the fact that we each have a love for wine; Dave reads my newsletter (and I his email blasts from Champane’s). Over the past year he has invited me down a few times to taste wines with him; this year I was finally down long enough to take advantage of his hospitality.

December 26, 2008 … While most off my fellow countrymen are off taking advantage of Boxing Day deals, I find myself visiting Dave Burzynski at Champane’s Wine Cellars in Michigan (they don’t have Boxing Day down here … odd). I like visiting Dave cause he shows me wines that we can’t get over the border (or don’t get), at prices I know would be half of what we would pay. He greets me warmly and comments, “thanks for forwarding me your newsletters, I like reading your stuff,” he finishes his greeting with a slight lament, “but it’s all Canadian, and we don’t get that much stuff from you guys down here.” I respond with, “if it’s international you’re after check out my Vintages release report or the On the Road with the Grape Guy section - but what I should really do is bring down some Ontario stuff so you know what you’re missing.”

The niceties out of the way Dave leads me around the store like an obedient puppy dog, pointing out his favourite bottles of this and that, a 1999 Merlot ($12.99), 2006 Zinfandels, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Rock & Vine, a Miser-ly red for a mere $7.99 that’s been deemed “fantastic” by many of his regulars and various other treats all for under $15 ... my cart fills fast. After a dozen or so recommendations I pick six or seven to make up the case I will purchase.

It’s time to taste. Dave takes me back to his “office”. “When I got it it was just four walls,” he tells me, “I added a little of this and a little of that along the way and …” he trails off. A tasting bar covers the back half of the room along with proper bottle storage racks. The bar is glass covered and underneath are a plethora of labels. The room is cold, but a good temperature for wine. Today Dave pours us each a glass of Slaley Hunting Family 2003 Pinotage from South Africa that was opened on Wednesday (it is Friday). Dave confirms that when it was opened it did have that typical South Africa smell, but some 2 days later this wine is delicious and spicy with gobs of white pepper on the nose. There is some residual “South Africa stink”, but it is in the background on both the nose and palate; what shows most right now is the blackberries and cassis - and of course the white pepper. Dave confides in me that this bottle isn’t even in the marketplace right now, but he is hopeful of having it on his shelf sometime in the early part of the New Year, and for a very reasonable $12.99.

We’ll be checking back with Dave next week to see what other interesting bottles he has open, if not then we‘ll surely be back later in the year to see what other kinds of finds he can show me.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Report from ... Italian Wine Tasting - November 03, 2008

For lovers of Italian wine the first Monday in November is a sacred day. It's the annual Italian Trade Commission’s tasting of Italian wine, lots and lots of Italian wine. Upon entering Roy Thomson Hall you get your tasting glass and a 252-page booklet listing the wines available to try. Sure the wines are listed on every second page, but that’s still 126-pages worth of wine, and with an average of five wines per page you can see that's a lot of tasting to do.

My recent trip to Italy (Piedmont: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4) allowed me to skip some of the Piedmontese wines, having been immersed in this style for four days. Today I tried to focus on one of my favorite wine style, Valpolicella, namely Ripasso ... but one gets too easily sidetracked at the show and soon you taste whatever is being poured your way. Below is a listing of my favorites (of the wines I was able to try) and some observations on the day.

The show was subtitled: Innovators by Tradition, which of course is the Italian way of wine. Over the years they have been the inventors of some of the most beloved and collected wines: Ripasso (repassing or refermenting wine using the skins of a fuller bodied wine: Amarone); Moscato d’Asti (grapy, fruity, fizzante, low alcohol, light bodied white wine with some sweetness); Barolo, Brunello, Amarone and countless other original wines.

Observation 1 … I love Asti, it's light and fruity with a whole bunch of grapiness and it’s just a pleasure to drink. I must have tried close to a dozen, and each one I tried had the exact same note as the previous one (see above) ... though I did notice that the lower the alcohol the higher the price.

Observation 2 … This is a traveling wine show that hits five cities in ten days ... sometimes certain wines, or certain wineries, were only showing up in certain cities -typically, some of the wines I had highlighted were only available in Calgary or Vancouver - bummer.

Observation 3 … So many wines, so little time. With only a few hours to cover over 500 wines one had to specialize - therefore my focus became Veneto (Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone specifically) and various wines of Puglia (namely Primitivo, Zinfandel’s Italian cousin).

Best of Ripasso …

Gerardo Cesari Valpolicella DOC Mara Superiore Ripasso 2006 ($16.80 – general list) -good value with its smooth black fruit and low-to-know tannins.

Premium Wine Selection Valpolicella DOC Ripasso Le Arche 2006 ($17.95 - vintages December 6) - smooth with its plum, blackberry, vanilla and a touch of cola … tasty.

Best of Amarone …

Marchesi Fumanelli Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC Classico 2004 ($64 – Vintages in 2009) – grapes dried for three-plus months, three years in French barrique, big 15% alcohol, sweet entry to the mouth, nice cherry, plum and chocolate - silky smooth palate with just the nearest hint of tannins on the finish. Favorite of the show.

Roncolato Antonio Amarone Valpolicella DOC Carnero 2005 ($49.95 - private order) -single vineyard grapes taken from highest elevation on property, 40-day fermentation, only 10-to-15,000 bottles produced annually (depending on the vintage) … blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, plum, absolutely delicious - tied for favorite.

The Masi 3 … Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico DOC:
Costasera 2005 ($37.45 – general list) – beautiful dark fruit with good tannin structure.
Riserva di Costasera 2003 ($59.95 – consignment) - which adds up big dose of chocolate to the above.
Serego Alighiere Vaio Amarone 2003 ($77.95 – Vintages, December 6) - single vineyard wine that piles on the plums and rough tannins, age 5 before even thinking of drinking .

Premium Wine Selection Valpolicella DOC Amarone Le Arche 2005 ($44.95 - Vintages January 03, 2009) - sweet red fruit, cinnamon on mid-palate, good dry black fruit and tannins on the finish.

Zonin Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC 2005 ($49.95 – Vintages, December 2008) - this one's fruit driven and very consumable right now.

Best of Primitivo …

Feudi di San Marzone Primitivo di Manduria DOC Sessantanni 2005 ($32.95 – consignment) - outstanding Zin-knock off made from 60 year old vines - rich dark fruit, plums, chocolate, juicy long supple finish loading with cherries.

Casa Girelli Puglia IGT Canaletto Primitivo di Puglia 2005 ($12.95 - general list) - great value an everyday drinkers for Zin-lovers … plum, chocolate with a touch of herbs, spices and a vanilla note.

Best of Other Wines … not on the agenda but still impressive:

Banfi Sant’Antimo DOC Excelsus ($83.95 – 60% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Merlot) -plum, licorice and new leather that's just loaded with spices.

Barbi Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2006 ($18.95 – 100% Sangiovese) - very supple with plenty of red fruit and herbs.

Rocca di Frassinello Maremma Toscana IGT Le Sughere ($56.00 – Vintages – 50% Sangiovese / 25% Cabernet Sauvignon / 25% Merlot) - smooth and fruity, red fruit with a dominant herb quality ... big tannins and good acidity back this one up.

Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria DOC Ben Rye 2007 (100% Zibibbo) – aka Muscat of Alexandria, this wine is made in an Amarone-style, but with white grapes … beautiful dried apricot, peach and an apple finish - nice touch of sweetness ends this one off nicely.

Masottina Colli di Conegliano DOC “Montesco” Rossa ($47.00 – consignment – 47% Cabernet Sauvignon / 30% Merlot / 13% Cabernet Franc / 10% Marzemino) - red and black fruit with spiced mocha undertones.

Michele Satta Bolgheri e Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC 2007 ($32.00 – consignment – 30% Cabernet Sauvignon / 30% Sangiovese / 20% Merlot / 10% Syrah / 10% Teroldego) - fresh fruity and juicy with plums on the finish.

Pinino Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2003 ($65.95 – Vintages - 100% Sangiovese) -nice spice quality with hints of dried black fruit.

Planeta Sicilia IGT Segreta Bianco 2007 ($15.95 – consignment – 50% Grecanico Dorato / 30% Chardonnay / 10% Fiano / 10% Other) - sweet fruit with a pineapple finish.

San Felice Toscana IGT Vigorello 2003 ($60.00 - 45% Sangiovese / 40% Cabernet Sauvignon / 15% Merlot) – herbs and spice with a touch of black fruit and licorice.

Tenimenti Angelini Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Trerose 2005 ($23.95 – Vintages – 90% Prugnolo Gentile / 5% Canaiolo / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon) – plumy, chocolaty and smooth.

Tenuta di Toscana Lucente 2006 Toscana IGT ($34.95 – Vintages – 50% Merlot / 15% Cabernet Sauvignon / 35% Sangiovese) - nice nose, spiced blackberry mid, herbed finish.

Report from ... Cynthia’s Selections & Ex-Cellars Tasting - November 27, 2008

Pooling resources, two small agents took to the fifth floor of the Flatiron Building in downtown Toronto, in a dentist's office of all places, to let some media, restaurant owners and clients sip through their portfolios of hand selected, small lot wines from California, France, Spain and other parts of the winemaking world. In all 32 wines were poured -nineteen from Cynthia, thirteen from Ex-Cellar; below is my proportional top wine lists (six and four respectively).

Cynthia’s Selections …

Handley Cellars 2007 Gewurztraminer ($28.00 - private order) - big rosy, floral nose with a tropical fruit background; the palate screams Gewurzt with its rows and rows of floral notes … you might want to give this one a bit of time to mellow out those flowers.

Graziano Coro Mendocino 2004 Zinfandel ($40.00 - private order) - this one is easy on the palate, but watch out for the 14.5% alcohol – jammy, plumy and loads of cherry.

Vinoce Mt. Veeder 2005 Cabernet Blend ($85.00 - private order) - a blend of 60% Franc, 25% Sauv and 15% Merlot, this wine is pricey but exceptionally good drinking. Nice black fruit, chocolate and pepper notes - the balance in the mouth is very good. Someone described it as "sex in a glass” not totally accurate, but not far off.

Cedarville Vineyard 2005 Zinfandel ($25.00 – consignment) - big black fruit, plumy and jammy with good tannins - the finish doles out cherry and rum and big alcohol at 15.5%.

Wedgetail Estate 2004 Pinot Noir ($35.00 – consignment) - nice red fruit with strawberry and raspberry notes and a silkiness in the mouth.

Cedarville Vineyards 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($38.00 – consignment) – big fruit driven Cali-cab with blackberry, cassis and chocolate with a spicy big exotic finish.

Ex-Cellars … (

Domaine des Quarres 2005 Les Pierres Noires ($23.00) - crisp and light with a predominance of pear fruit ... a beautiful finish ends this one nicely.

Andrew Pirie 2005 Pinot Noir ($39.00) - this beauty from Tasmania has sour cherry, vanilla and cranberry on the nose while earthy red berry and dry cranberry lead the way on the palate.

Domaine de la Charbonniere 2003 Les Hautes Brusquieres ($59.00) a complex Chateauneuf-du-Pape that's peppery and spicy, red fruit dominated with fine tannins, good weight and acidity. This one has elegance and finesse down pat.

O. Fournier 2002 Tempranillo-Malbec-Merlot ($38.00) - full bodied (14.5%) with big fruit (both black and red), vanilla and spice - a lovely sip from Argentina.

Report from ... Lailey Vineyard Pre-Launch / Futures Event - November 27, 2008

A small, intimate venue (Fine Wine Reserve – Toronto) was the scene for the small, intimate Lailey pre-launch and futures event … a chance for the big city friends-of-Lailey, who can't make it down to their annual winter open house in early December - to get a taste, and purchase, upcoming wines. Winemaker Derek Barnett was on hand to present the wines he called "some of the best wines I have ever made" - which is saying a lot, because he's been at it for over fifteen years and has made some pretty outstanding wines in his time, including wine of the year at the Ontario Wine Awards for his (I believe) 1998 Cabernet/Merlot (for Southbrook) – a feat that has yet to be matched (all other times it has been an icewine that has taken that prize).

Today a few oldies warmed up the palate for the newer offerings: 2007 Counterpoint White was on hand, 2007 Sauvignon Blanc and 2007 Niagara River Chardonnay - then it was on to the tank and barrel samples.

2007 Chardonnay Old Vines ($40.00 - release: February 28 – Cuvee weekend) - only four barrels were produced (approximately 95 cases) of this wine, made from vines planted in 1974. A mix of new French barrels (for both fermentation and aging), then moved into one and 2 year old barrels for another four months of seasoning. The nose is vanilla and butterscotch loaded, while the palate shows the fruit off quite well, mainly peach with buttery-vanilla and a titch of butterscotch. A little bottle age should settle this one down nicely and then it’s a keeper for the long haul, 10+ years.

2007 Pinot Noir Old Vines ($45.00 - release: February 28 – Cuvee weekend) - this 100-case offering marks the first time Barnett and Lailey have separated their oldest estate Pinot vines (planted 1994), and equaling less than an acre of fruit. Barrel treatment was in new French, long toast barrels for 15 months (both fermentation and aging). The nose has the typicity of Pinot Noir (minus the earthy aspect), sour cherry, red fruit and a touch of vanilla ... the palate is toasty and woody with cranberry, sour cherries and real big tannins. This is a wine that shows great potential and real finesse, though it'll need time to settle down. 2-3 years of aging minimum.

2007 Cabernet Franc ($30.00 - expected bottling: February/March, 2009) - this wine was fermented in three small batches and carefully basket pressed, then blended and barreled. By the time of its expected bottling it will have spent sixteen to eighteen months in a mix of French (95%) and American (5%) oak. Today, it has a subtle nose of cherry, tobacco, cassis and blackberry … it also has tannins you can smell. The palate is big and bold with rich tannins, tobacco, blackberry and cleansing, yet lingering, acidity. This wine could live comfortably in the cellar for eight to ten years, but you'll want to pull one out every so often to see how it's doing. Only 200 cases will be produced.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($30.00 - expected bottling: February/March, 2009) - this wine is showing its hand a little more than its Franc counterpart. The nose is far from subtle with big black cherry, vanilla and blackberries; while the palate, is already incredibly juicy with great fruit (cherry, blackberry, plum, cassis) and other notes (chocolate) ... rich smooth and delicious with great acidity. Another cellar dweller for sure (8-10 years). 200 cases will be produced ... barrel treatment saw the use of 25% U.S. and 75% French wood.

2007 Meritage Canadian Oak ($40.00 - expected bottling: February/March, 2009) - this is another first for Lailey - the first time they will release a Meritage wine. A blend of Cabernet Franc (66%), Cabernet Sauvignon (17%) and Merlot (17%), it's a wine that Derek himself called "heavier and richer”, while also commenting, "[it] shows nice characteristics and shows the fruit very well.” This wine was aged together from the get go in equal parts new, two and three year old barrels. The nose smells of sour cherry, black cherry and cassis, while the palate shows both juicy fruits and gritty, firm tannins -black cherry takes the lead in the fruit department, while chocolate and tobacco carry the tannin weight. Good punch and drying finish - this is yet another that will age extremely well into the next decade.

For those fans of Derek's Impromptu red blend, expect it’s bottling to be the same as the above Franc, Sauv and Meritage. Currently, it is a very shy and closed off wine but shows real potential for the future. Full review pending release.

Report from ... Gourmet Food and Wine Expo - November 20, 2008

There always seems to be a certain element inside every attendee, or potential attendee, of the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo in Toronto that asks themselves the following question: "should I go again this year, it's the same crap as last year." To those I offer the following answer: it's not the same crap; new year offers new vintages, which offers new possibilities - the crap you didn't like last year maybe today's hottest wine because of the growing season, new winemaker, new owners, or marketing hype. The Gourmet Show is kinda like voting in an election, if you don't go to it you can't bitch about not liking it. This year I heard nothing but good things from patrons walking around, those I knew and from ticket winners through my newsletter. I attended the Thursday VIP night, as I was going to be out of town for the weekend (Taste the Season – NOTL) and here's what I discovered that was of interest.

Chinese wine – swear to the Sun-God ...

Torontonians got their first official look and taste of wines from China, Great Wall Wines, who had a small booth in the middle of the show (so small that if you blinked you would’ve missed it), what‘s more they had wines to try too: 1996, 1999, 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon; 2003 Chardonnay; and 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé. And to answer your question, yes, they grow grapes in China. In fact they make about the 80-million bottles a year, of which only three to four percent are exported. Great Wall also touted the fact that they were the official wine for the Beijing 2008 olympics ... and the wines were made from 100% Chinese grapes – Hello, Vincor … please, please, please - take note of this (Esprit link).

Have some Madeira my dear …

For those who have never tried Madeira it can be quite the exotic experience. These wines are both fortified and heated, so they are high in alcohol and oxidized, but they have such unrivaled flavors and longevity. Casa dos Vinhos Fine Old Madeira - 5 years old ($18.95 - general list) was served with a lemon peel which added flavor and fragrances that were quite appealing. While the Henriques and Henriques 10 Year Old Malmsey ($38.00 – Vintages) had beautiful flavors and aromas reminiscent of almonds and orange peel.

Somethings Sweet ...

From the south of France came Odysseus from Joseph Nadal ($25.00 – Vintages); made from Grenache Noir and Grenache Gris – a bayuls grand cru wine that has a light touch of sweetness to go along with its cherry, almond and orange peel appeal.

Getting away from the orange peel and into something rich and fruity, how about Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage 2003 Port ($18.95) – plumy, black cherry and chocolate, very warming in the belly.

Or the Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Tawny ($68.95) – complex yet delicious with great cherry flavor an incredible smoothness.

Fladgate Fantasies …

Speaking of incredible, where else can you try Taylor Fladgates 30-year-old and 40-year-old Tawnys without plunking down a small fortune, $178 and $225 respectively. The man from Fladgate explained their high prices to me: "there's a 3% evaporation rate of wine every year; which means, for every bottle of 40 year old we make we lose three bottles to the air." The gods really are taking their share of this scrumptious wine and I tasted why. First, there's the 30-Year-Old with orange peel, dried cherries, and almonds on the nose; lush and smooth in the mouth with liqueur soaked cherries, caramel and butterscotch, along with some of the above scents traveling through the mouth. The 40-Year-Old was just beyond description, it was simply incredible, wonderful and palate, as well as nasally, seductive. If you're looking for a special gift this season check out Fladgate’s hundred years of tawny, which has a half bottle of 10 – 20 - 30 and 40 year old tawny for $289 - fantastic port from a house that's been doing it since 1692.

Beers of Note …

Getting away from wine for a moment, don't worry we’ll get back in a minute (or however long it takes you to read or skip this part). Fruit beer can be fun, so check out Friuli, a Belgian strawberry wheat beer ($2.35 each / $14.50 4-pack), made with 30% pure strawberry and has only 4% alcohol; it’s also high in B-complex (the anti-aging vitamin) and besides all that it's very good and has more of a strawberry than a beer taste.

Nickle Brook’s Apple Pilsner from Burlington, Ontario is also a very refreshing beer for fruit lovers, made with 5% green apple juice and partially fermented apples (fermented separately) and a touch of lemon juice. Very appley.

Finally, there was the Great Lakes Brewery (from Mississauga) makers of one of my favorite red beers "Red Leaf", who are making a very tasty Winter Ale that comes in 750ml bottles with 6.2% alcohol, for a mere $6.95 a bottle. Made with a concoction of ginger, cinnamon, dried orange peel and honey. I definitely picked up the cinnamon on the taste - the nose was all that and a bag of chips (as the young once said) ... a very yuletide kinda beer.

A Few Wines of Note ...

There's lots of the same old same old for me here, stuff I have tried through Vintages releases or at country-specific shows; but every so often someone pulls me aside with a "must try" wine, as Robert Ketchin did with this most impressive Ranui 2006 Pinot Noir ($24.95 – Vintages) from Marlborough’s Wairau Valley (New Zealand) made in only 30% new French oak. My first impression was what a fantastic nose this wine had (direct quote: "great nose – holy shit”) - great sour and black cherry along with hints of vanilla; that carries through on the palate along with strawberries and raspberries. Where do I get me some of this? (Vintages I was told).
There was the Santa Alicia Reserva Carmenere ($11.95 - general list) with its raspberry, blueberry, spice and touch of mint - good value at under $12.00

Valdivieso is back in the market, this time they have a full line of wines on display, my favorite was a 2006 Cabernet Franc ($20.00 - private order) cherry, raspberry, and violets – deliciously smooth.

All in all a successful Gourmet Expo with plenty of interesting products to sip, sample and savour.

In Closing - an LCBO Faux Pas

These two photos were taken at this year's Gourmet show and sent to me with the caption "Bait and Switch" on them - the taker was incensed that the LCBO would pull this kind of stunt - but not surprised; after all they put the VQA and "Cellared in Canada" wines together all the time. For those without a keen eye or who need a little nudge - they put Chilean wine in the VQA section - classy, real classy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Report from ... Wrapped Up in the Valley - November 29-30, 2008

I can’t get to them all … honest I can’t; but I had every intention of going to the Wrapped up in the Valley event on the weekend of November 29 and 30. But as luck would have it I was called away to help someone move; in retrospect I would have preferred to go to the winery events … but sometimes you must make sacrifices – especially if you ever want her to talk to you again, plus it was my foodie, Erica, who was moving, and a wine a food event just wouldn’t be the same without someone to bounce opinions off of.

Upon my return I got an email from Fred Couch, a member of the Ontario Wine Society, and in it he wrote: “Did you do any of the Twenty Valley "Wrapped up in the Valley" passport events? This, by far, has to be the best-valued passport event. We visited 9 wineries today with friends and all did a wonderful job. Great food and wine pairing and an edible treat to take home … (slags another festival here) … We still have 3 more wineries to visit tomorrow to finish off the passport. What a treat.”

I emailed back and forth with Fred for several days and finally said to him: “seems like I should have gone, for sure next year, but would you mind giving me a little write-up of your experience”. I have never known Fred to be as talkative as he is in the article below. Thanks Fred.

On the Road with the Grape Guy’s Understudy ... F.G. Couch

Having participated in many wonderful winery passport events in the Finger Lakes, New York, I have usually been disappointed by similar events put on by the Ontario Wineries. However, this year seems to be much different. The Grape Guy has already reported on the “Taste the Season” and said, (it) “remains one of the highlights of the holiday season and, for my money, one of the best events of the year.” Well, “Wrapped Up in the Valley”, put on by the wineries that belong to the Twenty Valley Association, should be right up there as one of the best.

For a reasonable $20, you purchased a passport (good for the last two weekends in November), which allowed the holder to visit all 12 participating wineries for a food and wine pairing. Also, each passport holder was given a tasty Twenty Valley “collectible edible” to help create a gourmet hostess gift. There were three “non-edible” gifts but more about those later!

I was joined by my wife, Sue, who is a food “groupie” if there is such a thing [editor’s note: Fred has just ably given us a definition for “Foodie”], and two friends from Toronto. Unfortunately, our friends waited too long but were able to get the last remaining passport – only 200 sold for the whole event (both weekends). However, most of the wineries were sympathetic to the one without the passport and let her try the food and wine pairings anyway. To our friends’ amazement, we were able to visit 9 wineries on the first day. They commented, “we have never been to so many wineries in one day”. They’ve never toured with us before! [editor’s note: sounds like a lot but this foursome still proves they are lightweights; Erica and I plowed through 14 on our first day of the Taste the Season event]

We started our tour at Flat Rock Cellars where we were given a gift bag to collect all our “goodies”. Rather than review all twelve wineries, in Grape Guy style [editor’s note: of which he has much], I’ll just report on the “highlights” and the one disappointing wine and food pairing. It’s best to get the worst out of the way first. It was unanimous that the worst food of the weekend was served at Eastdell Estates Winery. We were offered a “Homemade parmesan risotto paired with Cuvee Brut Sparkling Wine”. The risotto was undercooked and the cheese gave the dish a sour taste. The sparkling wine was flat. The only redeeming thing about the visit was the large biscotti as our takeaway gift.

Not being a seafood lover, I deferred the rating of what would have been the best food and wine pairing to our Toronto friends. Vineland Estates Winery served “Pinot Blanc Steamed Bluecoat Mussels, Shaved Fennel and Koorneef Cherry Tomatoes paired with Pinot Blanc”. We were seated at a table for four in the upstairs loft with a live jazz band playing quietly in the background. As I said, this should have been the best food and wine pairing but, unfortunately, a few of the mussels had an “iodine” taste, which was off-putting.

Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery went all out and served a tasting plate of pears, prosciutto and a ripe, soft cheese paired with their Ratafia. Our takeaway gift was a large package of cheddar shortbread cookies from the Sprucewood Handmade Cookie Co. and a package of mulling spices to make a holiday batch of mulled cider or wine. For our “chocolate” fix of the day, the winner had to be Cave Spring Cellars. They served three chocolates (white, milk and dark) paired with their Cabernet Franc Select Late Harvest. We all agreed that the dark chocolate was the best match and the white chocolate, (surprisingly) a close second. Our next choice would probably have to go to Harbour Estates Winery for their “Phyllo-wrapped baked brie with HEW Drunken Apple wine jelly paired with Non-Oaked Chardonnay”. This was a tasty treat that made you want a second piece.

The best takeaway “edible gifts” besides the shortbreads from Peninsula Ridge were a piece of Christmas cake from Creekside Estate Winery, walnut cookies from Flat Rock Cellars, fudge from Harbour Estates, pasta (uncooked, of course) from Vineland Estates, popping corn from Mountain Road Wine Company and spiced nuts from Fielding Estates Winery. There were three “non-edible” gifts. At Tawse Winery, we were given a cheese-cutting knife and a discount coupon for the Upper Canada Cheese Company. At Angels Gate Winery they were giving out a clay “Brown Sugar Saver”, courtesy of Le Clos Jordanne Winery, who doesn’t have a winery to visit but wanted to participate in the event. The most expensive “non-edible” gift was from Mountain Road Wine Company. They gave away a boxed set consisting of a stainless steel waiter’s corkscrew and chrome-plated wine stopper.

We came away with two gift bags packed to overflowing with holiday “goodies. This was one of the best passport events we’ve ever attended in Niagara and look forward to seeing how this can be duplicated next year. There was talk about selling 200 passports for each weekend in 2009 but I hope it doesn’t become so busy that it won’t be as enjoyable. Star rating (4 ½ out of 5); value for money (5 out of 5).

Ah Fred, moving really was fun … or so I keep telling myself.