Thursday, June 16, 2011

Report from ... Wine & Herb Festival NOTL - Weekends in May 2011

This year a record number of wineries took part in the Niagara-on-the-Lake Wine & Herb festival ... 26 wineries in total are now part of this NOTL collective and each participated by grabbing an herb out of the hat and blending it up in a food they could then pair with one of their wines.  Wineries I spoke with said numbers were down this year.  Could it have been the rain?  Which decided to be part of every single weekend in May.  Was it the strength of the Canadian dollar keeping the Americans away?  Or was it the number of wineries?  Which to some my seem like a daunting number - 26 to do in one weekend ... doable, but daunting.  Whatever the reason numbers were down, leaving plenty of food left overs for staff and those who deemed it necessary to cop a second helping of a favourite.

This year we (my wife [foodie] and I [winie]) did all 26 wineries over two weekends, because we now reside in the area, though I'll admit we got kinda lazy, we did 24 one weekend, and because we could, saved the last two for another weekend - choosing instead to lounge on the Coyote's Run patio drinking 2010 Pinot Blanc and homemade Sangria on the first real sunny Saturday afternoon in quite some time (I even got a burn).

At events such as these it's really about the food and the pairing more than just the wine itself, so I have refrained from naming a Best Sip of the weekend (though I bet I cave by the end of the article) and instead we have ranked our top 10 pairings/food; we have also provided the bottom three wineries along with why we thought they were below par ... wineries not mentioned did a good job but did not stand out as better-best material or the alternative.  Here we go.

The Bottom (in reverse order) ...
We'll start with the wineries that underwhelmed.

24.  At first we thought we were punishing this winery for following one of our top choices (who ended up as our top choice), but in retrospective our reasoning was sound for why they're on the bottom:  Riverview Winery (bergamot) - the award winning 2009 Gewurztraminer is deservedly so, but the tart with the bergamot was decidedly no ... too much pastry overwhelmed the other flavours - everything got lost in that dough.

25.  It's been a rollercoaster ride for Pillitteri (that basil), some events they're up, others they're down, this was a real downer ... everything seemed okay until the wine and food meshed together in the mouth, then a bitterness on the finish and nasty aftertaste ruined what it had built up - we tried this a few times and got the same result with each bite. 

26.  Hands down this was our least favourite pairing of the day - surprising because these guys have a good restaurant on the property.  The terrine served was bland and boring and the wine was way too sweet, no matter how hot it was outside and how much the person serving told us it was a great hot weather pairing it did not make it so:  Ravine Vineyard (sweet woodruff) ... also, shame on Ravine for a $14 half bottle of Chardonnay Musque, even the folks we met on the back deck, who did not seem too knowledgeable about wine realized that $28 (for the equivalent full bottle - 750ml) was a lot to pay for this wine.

Ten thru Five ...
We had a number of ties as we scored each winery out of 10, the low end of our top 10 produced a 6-way tie for 2 spots, and so we used 'herb taste' as the tie-break: which pairing gave us the most herb taste based on the herb that winery had to work with.

10.  Cattail Creek (lemon balm) - lemon flavour really shone through on the shrimp and the unoaked Chardonnay helped to cleanse the palate nicely.

9.  Stonechurch (coriander) - "ya gotta like cilantro/coriander," said my wife.  I don't, the wife does, but the chicken and lentil dish did what it was suppose to do: highlight the herb, and it did it well.

More ties in the 8-5 positions, it was like splitting hairs here, these 4 were well worth the price of admission but here's how we finally ranked 'em:

8.  Hillebrand (mint) - the spicy sausage and mint yogurt paired well with the delicious 2009 Artist Series Gewurztraminer.

7.  Joseph's (basil) - a goat cheese/sun-dried tomato/basil tart; pastry was the right consistency and thickness for the flavours and the filling came shining through without interference; paired surprisingly well with the 2006 Merlot, which brought out the basil and especially the sun-dried tomato taste.
Innovation in packaging - Vintner's Lunch

6.  Marynissen (summer savory) - should also get an innovation award for presentation, the wine paired well with their simple take on the plowman's lunch.

5.  Stratus (sorrel) - scalloped potato with creme fraiche, need I really say anymore here.

The Top Four ...
Here's where it got really difficult, we gave out two 9's and two 10's this year and discussed these at length as to which order they should go in, though in truth our top choice was never in doubt - but the rest went exactly like this ...

4.  Lailey Vineyard (mexican oregano) - funny how a simple thing like a meatball can bring such pleasure to the inside of one's mouth, but this wasn't just any old simple meatball (it was a Stone Road Grille creation) - the sauce totally made it worth having again and again - too bad you could only have one.  The '06 Cabernet Franc seemed to work some magic here, making the entire pairing sing ... but that meatball really stole the show, give me a plate and some pasta and stick me in the back room.

3.  Pondview (rosemary) - same could be said for what Pondview was serving - it's as if they had been reading my mind.  After putting this little delicacy in her mouth my wife declared "God that was good": pulled short rib on a paper thin rosemary potato paired with the award winning 2009 Bella Terra Cabernet Franc, which managed to turn my wife into a red wine fan (if only temporarily).
Colaneri brings outdoors inside

2.  Colaneri (oregano) - these newbies to the group of 26 pullled out all the stops, including bringing in their own back deck furniture and laying fake grass down to give that outdoor feeling indoors.  But who seriously thought an Italian family would have any problems with oregano, in fact they made it into a meal: manicotti served with tomato/cucumber/bocconcini and olive skewers ... "want more?" Betty Colaneri asked, really Betty I'm full, but I'd gladly come over for dinner anytime (at least I know what your backyard looks like).
And the winner is ...

1.  Ice House (garlic) - now really, who woulda thought that garlic and icewine would be a match made in heaven?  Obviously the folks at The Ice House saw something they could work with and hit it out of the vineyard, thus raising the bar for the entire Wine & Herb Festival.  Shrimp and cream cheese (all with an element of garlic) may sound simplistic but it was the pop-in-the-mouth presentation and the paired Vidal icewine match that made this one stand out.  It looks so ... plain ... but tasted so divine.  Icewine, shrimp and garlic goes together, who knew?

Best Sip ...
Alright, what the heck, top wine of the day (previously not tried) was a newly released Chardonnay from Maleta:  2007 View Chardonnay ($18.95)

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