On the Road with the Grape Guy

On the Road with the Grape Guy is a on-going feature that follows me from event to event ... I post my thoughts, feelings and reviews of what happened and what I tasted ... basically it is here that I review the events I attend and the things that thrilled me.

Report from - Niagara Icewine Festival - January 2007

13 Feb 2007
Fear seemed to grip everyone a little early this year … the fear that icewine season could pass us by, or could be lost all together.  Sounds silly now as we sit here mid-February staring at thermometer readings of minus 10 (for our third week straight), and wind chills that plunge those temps down to between minus 20 and minus 25.  But in early January some winemakers were already starting to ring alarm bells – and later that same month the media caught wind of it and started to freak us all out.  “No Icewine This Year!” they proclaimed from the headlines.  While the Grape Growers Association sent out calming press releases, clear-headed winemakers knew all they had to do was wait – this is Canada afterall.  The truth is that we have harvested icewine (as a province) as late as March.  Sure there is a loss of precious fruit, but the whole of icewinedom was not lost. 

 
This year in mid-December we had a flash freeze (temps dipped for one night below minus 8), some winemakers made the call to run out to the vineyard deciding that it was time to pick; but all a flash freeze does is harden the outside of the grape, the inside part remains soft and fleshy, not the proper consistency for making icewine; for that the grapes have to been frozen and as hard as marbles.  Those that went out in mid-December will be making some really nice late-harvest wines. 

 
In late-January we had some freezing rain – which managed to keep the berries hanging even longer; the ice acted as a protective coating for the grapes thus not allowing them to freeze inside.  Once again pickers at that time ended up with mushy over ripe grape juice.  Those who waited an extra week and removed the ice from their grapes, were rewarded with the perfect conditions and temperatures for icewine and they picked, plucked, squeezed and fermented our nationally renowned liquid.

 
All this preamble leads me into a short review of this year’s icewine festival in Niagara, where wineries congregate in either Jordan (weekend 1) or Niagara-on-the-Lake (weekend 2) to pour their nectar to thirsty and sweet-toothed visitors at real ice bars.  While the throng pay five dollars a sample, I grabbed myself a touring passport to taste the wines in the warmth of a winery, where I can purchase what I like immediately with no worries that my cold-numbed brain will forget those wines that I really liked.  So let’s look at who was pouring what and their pairings (if any).

 
Starting at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, located just outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and just off the QEW – they were serving up icewine-infused creampuffs paired with their 2005 Vidal Icewine.  The dessert was delicious, light and airy and the icewine-infused cream inside really woke up the mouth.  The wine itself was quite lovely, but because they pre-poured many of their samples and they had been left out on a table, the temperature was not where icewine should be served – a tad too warm.  The paring worked well though.

 
Maleta Winery was giving you a choice between 2 icewines, an ’02 and an ’03, pairing it with an icewine sponge cake, which was truly decadent.  The two wines showed marked differences in flavours and mouth feel … the debate from the patrons assembled at the counter raged as to which one they liked best.  I invite you to go to Maleta and make the same comparison and decide for yourself – I thought they were both delicious with merits for both years.  I found it hard to choose a favourite.

 
Chateau des Charmes was giving (and selling) a sneak peak of their 2005 Late Harvest Riesling during this “pre-release” event.  Another delicious late harvest from the Chateau, good tropical fruit flavours drenched in honey with melon notes and a stream of crisp acidity carried this wine through the mouth and into the throat nicely – there it hung out for awhile in a long finish.

 
A quick stop at Hillebrand where local artists using chisels and chainsaws were carving ice sculptures out of big blocks of ice … I also got a sampling of the 2005 Trius Dry Riesling (a full review will appear in an upcoming newsletter).  I also swung by Jackson-Triggs, where I tried the soon-to-be-released 2005 Delaine Vineyard Riesling.  These two Rieslings are just waiting for the spring/summer warm weather and days on the dock - they’ll also pair wonderfully with foods of your choice.  Both reviews will appear in time for springtime purchasing.  But I digress; let’s get back to the icewine festival tour.

 
Willow Heights was serving icewine Martinis which went down way too smoothly and could become addictive, they were also serving up surly staff members behind the counter which did not add to the enjoyment of the fabulous drink creation.  On the other hand, the staff at Stoney Ridge proved to be much more amiable, as they poured the late harvest Vidal and cabernet Franc that they playfully have named Igluu.  And Vineland, who always seems to be over-staffed (but that is to your benefit), poured Vidal and Riesling icewine alongside chocolate truffles.  I also sampled some of their dry and semi-dry Rieslings, which are always superb, and some of the best Niagara has to offer.  Vineland also had gifts for visitors … the first weekend they gave out bottle stoppers, but demand exceeded supply; so on the second weekend they passed out icewine glasses … a nice touch and great memento of the day.

 
Last stop Angels Gate Winery, who decided to fly in the face of convention, skipped icewine altogether and poured a flight of Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages.  They topped that off with an unfiltered, as-yet-unreleased tasting of a 2006 late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon that they are working on.  Surprisingly the 2003 Cab Sauv was the winner of the flight and a steal at $18.95 … there’s plenty left and it’s drinking well now, but it can still age for a number of years.  2003 was not a particularly good year for reds in Ontario, but there are some gems out there if you look – this is one of them.

 
Obviously not a comprehensive list of places that were pouring and serving during the festival, but a nice little tour that made for an enjoyable day out on the wine trail.  Many wineries went un-visited and many others had interesting and unique pairings that I just did not have time for.  Next year I would suggest grabbing a passport and checking out the wine route, make a weekend out of it, it’s one of the most delicious and economical ways to enjoy the icewine festival.

Report from – Stoney Ridge Winemaker’s Dinner and Sneak Peak 01/27/2007

08 Feb 2007
When I recommend going to an event it’s usually an annual affair, wine show or recurring seminar – rarely do I recommend a conceptual idea without being specific; but winemaker’s dinners are different.  Each dinner is unique and can never be duplicated for a number of reasons.  The food is never the same, the wine is never the same and the ambiance of the locale is never the same.  A winemaker’s dinner is a unique experience unto itself, which is why I whole-heartedly recommend you treat yourself to one at least once in your life.  I say that because I know if you go once you’re sure to go again.  What makes these dinners truly unique is the pairing of wine and food, something you might strive for at home and on occasion may get close to a good pairing.  At one of these dinners you have two professionals:  the winemaker, in the case of my dinner Liubomir Popovici, chief winemaker of Stoney Ridge, and Rob Trout, head chef of Peninsula Ridge … teaming up to bring you wine and food pairings that will not only compliment each other, but in most cases, blow you away as to how well it can be done.


Starting off with the hors d’oeuvres of pineapple ginger satay chicken and tomatoes & goat cheese tarts with basil while sipping on the first 2006 wine released in the marketplace by an Ontario winery … the 2006 Beamsville Bench Reserve Riesling – crisp acidity with white peach, hints of citrus and minerality on the nose, the sweetness level is a 2 and tastes like white peach with a touch of honey in the mouth.


We moved into the newly renovated barrel cellar for the first course of the evening, which saw the 10 year old 1997 Old Vines Reserve Chardonnay paired up with a pear and fennel soup with blue cheese and walnut oil drizzle – the combination was sublime; a sweetish soup paired with an older chardonnay that had apple, pear, almond, hazelnut and asparagus on the nose – following through with the same on the taste and a longggggg finish.  There are precious few of these bottles remaining – so if you’re a fan of older Chardonnay, now’s the time to be opening this one (or begging Stoney Ridge to sell you one).  The wine and soup paired like nothing I have had before, and worst of all, nobody would give me the recipe.


Moving onto the pork tenderloin with bacon mustard cream, which was served alongside the 2004 Reserve Merlot.  Now Ontario Merlots are a difficult pairing, especially when young – because Ontario Merlot takes a good 5 years to truly mature into a suitable drinking wine … but this one is coming around nicely – a spicy character with blue and black berries and some cassis, cedar and vanilla on the nose.  The taste was black raspberry, vanilla and a cedary finish.  The pairing worked …hats off to Liubomir for this risky move that paid off … or should I be thanking chef Rob Trout for the excellent food that probably would have gone well with an over-the-hill Pinot Grigio served in an old boot (thankfully we had the benefit of Stoney Ridge’s excellent wines served in etched stemware instead).


Ending our meal was the 2005 Igloo – a late harvest Cabernet Franc that has been barrel fermented and aged.  Candied strawberry nose with a little tartness on the taste; it went well with the Strawberry mousse in brandy snaps with strawberry and thyme compote.  Not an inventive or earth shattering pairing strawberry with strawberry, but sometimes simplicity makes sense, especially after the first two wines went so well – no sense risking the possibility of a busted dessert pairing.  Stoney Ridge, and Liubomir, proved once again the longevity of their wines and the knack they have for pairing them with good food.


Winemaker’s dinners are an experience, and when they work – like this one did – the food and wine pairings are ones you will talk about for a lifetime … that soup and Chard will always be at the top of my list.  Who do I have to bribe for the recipe and a bottle?


Special Sneak Peak …


Before dinner Liubomir took all in attendance down to the production area and gave us a sneak peak, or is that taste, of 4 soon-to-be-released (late February) 2005 line-up.

Starting with the 2005 Reserve Chardonnay … made with a shot of Chardonnay Musque for added complexity.  18 months in oak has treated this wine well with vanilla and pineapple on the nose along with other tropical fruit nuances … soft in the mouth, this wine really tastes wonderful now but has the potential to age a further 5-plus years.  If it has the legs of the 1997, in ten years dinner guests will be blown away by its majesty.  The medium-long finish really stays with you both in the mouth and in your memory.

Next up, the 2005 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir was truly something to experience.  Not often do you get this kind of deep colour in Pinot, but ruby red was the colour of the day for this one.  A red fruit nose and taste with hints of oak and dusty cocoa like tannins.  This is a limited soon-to-be-released wine that was made using one (yes I said ONE), French oak barrel – that’s it … we’re talking 25 cases of this superb wine is available … and the ageing potential on this one’ll be 10 years-plus easy, and considering the speed last year’s version sold out, you’d be wise to place your order for a bottle or two now.

The piece-de-résistance (my attempt at French on my Anglophone keyboard) will retail for around $39.95 but has a pre-released price of $34.95; so I would recommend you call or get yourself down to Stoney Ridge to order yours cause only 270 cases have been made of this precious liquid … I’m talking here about the Fox Vineyard 2005 Reserve Cabernet Franc, c’est magnifique (more French).  I have long said Franc is Ontario’s grape and with an example like this I am proven right again.  The grapes came in at an unheard of 26 brix (incredible sugar levels for Ontario red grapes – we usually struggle for sugar levels and are lucky to see 22 or 23 – but 2005 is proving to be a very good year for red wine).  A dark fruit nose and chocolate taste all wrapped up in a dark fruit blanket … a sweet mid-palate, wonderfully smooth tannins and good acidity makes this a winner with a capital “W”.  Finish that off with a medium-long finale and 14% alcohol and you have another ten plus year wine to enjoy for years to come.  Serve it along side the 2005 Reserve Chardonnay at the 2017 dinner (may we all live long enough to enjoy it) … Yooza!  If I could afford it, I’d have a case upended in my cellar and make it a yearly ritual to open this one.


Stoney Ridge also made an ’05 icewine made of Franc, which was drinking like strawberry jam out of your glass – sweet, thick, very nice.  Franc icewine is truly one of my favourites.  Liubomir also let slip that a 2006 Chenin Blanc icewine is in store for next year’s release – should be very interesting.

This sneak peak was a wonderful addition to the night’s festivities and I highly recommend pre-ordering these highly anticipated and soon-to-be-quickly-sold-out wines.  Let me put it to you this way … last year the Pinot Noir sold out in 3 months and they had 10 times the amount they have this year.  Capisce?  And that 270 cases of Cabernet Franc won’t last long either … I can’t seem to praise that wine enough now, so imagine what I will be saying in ten years from now – wouldn’t you like to have a bottle on your shelf when that review comes out?

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