One of the signal privileges of being a member of the Quadrangle Society at Massey College is that I get to help with the College Wine Committee’s annual Grazing. It’s always a delightful occasion with about 100 guests (half of them junior fellows of the College, half of them senior fellows and Quadranglers) moving from food station to food station in the Junior Common Room and Upper Library, tasting the precisely devised dishes prepared as perfect matches for the wines. The wines themselves are selected by the Wine Committee with a theme in mind and this year we attempted to show some of the different things that can happen to a grape when it’s grown in Ontario and in California. Jonathan Bright, who heads the Committee, came up with the title for the event, a cunning reference to the War of 1812 and the peace movement of the 1960s: Make Wine Not War.
I had discovered in previous years, much to my amazement, that some of our guests were unfamiliar with Ontario wines – old prejudices formed 30 years ago still nudging them away from the local shelves at the LCBO, the local pages of a restaurant wine list. They had passed from the last century into the present one in a state of ignorance, their lives immeasurably deprived of Ontario’s shimmering, racy Rieslings, our sleek Bordeaux blends, our Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and profound late-harvest elixirs.
So there was an element of evangelical zeal in my introductory comments to the evening’s wines. I attempted to explain that, here in Ontario, we really don’t have to struggle to make wines of true elegance and that it isn’t all that hard to showcase the crisp acidity or the aromatic intensity that comes from interesting soils and a long hang time on the vine – especially now that our vineyards – and our winemakers – are reaching the glory of maturity. And, dare I say it, our summers do seem to be warm and fruitful more often than they used to be.
For California, the problems were always the other way around. All that heat and sunshine – the macho show-those-grapes-who’s-master winemaking taught at U.C. Davis – the early taste for over-oaked, overly potent Chardonnays and inky, over-extracted Cabernets… The one thing they seemed to lack in those old days was any whisper of finesse. But all that is changing too. Today’s winemakers are seeking out cooler areas where altitude or fog and wind from the Pacific mitigates the heat and where grapes ripen more slowly, developing more interesting aromas and keeping some notion of acidity. So our theme wasn’t quite such a cool-warm divide as it might have been 10 or 15 years ago.
We began with a delicious bubbly from Prince Edward County, the 2008 Grange of Prince Edward Sparkling, a méthode Champenoise blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a pinky, beigy, papyrus colour – one of those elusive nacreous half-tones you see in a dawn sky or near the edge of an opal. It had an intriguing nose with plenty of yeast on top – like bread or biscuit dough overlaid upon notes of ripe red apple and a hint of pear. Tasting it, the apple was much sharper – like a Granny Smith – and there was some citrus there and a definite minerality as if one were sucking a cold, clean pebble from the bed of a stream – a trademark of a Prince Edward County wine.
I wish I could tell you where to find the 2008 but I think we drank the last of the vintage. It was very generously donated by Caroline Granger who founded and owns the winery. Her father had bought the property when she was a girl and she spent her summers there before growing up and becoming a fashion model and actress in Paris and New York, then a schoolteacher then a forensic accountant. In 1997, she and her three small children returned to Prince Edward County and the family property where she conceived the idea of growing vines. She planted the first 10 acres by hand – literally, when her tractor broke down – all the while studying chemistry and biology at Loyalist College. 2003 was her first harvest and, as an accountant, she couldn’t resist crunching the numbers from her investment. She calculated she would have to sell each bottle for $7,000 to break even on her costs to date. Today she has 60 acres under vine and a great success on her hands.
We had tasted the bubbly in November, together with Massey’s brilliant culinary director, Darlene Naranjo, and with Greg Cerson, the College steward and the man who makes our Grazing possible in every logistical way. Darlene came up with a perfect canapé to pair with the wine – a warm scone topped with a quince and green apple compote and a hint of fresh ginger. Scrumptious.
After that little appetizer we moved to the Upper Library for the first real pairing. We’d wanted to show that both Niagara and California are capable of perfumed, exotic wines beyond the usual pale. I had also thought it might be interesting to show off a Muscat from California, partly to justify the extraordinary and unprecedented infatuation that state is currently showing for the grape and also to show that not all Californian Muscats are sweet, one-dimensional, deeply tiresome wines that taste more soapy than floral and appeal mostly to people who like drinking Blush Zinfandel or are slaves to the Dark Master, Coca Cola. We found something much nicer. Uvaggio’s 2010 Moscato is dry, lightweight and has a true Moscato aroma like grapes, ripe canteloupe and gardenias.
Next to this we opened a 2010 Gewurztraminer from Cave Spring Cellars, grown on the Beamsville bench in Niagara on the sloping hillsides right under the escarpment. Cave Spring’s winemaker, Angelo Pavan, lets the grapes hang quite late into the harvest to build up sugar and aromatic complexity but picks while the necessary balancing acidity is still intact. It has none of the voluptuous weight of an Alsatian Gewurz but it’s still decidedly seductive with aromas of elderflowers and dried rose petals. There’s a little sweetness when you taste it and flavours of spiced pears and bubble gum but a lovely tangy acidity that keeps the wine honest. It opened up quite dramatically in our glasses and there were oohs and ahs all around the room, especially when I mentioned that Cave Spring had generously donated the wine for the evening.
We wanted something decadent and delicate to pair with these two wines and we came up with a milky infant of a ricotta cheese cradled in a bitter leaf, sweetened with floral-infused honey, a touch of anise and a final kiss from a rose petal – as if some wayward aunt had waved her perfumed hanky over the innocent ricotta as a blessing.
On to the Chardonnay station. When we were in the very early stages of thinking about this evening I had contacted Martin Malivoire, proprietor of Malivoire Wines on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, to seek his advice and suggestions. He was supportive from the outset and proposed that his 2009 Moira Chardonnay might be just the wine to show how dazzling Niagara Chardonnay can be. He only makes 100 cases from the vineyard he and his partner, Moira Saganski, planted in 1995 and I was thrilled to pour it. This wine was praised by Jancis Robinson in terms that made many a Burgundian producer green with envy when she tasted it in London a couple of years ago. It’s made in a cool, clean Burgundian style with some of the juice fermented in French oak barrels made for Martin by a Burgundian cooper and some aged in steel. The oak is part of the choir, not the solo performer, harmonizing with refreshing acidity and minerality and rather a yummy nose of honeysuckle, pear and lemon zest. En bouche, you find – if I may plagiarize Martin’s web site – flavours of “pineapple, pear, honey and custard cream with a zesty mineral finish.”
We felt this wine needed a dish of its own. Martin has since emailed me that he had opened a bottle of it for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and cooked up a perfect pairing – butter-poached lobster on linguine with a lobster and tomato reduced cream sauce with roasted fennel and oven-dried tomatoes. We came up with something fairly similar – shrimp cooked in butter with tarragon and just a hint of saffron to bring out the oak.
Alongside this gem, we served the 2009 Mer Soleil, grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County by the Wagner family. This is a perfect example of what Californian Chardonnay makers are after these days – a site that is naturally cooled by Pacific air and ocean fog being sucked into the valley. But there’s plenty of wind to keep the vines healthy and dry and a great deal of sunshine. Even 15 years ago, Californian Chardonnistas used to use so much French oak to ferment and age their wines that it ended up tasting like pineapple juice sucked through a straw from an old leather boot. The Australians were doing the same. Most of them have moved on. And yet this wine seemed undeniably oaky after the chic and taut Malivoire, full of spicy vanilla aromas along with hay and honey – and Mr Wagner also finds Meyer lemon on the nose but that may be the power of suggestion since his vineyards are surrounded by lemon groves. The oak is certainly there when you taste but, in the mouth, the wine is surprisingly delicate and not full-bodied at all – just a delightful and easy-going Chardonnay with an adorable smile… Darlene found a terrific match with a gratin of potatoes with molten Emmenthal cheese and lemon thyme cream.
Our third station was devoted to Pinot Noir, indubitably Ontario’s most promising red. There are some thoroughbred beauties strutting out of Prince Edward County, where the soil is almost identical to the Cote d’Or, and now that the vines there are reaching maturity, the Pinots are getting more interesting every year. But there are also some spectacular versions from Niagara’s benchlands and our Pinot Noir was from Tawse – voted the Canadian Winery of the Year by Wine Access magazine for an astonishing three years in a row – 2010, 2011 and 2012! Moray Tawse makes several Pinots from various vineyards. We tasted the Growers Blend from the long, hot 2010 vintage – a year which gave delicious concentration and complexity to the wine. From the vast spectrum of potential aromas Pinot Noir offers we found ripe cherries and blackberries with a hint of violets and some earthy, truffly, mushroomy forest floor background.
Our Californian Pinot came from Kenwood (the 2010) and was a good one, typical of what can be achieved down there now that winemakers have stopped manhandling the fruit as if it were Cabernet Sauvignon. So many Californian Pinots basically taste like raspberry juice with streaks of spice added by ageing in oak. This one was much better integrated and more interesting, grown in the Russian River valley of Sonoma – relatively cool and close to the ocean – and the winemaker decided to add 1% Syrah to the mix to add complexity and body and probably a bit of extra colour. Is that cheating? Not if it improves the wine. We found the nose to be a bowl of fruit – raspberries and strawberry jam, Ocean Spray cranberry cocktail – even a hint of Ribena. The taste was more complex – refreshing, suprisingly tannic in the way cranberries are and though there wasn’t any sense of a barnyard or those forest floor mushrooms there was a pleasant background of cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. I urged our guests to go back and forth between the two, looking for the difference that climate can make – especially to the intensity of the aromatics and the underlying acidic structure. The Californian is cheerful, likeable wine – very easy to spend an hour with – but if you want long involved conversation deep into the night, the Tawse was the Pinot to choose. And to eat? Darlene prepared a splendid dish to go with both wines – slow-roasted pork topped with a mushroom brunoise in a dried cherry and pomegranate marinade.
I suppose the area where the biggest difference between Ontario and California can be seen is in the category of Big Red Wines – especially Cabernets. We can get some really good colour and intensity from C Franc in a long, hot year – but perhaps we should be looking for supple strength rather than brute force. For our Ontario red we left the benchlands and moved down to the plain – the Niagara Lakeshore appellation that lies around the road from St. Catharine’s to Niagara on the Lake. Like Malivoire and Tawse, Stratus is a brilliantly conceived winery, utterly eco-friendly, gravity-driven, so the wines aren’t constantly being pumped around and stressed. The vineyards there were planted with the deliberate knowledge that the principal wines made were going to be blends – the speciality of winemaker J-L Groux, a man of professorial intellect and a thorough individualist. We tasted the 2007 Stratus Red which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – all three mainstays of Bordeaux of course – with a little Burgundian Gamay added – something you would most decidedly not find in a Bordeaux. 2007 was another of those long, hot summers in Ontario when Cabernet Sauvignon was able to ripen properly – which is not always the case here in cool years. J-L gave the components 644 days ageing in French oak barrels – 88% of them new ones. Then he chose the barrels he liked best (the rest went into Stratus’s second wine, called Wildass). The ’07 Stratus Red was finally released in 2010 and it proved to be a super, elegant wine that deserves the most concentrated appreciation. It’s so smooth and well-integrated that it’s actually quite hard to analyze! There’s a lovely juicy, round acidity and all sorts of rich, ripe, sleek black-fruit flavours right in the centre of the palate. And though it’s more than five years old now, it still tastes marvellously vibrant and young.
Our Californian Big Red was the 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The name is a tad misleading as it’s also a blend, containing 23% Merlot to soften and humanize the dark, disapproving, rather austere frown of the Cabernet. These vineyards were planted in the 1960s and their roots grow deep, which adds all sorts of nuances to the wine. 2009 was also a summer of heat waves in California – one after the other – and we could taste the ripeness of the fruit. The Ridge is just reaching its peak now and it met with universal approval – not too extracted or jammy but huge, full-bodied and powerful. The tannins were smoothing out but there was plenty of acidity tucked away behind the tell-tale Cab Sauv blackcurrant and the aromas of black tea, fennel, brambles and cigar boxes.
We paired both reds with a cassoulet prepared with double-smoked bacon lardons and wild boar sausages made for us especially by Peter Sanagan at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market – (my local and therefore my nomination for Toronto’s best butcher’s shop). My favourite cassoulet wine is an inky black Fitou from Roussillon, tasting of charcoal and liquorice and sinful mid-afternoons. I once drank such a wine with a magnificent cassoulet made by the wives of the vineyard workers of Carcasonne and it was a humbling experience. I made the mistake of asking for seconds and my Oliver Twist-like presumptuousness ruined me for the rest of the week. At Massey, no such Armageddon occurred – but I think the Ridge worked better with the cassoulet than the Stratus. Darlene also served some mimolette cheese, gouged à la minute. I am on record as saying this is my favourite cheese in the world.
And so to our finale. We had thought about presenting an Ontario Icewine but we figured everyone already knew what they’re like. So, to bring symmetry to an evening that began with a lone Ontario bubbly we ended with a lone Californian sticky, another Muscat but made from a different kind of Muscat than the dry Moscato we tried earlier. This particular grape is called Orange Muscat and its aroma is like apricots and the orange flower water that barefooted street-children sell you in Marakesh. As far as I know only one producer makes it – a couple called Andrew and Laurel Quady who live in Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. They had experimented with making their own port during the 1970s – they rather cleverly called it Starboard – but in 1980 they came up with the fortified Orange Muscat they call Essensia and it became an instant cult hit among dessert wine lovers. They have continued to experiment and these days Essensia also contains a few percentage points of Muscat Canelli which enhances the citrus character of the wine and a tiny bit of Malvasia Bianca which boosts and complicates the floral aroma. This is really one of those wines that takes the place of dessert but the idea of pairing it with a final treat was irresistible – some crystallized orange peel dipped in dark chocolate.
And that was our evening. It was certainly a wonderful occasion for me because my son is currently a Junior Fellow at the College and he came to the Grazing as my guest. Although Massey is one of the planet’s most enlightened and stimulating educational environments, that night we were not really there to learn. Our sole purpose was more simple and more profound – the clear-eyed, utterly single-minded quest for shameless hedonistic pleasure.