Monday, November 14, 2011

Report from ... Niagara-on-the-Lake Taste the Season 2011 - November 5-6, 2011

The Ice House introduced us to Dornfelder Icewine - just one of the Delcacies at this year's Taste the Season

It's been a week since my compadres and I toured the Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries for this year's Taste the Season extravaganza of food and wine.  I have spoken with each one to see who liked what and why, and it would seem there is quite a diversity about our favourites - which is a good thing.  For those of you who still aren't aware of what Taste the Season in Niagara-on-the Lake is all about I'll encapsulate it for you:  Each weekend in November the 26 wineries of this group (yes, now 26) pair a wine and food to celebrate the upcoming holiday season ... it's like their gift to you - or your palate to be more specific.  The real star of the show is the food, we already know these guys can make great wines, some take the opportunity to bring out a new vintage or a back dated bottles.  Since it is the food that makes this so interesting I'll just quickly give you a run down of my favourite wines of the day before diving into the foods and pairings on offer.
Reif's 2009 Reserve Chardonnay was quite a mouthful

Top 3 Wines (click through for full review) ...
Pillitteri 2007 Cabernet Franc
Reif 2009 Reserve Chardonnay
The Ice House 2009 Signature Series Dornfelder/Cabernet Sauvingon Icewine

The Food ...

There were some really good comments from my party of three this year that consisted of my wife, Erica, her friend Sarah (from New York - we now import our tasters ... and from what I've heard we may be getting more for next time) and myself.  We agreed that there were more good pairings than bad and that the meat dishes (which there were quite a few) were substantial and filling ... there was no need (or want) to stop for lunch.  And while we could not come to a consensus on an ultimate favourite we seemed to almost universally agree on our least favourites (that's not to talk you out of trying them, you have to make your own decision) - feel free to comment ...

Below a list of the favourites, and why, least favourites, and why, and some special shout outs to those who were memorable.

Favourites ...

With three of us on tour we ended up with quite the diverse list of favourites, in fact between the three top three lists there were eight wineries, with only Colaneri getting two second place votes.

Top wineries include: Chateau des Charmes (Erica) for their roasted mushroom salad crostini paired with the robust 2007 Estate Pinot Noir ... "layers of flavour.  The aioli and crostini just melded so well together with the salad and the wine capped it all off nicely." 

Inniskillin nails it with icewine
Pillitteri (Sarah) for the Vegetarian Chili paired with the '07 Cabernet Franc ... "it was just an excellent pairing, I enjoyed every mouthful ... I want the recipe."

And I am happy to announce that Inniskillin has finally raised their game back to previous levels as they took a risk that really paid off with their pairing of 2007 Vidal Icewine and Icewine sausage with caramelized onion mustard - an innovative way to use icewine, with of all things, meat.  Bravo.

"Spezzatino" at Colenari
The girls agreed that the "Spezzatino" served at Colaneri was not only delicious ("a bowl full of yummy made with love"), but also the winery had the perfect setting in their open atrium-like room with full floor to ceiling bay windows ("they nailed the warm environment").  I, on the other hand, decided that Ravine's Lamb Confit with caramelized mushroom and shropshire blue took second place.  It was served on a fresh bun, made in-house, and while there may have been too much bread for the amount of meat, if you opted to go with an open-faced sandwich you would enjoy every bite - plus you'd have a sauced soaked chaser (the other half).

"A refreshing twist on pizza"
The awarding of the Bronze medal saw three more wineries on the podium, but all had something in common: freshness.  Sarah opted for the Strewn offering of Winter Green Salad with Icewine vinaigrette: "fresh, lively and different"; we chalked it up to her being a health-nut and a long distance runner, but it seems we were all bitten by the health bug in third place.  Erica loved Reif's Mutsu apple, bacon, cold pack cheddar and walnut sage pesto pizza, calling it "a refreshing twist on pizza"; while I loved what the Ice House did.  Using a pear slice as the base they piled on pancetta, goat cheese and Riesling Icewine reduction ... the innovation was the pear base (instead of the usual cracker or bread) that really livened up the bite of food; but what really popped was the vegetarian option: same base, same icewine reduction, the middle was fresh strawberries which sang on the palate with that Dornfelder red Icewine to match ... talk about fresh and wow.
Salad as pairing?  Why not ... and it worked

The Not So's ...

There was more agreement here than with the favs ... I guess poor execution is just poor execution no matter what you wrap it in.

Everyone agreed that Konzelman's cranberry, pear gorgonzola and walnut strudel roll was not as advertised and not very good.  Strudel roll indicates a cake base, but this was in a soggy, limp mini-phyllo cup.  And this year the placement of the tasting was in the foyer instead of the usual back room ... we felt rushed like they wanted us to get-in and get-out.

There was also agreement that Southbrook's attempted Prosciutto and pear crostada with smoked comfort cream was a flop.  They went to warm it up keeping us waiting and lingering about with our wine, enthusiastic about what we would be receiving (something warm), but when they finally served it the cheese remained unmelted and all they had managed to do was turn what was once crisp into a chewy and stale bite of blandness ... "if I could have spit it out I would have," said Sarah, "I just couldn't figure it out where. I just wanted it out of my mouth so badly."

Three other wineries under-delivered on their promise of goodness in the mouth:  Hillebrand's Truffle Mushroom Broth was "too salty".  Stonechurch's Smoked Salmon Mousse, mousse implies some lightness but this was more like a mouthful of fishy cream cheese (without the enjoyment and without the bagel).  And Marynissen's Prosciutto slathered with fig spread served on ... name your cracker base here ... was anything but slathered and the vegetarian option was an under cooked, doughy phyllo wrapped something.

Special Mentions ... the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Coq au Vin at Lailey: "Help Mommy they're coming to get me"
Starting with the ugly, Lailey had a tasty little Coq au Vin offering, but when the lid of the chaffing dish was lifted it looked like something out of a Halloween horror show.

Very disappointing was Stratus' badly executed pulled lamb shoulder; it had great flavour, or would have, had it been warm and freshly served and not pre-prepared and left sitting out to get all dried out ... the crock pot was sitting right there, make 'em fresh, don't get lazy.  Treadwell's went to a lot of trouble to make it tasty don't fail them on the very last step - serving it.

Cattail Creek pulled off their homemade gingerbread sandwich cookies with lemon crème.  You know they're fresh and handmade because of the girl sitting out front assembling the sandwiches with a Tupperware container full of cookies and a bowl of fresh lemon cream beside her (ask for extra cream).

Other special mentions go out to some of our favourites previously mentioned:  Inniskillin, while not making Sarah's list of favourite did get a shout out for "outside the box thinking.  I don't like icewine because of the sweetness, but somehow this pairing did not taste sweet in any way - it was just plain tasty."  And finally, The Ice House got an extra nod from Erica because "both options were delicious".

Being a meat eater and fiercely proud of it (following the theory of: there's room for all God's creatures ... right next to the mashed potatoes), I was impress to see wineries offering up a vegetarian option for those who would require or wanted it.

Final words ...
Another successful Taste the Season event that provided many more ups than it did downs ... and that's a great thing to see.  Look forward to next year's tour to see who rose to the top and who crashes and burns at the bottom.  As always, good, bad or ugly an outstanding effort by everyone involved.  Happy tour and tasting everybody.

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