Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Report from ... Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Taste the Season 2012 – November 3-4, 2012

This year’s Taste the Season was probably the best and most consistent I’ve ever seen.  The food was consistently good, except for one winery’s offering, which might just be one of the worst I have ever had (more on that in  a bit) – but considering that 28 wineries take part, the event is batting .964 – and that, to put it mildly, is pretty darn good.
Entrance to the NOTL Chamber of Commerce
We started (my wife Erica – the foodie – and I) by going through the list of pairings being offered as we waited to pick up our tickets at the Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Chamber of Commerce office in the heart of NOTL.  We decided to check off our top five or six wineries that we had the most expectations for based on the description of the pairing.  Our expectations lists matched pretty closely, with each of us picking six wineries that we were most looking forward to trying their food at.  In total we ended up with eight wineries on our combined list.  Erica chose Chateau des Charmes, Colaneri, Palatine Hills, Pillitteri, Ravine and Jackson-Triggs … mine dropped the Chateau and Pillitteri in favour of Hinterbrook and Stratus.  We marked all the wineries out of 5 on an ascending scale for Poor (1) to Excellent (5).

13 of the 28 wineries scored a 2 or 3 (which was Fair to Average), and those that scored 2 were based on our personal preferences instead of lack of flavour, enjoyment or forethought on there part.  For example, Cattail Creek served Wild Mushrom and Pencetta Ragout topped with Crispy Onions … a big portion with lots of mushrooms – but if you are not a mushroom fan (as I am not) the food would be lost on you.  While we scored it a 2, someone else who digs mushrooms would score it much higher.

Exceeded Expectations …

Southbrook's Surprising Soup
There was one winery we gave out little hope that we would like.  Southbrook’s offering of Maple Parsnip Bisque was one of those things that sounded odd on paper and we had written it off as probably a “yuck” tasting … but in practice it was absolutely delightful – especially on the chilly Saturday on which we had it.  Maybe a little too sweet for a whole bowl full, but the little medicine cup- sized serving really hit the spot. (Rating: 4)

Konzelmann was offering another one of our busts-on-paper: Kendal Vale Champion Brie, served with braised organic beats and chutney on a crostini … but this was a delicious bite, the Brie had a blue cheese like base and went perfectly with the chutney. (Rating: 4)

Met Expectations …

As mentioned, we chose 6 wineries each that we thought sounded like we were going to thoroughly enjoy their pairing based on the description.  Between the two of us 8 wineries had this added pressure on them … here are the ones that met those high-expectations:

Palatine Hills – Crisped Potato and Cheese Perogie with creamy side … a good pairing and everything was homemade. (Rating: 4)

Colaneri – Beef Slider Marinated in award-winning Syrah, with Carmelized Onions and Sundried Tomatoes … the folks at Colaneri never disappoint in both quality and quantity, as Betty Colaneri explains, “We’re Italian you have to eat and it has to be good”.  (Rating: 4)

Jackson-Triggs – House Cured Back Bacon and St. Paulin Grilled Cheese, served on grill roasted garlic bread with garden tomato and bacon jam … this was tasty – but if they had halved the Sammy, spread the jam over the entire bread and kept the same amount of cheese it would have been a 5-star offering, as it was it still ranked high. (Rating: 4)

Just Below Expectations … 
(these were pairings we were expecting more from based on the description)

Pillitteri – Chef Leighton’s World Famous Mac and Cheese … I hear “Mac and Cheese” and I’m looking for gooey cheese and when serving you almost have to cut the cheese strings with a pair of scissors so they don’t hang off the plate, that was not present here.  (Rating: 2)

Hinterbrook – Sophisto Joe’s Beef Braised in Red Wine, served on an artisanal bun with aged Jansen’s Cheddar … too much bun to too little meat, the ratio was off, an extra spoonful would have pushed this into the range of a four or a five, as it was we taste a lot of bun.  (Rating: 3)

Stratus – Beef Brisket with Kozlick’s Crunchy Mustard … the beef was tender but it was cold, mustard was cold and the chip was just not a good vehicle for this combination, they needed to serve this on a thin crostini. (Rating: 3)

The Worst …

Stay away from the nasty chip
Before we get to the 5 wineries that pulled off the ultimate food experience / taste sensation in 2012 I must first tell you about the worst food sample I have ever received in all my years of covering the taste the Season in Niagara on the Lake.  Diamond served a “Crispy Kettle Chips, with lemon-dill cream cheese and smoked salmon” … because these were pre-prepared and put somewhere to keep cold the chip had become a soggy mess and the sliver of salmon added nothing to the taste of the cheese of the soggy chip … what this really is was a soggy potato chip with a smear of cream cheese – all that needs to happen to turn this around is don’t pre-prepare the chips, either make them to order or allow people to apply the “dip” themselves … plus it was not “chips” it was chip (single) … as it stands now this is one to be avoided, unless they can fix it in the last two weeks of the event. (Rating: 1)

Exceeded Expectation … 
(the 5 wineries that over delivered - we'd go again and again)

Starting with those we picked as possible favourites:

Chateau des Charmes – Chipotle Braised Beef Mini Soft Taco, with tomatillo salsa and goat’s milk crème fraiche … you know it’s good when your reaction is, “I wanted a bigger taco” – I could eat these all day and twice on Sunday.  (Rating: 5)

Ravine – same could be said here for their “Nine-Hour Smoked Ribs … the words “oh My God” must have crossed our lips more than half a dozen times each when talking to each other about these.  They serve them in the summer on Wednesdays and Sundays, I now know where I’ll be hanging out on those nights next summer.  (Rating: 5)

Now for the one’s that weren’t on our expectations lists but over-delivered all on their own:

Niagara College – Pinot Braised Ontario Beef and Root Vegetable Ragout … this hit the spot on a chilly Saturday.  Who’s kidding anyone, it’s a beef stew, but an absolutely delicious beef stew, everything melded together perfectly, something else I could eat bowls full of.  (Rating: 5)

Reif Estate – Sage and Apple Turkey Meatball in a Chardonnay Cream Sauce … reaction, “Now that was a good meatball”, and it continued to be one of those bites we talked about throughout the next two days.  (Rating: 5)

Inniskillin – Asian Inspired Chicken Wings … again this was one of those that sounded mediocre on paper but turned out to be so awesome in the mouth – something you wanted to order a basket of with a side of fries, who knew icewine could pair with chicken wings, and although there was Saracha sauce in the recipe you could not tell.  Get together with Ravine’s ribs and you’d never leave the table.  (Rating: 5)

I’m happy to report that this is one of the most consistent editions of Taste the Season ever … all the foods (with the exception of one) were homey and tasty and more than half of the bites you’d want to make at home over the holidays – good thing recipes were available.  Below are more pictures from our day of touring.  For those still going this year - have fun ... for those who have gone, tell me your favourites (#NOTLtasteseason).
A Couple of Wines of Note ...
My two favourite wines … off tasting menu (meaning not as part of the Taste the Season program) were the following two wines, for two different reasons:

Drink Now:  Ravine 2011 Meritage (click on wine name for full review)
Drink Later:  Pondview 2010 Bella Terra Cabernet Franc (click on wine name for full review)

Our Tour in Pictures ...
Stonechurch was our first stop of the Saturday morning
For Breakfast we had Chili ...
we enjoyed every bite
Palatine Hills serves up Fume Blanc with homemade Perogies

Konzelmann's seemingly simple crostini was shockingly delicious

Hinterbrook's "Joe" sliders ... the one on the left is the better bite

Strewn three snack sampler - the left was the best pairing

Sunnybrook serves up apple tart (one of only two desserts on the passport)

Jackson-Triggs tasty sandwich: half the size, spread the jam and this is a winner

Pillitteri's Mac & Cheese made us ask "where's the cheese?"

Joseph's Apple Fig squares were imported form Willow Pastry

Peller and their terrine seems too sophisticated for for this homey event

Lailey's spiced squash soup and rosemary shortbread

The Ice House: Fiesta Maize

Pondview thinks outside the box, serving a salmon tartlet (only seafood of the day)

Cattail's mushroom extravaganza

Coyote's Run serves up substantial sized Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Colaneri serves it up buffet style

Another tasty bit served up by Colaneri: beef sliders
What you are about to see next might offend you ...
Niagara College Ragout: It don't look so pretty but it tastes amazing
Reif's Sage, Apple and Turkey meatball in Chardonnay cream sauce - forget the bread )and what it looks like) - delicious
Inniskillin: these Asian wings rock
Ravine - a sideways glance at some of the best ribs I've had in quite some time - pair these with the Inniskillin wings and I don't think I'd leave the table all night
Chateau des Charmes' complex set up, yields ...
the perfect bite ... yummy
UPDATE (11/16/2012) ... 
(Found notes - I'd be remiss if I did not mention)

As I was about to throw out my notes from Taste the Season I noticed I left out two wineries whose pairing was worth noting:

Coyote's Run (pictured above) ... a meal in your hand worth of Vietnamese Beef Spring Roll - I thought spring rolls were vegetarian in nature but I guess I was wrong, this was a tasty three of four bites - I was hoping for a sweet sauce to go with it (like a plum) but you can't always get what you want, but with this pairing - and with respect to the Stones - we did get what we needed.  And it was the only winery to pick up the half mark +, it wasn't perfect but it was damn near close.  (Rating: 4+)

Pondview (pictured above) ... as the only winery to serve a seafood dish (Diced sweet roasted red pepper and creamy smoked salmon tartlet) this was an impressive little bite.  Usually the tart takes over on these type of morsels,. but this time there was a nice balance of flavour in the tart as well as not having too much tart so that it was all you tasted ... if you need a respite from all the meat this is a good stop (and only stop) to get your seafood on.  (Rating: 4)

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