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Archive for the ‘Wine’ Category

The Wines of Léon Beyer

17 Sep
The charming town of Eguisheim

The charming town of Eguisheim

I love Alsatian wine. In my salad days, drowning in Firbank and the romances of William Morris, whenever the lovers shared a goblet of golden wine, I imagined it must be some silken, perfumed vintage from Alsace. Last Tuesday, that old prejudice was confirmed. Drawn by an invitation from Mark Bruni of RKW Imports, I slid up to Ici, J-P Challet’s pretty little gastronomic bower on Harbord Street, for a lunch with Marc Beyer of the ancient Alsatian house of Léon Beyer.

Much revered in Quebec, his wines have been absent from Ontario’s liquor stores for several years but some will now be returning to the Vintages lists. Hooray, for these are wines of extraordinary elegance and balance that should be savoured. And, as the genial Mr Beyer was quick to point out, they are distinct from the Alsatian regulars on the LCBO’s general list in that they are bone dry, lacking the hefty residual sugar that lurks behind other labels. Which makes Beyer’s wines such useful tools for the sommelier: they work brilliantly with food.

Before we put that theory to the test, however, we tasted a small sample of Léon Beyer’s range, beginning with three Rieslings, each one crisp, clean and sharp as a blade. The youngest – the 2012 Rielsing Reserve, was all about lemons and white flowers. The 2007 “les Ecaillers” had much more going on, with minerality starting to dominate the fruit and hints of petrol invading the nose. The name, incidentally, means “the oyster shuckers” and refers to the fact that, back in 1954, Marc Beyer’s father introduced the first oyster-shucking competition at the gastronomical club he founded, Club Prosper Montagné, and chose this splendid wine as the ideal accompaniment to the thousands of shucked oysters that the club members were then obliged to eat. The third Riesling was the top-of-the-line 2005 Comtes d’Eguisheim, a wine from the Grand Cru Pfersigberg vineyard, now in the glory of its maturity. That minerality and petrol was there in spades but there was still fruit shining through on the long, long finish. Beyer bottles this wine young to retain those primary aromas, then keeps it ageing in the bottle for six years before selling it.

On to the 2011 Gewurztraminer – bone dry and much more delicately floral than the lush, lychee-perfumed wines from other houses. The balance of aromatics and acidity was brilliantly achieved – a great wine for smoked fish or salmon roe canapés. The 2005 Comtes d’Eguisheim Gewurztraminer was on an altogether more exalted level, perfumed, dry, spicy, fresh, extraordinarily elegant. Marc Beyer subtly dropped the names of a couple of white Burgundies into the conversation and with good reason. This wine could stand beside the best.”It’s amazingly good with Lobster à l’Americaine,” he said. I have put the idea on my bucket list.

All this time, J-P Challet and his small brigade had been heads-down in the kitchen and now their offerings began to appear. First came a little plate of three compositions to accompany the fresh, fruity, slightly smoky 2011 Pinot Gris. I was amazed at how well it worked with a delicate, herbal veal tartare: there was an edge of mustard in the recipe and it brought out an unexpected spiciness in the wine. Silky, finely sliced salmon carpaccio was another delightful marriage, as were a tumble of finger-sized, curiously greenish, deep-fried objects that turned out to be fritters of soft, creamy, subtle pike quenelle.

Next, Marc Beyer introduced his only red, a young, fresh 2011 Pinot Noir, served slightly chilled. Léon Beyer uses no oak. This red was all primary fruit aromas and youthful energy – it’s very popular right now in the bistros of Paris and is also the house wine, served by the glass, at the Ritz. Yes, it’s light and relatively simple but it worked very well with our main course of squab (beautifully timed) in a bordelaise sauce with a fried mushroom and truffle crosmequis, potato croquettes and a soft pillow of orange-and-carrot mousse. In Alsace they are quite happy to serve this low-tannin Pinot with fish, just as they like to pair a good Pinot Gris with partridge and poultry.

The pudding wine was a real treat – the 2004 Vendanges Tardives Gewurztraminer, a late-harvest gem of refreshing grace with a subtle sweetness and a complex bouquet of floral and fruity aromas. Again, that spicy undertone was unmistakable. J-P paired it perfectly with a trembling cube of goat cheese cheesecake, a lemon tart with a good inch of tangy lemon curd, light as air, on the merest suggestion of soft pastry, and a crème brûlée that may have been a tad too sweet for the wine but was welcomed warmly anyway by the generous company.

All in all, a lovely way to spend Tuesday lunchtime.

 

Make Wine Not War – the Massey College wine grazing 2013

27 Feb

grazing

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.

 

 

David Lawrason’s CCC wine report

14 Feb

David Lawrason made a dramatic entrance at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna last week, flying in directly from a three-week sojourn in New Zealand and looking remarkably fit and spry. I never see enough of him during the CCC since we are both very busy with our separate vinous and culinary worlds. Only when those worlds collide – at the actual events – do we have a moment to share notes so I welcome this post-facto report even more than usual.

The Canadian Culinary Championships Wine Report

By David Lawrason, National Wine Advisor

The 2013 Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna featured an astounding 40 different wines, spread over three events. Except for the wines that were paired with ten competing chefs, the vast majority were donated by the wineries of Kelowna.  Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna was instrumental in organizing the donations and the tastings.

I had the great pleasure of tasting and judging them for the Best of Show Wine Award with two good friends and excellent palates to help me with the judging – two local boys known to all wine folk in the Valley.

Harry McWatters was the Honorary Chair of this Event, but I think he derived his real pleasure from joining us on our tasting rounds.  Harry was the founder of Sumac Ridge Estate winery in 1980, among the very first small new, quality focused wineries in the Valley.  He had the vision and courage to plant what he wanted, where he wanted, and to speak out for what he felt was right for such a tender industry. He was truly the architect of the incredible growth of Okanagan wine has enjoyed since.  And he is still out there creating, and mentoring with his McWatters Collection, and new brand is in the wings called Time.

Rhys Pender is younger, but very much a Harry.  Living in the Similkameen Valley Rhys has made his mark as a passionate wine educator, writer and show judge. He is one of only three people in BC and four in Canada to have earned his Master of Wine.  He too is vitally interested in and vocal about BC wine, and he has not been afraid to dig in and plant grapes and make wine of his own.

Chef’s Reception at Tantalus Vineyards

This year Tantalus Vineyards played a major hosting role for the Canadian Culinary Championships, offering their winery for the Chef’s receptions and introductions, and helping organize neighbouring wineries of the Lakeshore Wine Route that poured at the Mystery Wine Night.  The interior of the winery looked like a movie set for a classy futuristic culinary thriller, with stainless steel gleaming in white light, culinary students from Okanagan College all in their whites, food stations, and of course the stellar Tantalus wines.  They poured the terrific 2010 Riesling this night as well as 2010 Pinot Noir, which could frankly use a couple of years. Winemaker David Paterson led some of the judges through a tank sampling of the very promising 2012 Riesling, and we dabbled with a 2007 Old Vines Riesling that is now evolved to perfect fruit, honey and mineral complexity while maintaining electric acidity.  It was astonishingly good with oysters from the Outlandish Oyster Company of Quadra Island

The Mystery Wine Competition
The El Dorado Hotel

This is my favourite of the three Canadian Culinary Championship competitions, and not just because I am involved in selecting the Mystery Wine.  We all like to talk the talk of food-and-wine matching, but this night  we got to walk the walk – the chefs, the judges and 400 guests who packed into the wonderful, retro summer lodge-like El Dorado Hotel on the shore of Lake Okanagan.  It was all about exploring the interaction of flavours – the essence of gastronomy. Simply, each chef had to create one dish to match specifically to the wine.

The El Dorado is the culinary hub of the Lakeshore Wine Route, so it was only fitting that four wineries who belong to this association provided other wines in vinous support to the Mystery Wine.  Tantalus, St. Hubertus, CedarCreek and Summerhill Pyramid Winery each poured two or three wines at stations on the main and second floor. And the evening kicked off with a very generous pour of Distraction, a funky, pink sparkler by The View.

The room was full of conjecture and guesses about the identity of the Mystery Wine. Most people correctly assessed it as pinot noir, but few confidently picked its origin.  The wine showed exceedingly well according to most opinion, with terrific fragrance, fresh acidity, excellent fruit depth and silky tannin. It was a wine that easily drank through the evening, and provided the chefs a broad flavour canvass.

And the Wine?  Norman Hardie 2010 County Pinot Noir, from Prince Edward County, Ontario.

If you are unfamiliar, Prince Edward County is located two hours east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario.  It is an amazing chunk of limestone bedrock rapidly gaining acclaim for pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling wine.  The first winery opened in 2001 and there are now almost 40.   Norman Hardie is the great ambassador for the region – a Toronto-raised pinot noir fanatic who has made wine in Burgundy, South Africa and California.

Norm Hardie took the podium and graciously acknowledged our Olympic athletes, tying their pursuit of excellence to the pursuit underway in the vineyards of Canada.

The Grand Finale at The Delta Grand

About 25 wines were poured during the festivities in the Delta Grand’s Ballroom on the final leg of the competition.  The chefs from each city had invited their winning winery to pour again in Kelowna and all took up the offer, with three wineries accompanying their chefs to the podium. In bronze medal position, paired with Regina chef Milton Rebello was the taut, complex See Ya Later Ranch 2010 Pinot Noir.  Ottawa silver medalist Jamie Stunt brought along Ashton Brewery’s la belle terre, a brew flavoured with ginger and green tea. And the Gold Medal podium was shared by Toronto chef Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier and the delicate Peller Estates Ice Cuvee from Niagara.

Aside from the chef wines, guests at the VIP reception were treated to a pair of lovely wines from Black Hills Estate – the 2010 Syrah and 2011 Alibi, a cracking good white blend.  After the competition, as guests were treated to entertainment and athlete interview, several wineries from the Kelowna area poured a wide selection at the tables. Participating wineries included Andrew Peller (BC), Calona Wines, Sandhill, Ex Nihilo, Mt. Boucherie, Sperling Vineyards, Quail’s Gate and Camelot Vineyards.

At the end of the evening it was left to the three wine judges to select the Best Wine of Show, from all those entered over the two days of competition. And here’s what happened. With remarkable consistency five wines showed up on all the score cards.  Malivoire 2011 Gamay from Niagara placed fifth.  There was a tie for third between Gray Monk 2011 Gewurztraminer and CedarCreek 2009 Platinum Merlot, both from the Okanagan.  In second place, only a couple of points out of first place, was the superb, complex Tantalus 2010 Chardonnay.  And finally with two first place votes and one second came the compact, elegant and powerful Black Hills 2010 Syrah.  Black Hills will receive A Best of Show Wine Award, along with all other Best of Show winners in cities across Canada.

But even with this announcement the evening was not over. This year, for the first time, Gold Medal Plates entered all the donating wineries, breweries and distillers into a draw. The winner, as drawn by Rhys Pender, was Laughing Stock Vineyards of the Okanagan.  The prize?  A villa holiday at the Relais and Chateau Borgo San Felice in Tuscany, the new international HQ for Gold Medal Plates fundraising trips.

It was a terrific weekend, and on behalf of the athletes I want to thank all the winemakers, brewers and distillers across Canada for the best campaign to date.

Here’s looking forward to next season.

 

 

 

 

Lapostolle and Grand Marnier

16 Jan

My enthusiasm for the wines of Chile continues to grow, a long-smoldering ember fanned into flames by my trip there last fall, generously organized by Wines of Chile. These days our house wines are from Cono Sur and Conch Y Toro with a bottle of Montes Purple Angel for very special occasions. And my education was further expanded on Monday when I met with Javier Santos at Crush Wine Bar for a private tasting of some of the wines of Lapostolle, framed by other treasures produced by the Marnier-Lapostolle family.

The winery was founded in Chile’s Conchagua valley in 1996 by Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, sixth-generation descendant of the original creator of Grand Marnier. It seems to be a family tradition to add something important and original to the clan’s portfolio. Alexandra’s great-grandfather bought property in the Loire and founded Château Sancerre in 1910; her son, Charles de Bourné, now has a project of his own, making pisco in Chile’s luminous Elke valley, a pisco he calls Kappa, after the brightest star in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

We started the tasting with the 2011 Château Sancerre, a graceful, subtle, perfectly balanced wine. There was fresh lime and lemon zest on the nose, hovering over a distinctive minerality. The flavours echoed the bouquet, a swirl of complexity beneath the obvious elegance, reflecting the nine months the wine spent on its lees and the ripeness of a lovely vintage. The length showed the wine’s breeding and I was delighted to learn that it will be returning to the LCBO in the summer, priced very reasonably at around $25.

The next white was from Chile’s cool Casablanca valley, Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre 2011 Chardonnay, made with organic grapes from the Atalayas vineyard. It’s another wine with a bouquet to make any oenophile’s nostrils flare in admiration. Half oak- and half steel-fermented, half oak-aged, no malo, it’s intense, rich, spicy but perfectly formed – a Olympian Chardonnay with oaky caramel braided around peach and pear aromas.

We tasted two red wines, both spectacularly aromatic, an effect enhanced by the splendid stemware Crush found for the occasion. Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandra 2008 Carmenere is splendid, the dominant varietal educated and smoothed with about 15% Merlot. The nose is redolent of plums and black fruits with smoky spice and a hint of dark chocolate. Tasting it, I was struck by the smoothness of the tannins and the ripe black fruit that didn’t seem to have faded at all with the passing years. Young Carmenere often has a hint of something ferous and bloody, the taste you experience when you cut your finger and suck the wound. I didn’t get that here, which may be due to the wine’s maturity.

Then we tasted Lapostolle’s unique Borobo 2009, a blend of Carmenere, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot that changes with the vintage, in terms of ratio. I tasted the 2005 a couple of years ago and loved the dark, liquorice spiciness behind the ripe black fruit. There was a sense of drying tannins behind the scenes, however, that had not managed to integrate themselves thoroughly. Not with the 2009 – a black velvet cloak to wrap around your palate.

So far, so very good, and now we moved on into the spirit world, enjoying a small snifter of Cognac Marnier VSOP as an introit into the Grand Marnier range. If you’ve noticed a change in your Grand Marnier over the last couple of years it’s because they have lowered the level of sweetness by a welcome and significant 20 percent, a decision that has helped bring Red Label Grand Marnier into the modern age. Now Javier Santos caused cocktails to be made to emphasize this refreshing, contemporary side to the old liqueur. The Grand Ginger was my favourite, a simple mix of 1 oz grand Marnier, 3 oz ginger ale and the juice of a ¼ of a lime stirred in a glass full of ice. The ginger ale brought out the flavour of the very rare, bitter, greenish-yellow type of oranges (Citrus bigaradia) that go into Grand Marnier, grown in the family’s groves in Haiti.

The next step up from the Red Label is the Grand Marnier Louis-Alexandre – my favourite level – which is smoother, more sophisticated and offers a greater ratio of Cognac to orange eau de vie in the blend, a virtue reflected in its price. We skipped the next two rungs of the ladder, the Cuvée de Centenaire and the Cuvée de Cent Cinquantenaire, created to mark the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the elixir. Instead we leaped right to the Quintessence, blended from double-distilled orange eau de vie and a selection of cognacs up to 100 years old that were discovered in the Marnier Paradis. This is the ultimate Grand Marnier experience. Can a smell be intense but also ethereal? Almost an incense of orange and oak and very old brandy. Texturally, it’s so smooth it is almost a syrup and the length is unparalelled. Remarkable. But dare I admit it – privately, and for your ear alone – I still prefer the Louis-Alexandre.

 

 

The Iron Sommelier

03 Mar

Canada's three Master Sommeliers, Jennifer Huether, John Szabo and Bruce Wallner

On Tuesday night, the disconsolate blue-and-white crowd that streamed out of the Air Canada Centre and past the soaring glass façade of Aria Ristorante were unaware that a contest was under way, behind those lofty windows, of a much more subtle and hard-fought intensity than anything the Leafs have provided of late. The Iron Sommelier competition, 2012, came folded into a VISA Infinite dining event – and that meant good times for the audience of 150 eager food-and-wine lovers. Not only would they have a superb meal at the hand of Aria’s Executive Chef, Eron Novalski, they would also taste the wines chosen for each course by Canada’s three Master Sommeliers and then vote on which of the three deserved the title of Iron Sommelier.

I was to share the MC duties with the excellent and always amusing Nick Keukenmeester from Lifford wine agencies which had provided the portfolio of dozens of spectacular wines from which the competitors could choose their matches. By some deft and ruthless manoeuvring I was able to shuffle off the lion’s share of the work onto Nick’s shoulders, leaving myself with a single duty – to describe the dishes themselves.

And so we began, milling about in the restaurant, sipping 2002 Feuillatte Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs Champagne and nibbling on Chef Novalski’s awesome canapés: confited duck tongue with duck egg aioli… Green olives stuffed with duck meat, veal and sausage then breaded and fried… Wicked little duck breast spiedini with orange sea salt (“speedies” are all the rage in Western New York State’s more fashion-forward bars these days, and are certainly coming soon to a restaurant near you.)… Duck prosciutto crostini with apricot chutney and shaved foie gras… Have you spotted the theme? Yes indeedy. Every course was to feature duck and of the potential wines available to the sommeliers, the vast majority were Pinot Noir. The white Pekin ducks, incidentally, were generously sponsored by King Cole of Aurora, Ontario, a hugely successful, righteous farm that lets the birds lead clean, happy, outdoor, organic lives.

Nick introduced Canada’s three MSs, and I was delighted to see that he was perfectly prepared to take the mickey out of them, as they were out of each other. So it was a merry contest from the outset and I was left free to torment Nick whenever I could think of something. John Szabo MS (uber-consultant, whose latest project is STOCK restaurant in the Trump tower)  looked splendidly virile in the black, embroidered dolman and pelisse of a Hungarian hussar, though he had left his shako, boots and sabre at home. Jennifer Huether MS (o.i.c. MLSE’s wine program next door at E11even, the ACC, and everywhere else) was all charm and good-magical-energy but with a rapier for a palate and cool acuity where the public’s preferences are concerned. Bruce Wallner MS (lately of Paese) was the joker of the pack tonight, though he is a man on a serious mission to turn Ontario on to excellent wine.

Course number 1

 

Ma foie...! (image marcpolidorophotography.com)

 

Chef used duck foie gras to create a slightly Italianized version of a classic French foie gras mousse, served in a most original way. That Italian component comes in right at the beginning when he marinates the whole foie gras not in Cognac or Armagnac or Calvados – but in a grappa that has been aged in port casks. After an hour or so he strains the grappa off into a pan, pours in some chicken stock, adds bayleaves and peppercorns and brings it to the boil. The cool pink foies are lowered into this hot bath to relax for a while. Then they are separated again and allowed to cool down to room temperature before the foie is put back into the liquid and they go into the fridge. It all sounds like some elaborate day at the spa. Then the foie and its fat is buzzed in a food processor together with a great deal of butter – to be finished in a pacojet. By now it’s a mousse – you would be too if you had endured such treatment. Eron spreads it out across the whole plate like hummus and then adds crazy extra flavours – orange peel that has been dehydrated and then ground to powder; crispy sage leaves for earthiness and baby shiso leaf for mentholated tang; crispy duck skin, deep fried then crumbled over the top; and dehydrated cherry, like the weightless, chalky “berries” you get in a packet of cereal, partially powdered, partially crumbled over the top.

I was able to pass on instructions about how to eat it. Eron had baked some foccacia and turned it into crostini. He suggested we all just broke a piece off and wiped it right through the plate so it picked up a little of everything. Pop it in one’s gob – and while the flavours are still ringing and resonating around the palate try one of the wines and pay close attention to what happens.

All three MSs chose a Pinot Noir – each wine a star in its own right. Jennifer went for Barnett Savoy 2010 from California’s Anderson Valley. It was far more sophisticated than I expected with complex swirls going on under and around the vibrant cherries. It was such a good match it seemed to disappear in the welcoming embrace of the foie. John’s Pinot was a magnificent old Burgundy – Louis Jadot Corton Pougets Grand Cru 2002 – the most delicate red Corton of all. He urged us to think about texture and he was right – silk on silk – heavenly but, again, so perfect a dancing partner for the mousse that I lost sight of the wine behind the foie’s broad back. Bruce’s wine came from Niagara – Malivoire Mottiar Vineyard 2009. Cherries all over the place, but there was a distinctive Niagara vibrancy to it – an acidity that was different and alive – as if this wine was playing an electric guitar while the other two were playing in the strings section. It was a great match but it also let the wine stand out in its own right. It got my vote.

Course number 2

Duck consomme (image: marcpolidorophotography.com)

Our next dish was a (possibly unintentional) homage to the Marx Brothers and their immortal movie, Duck Soup. A great consommè always begins with the bones, of course – in this case, roasted and then boiled into a brown duck stock with a mirepoix of carrot, celery, onions, cinnamon, allspice, rosemary and thyme, all simmered over eight hours. Chef let it cool, then strained it, then boiled it up again, this time adding a little gelatin, orange zest (one of the ubiquitous secondary flavours of the evening) and some pat chun sauce (like a tangy, citric hoisin). To clarify it, he froze the soup, wrapped it in cheesecloth and let it slowly thaw at room temperature, drip-drip-dripping through a perforated pan. The result was a beautiful consommé, clear and the colour of dark honey – like the chunks of topaz shoeless children try to make you buy in the Atlas mountains – and with layers of flavour that go on for ever.

Three tortellini bobbed about in the soup, filled with a smooth mixture of confited duck, grated parmigiano reggiano and a pailful of porcini mushrooms that had been cooked down with roasted garlic and puréed. He finished the dish with some chopped chives and just a droplet of truffle oil that created an invisible, intangible ambience of truffle hovering in the air about a foot above the bowl.

Soup is a notoriously tough match for wine (cold and hot liquids rarely work well together) but the MSs were unfazed. John began by pointing out that the consommé was basically an umame bomb but that the tortellini might be the key bridge. “There is also umame in wine,” he opined, “when grapes are perfectly ripe or even over-ripe…” His choice was a white Alsatian show-stopper, rich and heavy, sweet and complex, the Zinck Rangen Grand Cru Tokay Pinot Gris 2007. A gorgeous wine, but I found it too big and sweet for the surprisingly delicate soup and the subtlety of the tortellini. Bruce took a totally different route, using a very rare and prestigious sparkling rosé from Franciacorta, the Ca del Bosco Anna Clemente Rose 2004 (a wine that retails at $219.95 a bottle). It showed magnificently and was brilliantly refreshing with the dish, and perfectly capable of singing its own song clear and true against the complicated orchestration of the dish. But did it actually add anything to the moment? Was there a sublime epiphany? Not so much. Jennifer took yet another route into the soup, picking up on the savoury, umame, mushroom, truffle components in the consommé with a classic match – a mature Burgundy with its own delicate, earthy, mushroomy notes, the Louis Jadot 1er Cru Beaune Theurons 2006. Bingo! A great balance of texture and intensity. The Beaune got my vote.

Course number 3

Pasta - basta! (image marcpolidorophotography.com)

The pasta interlude. The pasta in question was hand-made cavatelli, one inch long, sturdy and filling. The sauce…? Well of course it was all about the sauce. Chef Eron made a marvellous duck ragu, first roasting whole ducks until they were brown then braising them slowly for six or seven hours in a mixture of red wine, veal jus, tomato paste and a mirepoix of vegetables. When they were done, he took of the duck’s skins and forked off all the meat from the bones, He strained the braising liquid and added it to the meat, then passed the vegetables through a mouli and added them, too. Then he started a new sauce with onion and garlic and fresh tomatoes, folded in the ragu and just before serving added a couple of spoonfuls of mascarpone to add extra richness and silkiness of texture. As a final flourish he roasted chestnuts, froze them, then grated them over each dish as it went out.

John declared this rich ragu to be the toughest match of the evening, though not the most complex. He chose a Carrick Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 from New Zealand – a smooth, perfectly balanced Pinot Noir that seemed to slide gracefully over the surface of the food without ever making much contact with it. Bruce also went to Otago for his Pinot, the Felton Road Cornish Point Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010, a wine that still showed the clumsiness of youth, needing time in the bottle to achieve perfect integration. That clumsiness, which revealed itself as a separation of the wine’s components – glorious cherry and berry fruit up front, acids and tannins swirling in a little late to the party – was exacerbated by the dish but I thought the match was actually more interesting with the tannins and acids managing to penetrate the textures of the dish, letting the fruit reach out to the sweet duck and spices. Jennifer found a Pinot Noir from Sonoma, the Freestone Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2008. This wine is another beautifully knit smoothie with a great balance between the tangy, ripe red fruit, vibrant acidity and minerality. That vibrancy managed to handle the richness of the ragu – in my opinion, the best match of the three.

Course number 4

The breast (image marcpolidorophotography.com)

The main event. Someone asked me, “Why ducks on the menu tonight?” I tried to explain by asking her to imagine the shoreline of a great continent, the place where the land of food meets the ocean of wine. Armies of foodies ceaselessly roam the land; great navies of wine aficionados bob about on the seven seas. But in between lie vast tidal flats – lonely  and unvisited places, silent and wet under the infinite sky. But look there…! Far away across the miles of shining mud – distant figures are at work. It’s the sommeliers. They make their living where food meets wine, filling their string pouches with the glistening treasures they discover, collecting unique knowledge and original ideas. It can be a solitary place and they find companionship where they can – especially with the shore birds – the eiders and harlequins, the velvet scoters, the oldsquaws and goldeneyes – all the marine ducks – like the sommeliers, as comfortable on the water as on the land. I’m sure that’s why we had a duck menu.

And why, for our next course, Chef Eron worked with the breast, rubbing it with a dry marinade of liquorice, allspice, cinnamon, pepper, thyme and bayleaf and then sealing it in a vacuum for a couple of days to contemplate the error of its ways. When the meat was truly contrite, he cleaned it and then rubbed it with a second, fresh marinade of the same spices, but this time they had been toasted to mellow their pungency. Then the breast was quickly seared and sliced and the meat was arrayed over a velvet cushion of puréed celeriac and Gala apple, enriched with cream, thyme, bay and peppercorns.

There was also a tiny perfect brick of polenta that was mixed with butter and Parmigiano when it was still in its stirrable infancy. Eron spread it out onto baking pans and put it in the fridge to solidify. Then he cut it into rectangles and pan-seared them to reactivate the cheesiness.

As the evening’s token vegetable we had fennel poached in milk, then laid gently onto the polenta cake, only to be smothered in breadrumbs and cheese and gratineed under the merciless flames of the salamander. The sauce was a Veal jus with cocoa in it that was rich enough pass for a mole. There was a dusting of pink peppercorn powder around the plate and a final crumble of raw cocoa nibs – primal chocolate as a dark, savoury spice.

Such a complex, profound, tricky dish, with so much going on! The MSs did not let us down, working with three very serious Pinot Noirs. Jennifer chose an Australian star, the Kooyong Mornington Peninsula Estate Pinot Noir 2010, a very smooth and well-integrated wine that relied on fruit to make its statement. Bruce chose a huge Pinot, the Sequana Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch 2008 – a great wine in which he detected even caramelized notes. To me, the food exaggerated those hints, making the wine oddly sweet. This time John aced the round with a wine he described as “the most old-world of the new world Pinot Noirs,” Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2009 from Oregon. This time the food gave the wine a leg-up and then they continued to climb towards the sun in a slowly turning gyre.

Jennifer Huether, Iron Sommelier, 2012

So who had won? My vote was just one of 150. While the numbers were tallied we feasted on. Debbie Levy of Dairy Farmers of Canada introduced a cheese course of aged Lankaaster (Ontario), Le Mont Jacob (Quebec), Avonlea clothbound cheddar (P.E.I.) and Bleu d’Elizabeth. I had lots to say about dessert – a layered verrine called Ciocolatto e Caramello created by Aria’s pastry chef, Melanie Harris. She loves salty things almost as much as sweet and this delectable little item reflected that. Layered from the bottom up was salted caramel-white chocolate mousse; pure salted caramel; a 77%-cocoa dark chocolate mousse then a very dark (99%) ganache. On top was a chapeau of espresso-flavoured whipped cream and on top of that a magic white powder, soft as talc, made from pure olive oil. Only a total dessert nerd would attempt to consume this layer by layer. Most people just dug in, enjoying it with a dazzlingly well-chosen drink – Bowmore 12-year-old single malt whisky, Islay’s most elegant malt.

Ah, but by now the results had been tabulated. No 2nd and 3rd was announced – just the name of the winner: Jennifer Huether. It was a most satisfactory conclusion to a fascinating evening.

 

Allen’s Steak Festival 2012

16 Feb

I have always imagined John Maxwell, proprietor of Allen’s, as the most urban of men, a boulevardier very much at his ease in Manhattan, London’s West End or deepest Toronto. Perhaps he might occasionally be found in a wide-open space but only if it were the location of a rally of vintage Jaguar motor cars. How wrong I was. We can see from the photograph he kindly sent me that Mr. Maxwell is just as much at home in a cow pasture, especially when visiting his own herd of Dexter cattle. He acquired them last year, he tells me, and visits them, often, at their home on Wyatt Farm organics, Flamborough Centre, Ont. Dexters are one of Europe’s oldest domesticated breeds and they produce fabulously good steak, lean as venison when finished on grass and hay.

But don’t take my word for it. You can taste Dexter carpaccio, striploin, ribeye and bone-in rib from Maxwell’s own herd as part of the Steak Festival at Allen’s on the Danforth. It runs until February 25, so there is still time to indulge in the most fascinating forensic exploration of steak you will ever encounter. Maxwell assembles meat from animals personally chosen by himself from a number of different farms – many different breeds of cow, the creatures raised and then finished on many different feeds, the meat aged for many different lengths of time. Most are raised in Ontario but there is also an example of Angus from Prince Edward Island’s increasingly popular and delectable beef program, as well as bison from Quebec, USDA Prime Hereford from Nebraska and “Kobe” Wagyu-Angus from Alberta. Comparisons are encouraged.

Alongside this majestic menagerie is a dazzling wine list comprised of rare and old vintages of Ontario VQA wine. Here are bottlings you won’t find anywhere else – Reif’s Tesoro from 1995, the best vintage of the last century, Cave Spring’s superb 2005 La Penna, Hidden Bench’s 2007 La Brunante, Chateau des Charmes Equuleus going back to 2001, even a 2002 Zweigelt Reserve from Pelee Island Winery, a wine I have never tasted.

Anyone who claims to know about steak and wine has a moral obligation to participate in this amazing event. Allen’s is at 143 Danforth Avenue (as if you didn’t already know) and reservations are strongly recommended. 416 463 3086. www.allens.to/.

 

Winners of the 2011 Winetasting Challenge!

31 Jan

The news is out. The winners of the 2011 Winetasting Challenge have been announced.

The Challenge was created in 2004 as part of The Renaissance Project, brainchild of Felice Sabatino of Via Allegro Ristorante, to celebrate and encourage excellence in our wine service industry. It was a huge success and, as the competition grew, Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute was appointed as the organizing, presenting and auditing body in 2005. It is now the most unique and largest wine tasting competition in the world, with the largest prize purse of its kind in the world – upwards of $100,000 including cash, trips, Spiegelau stemware and scholarships.

In the Challenge’s early days, Toronto Life was a media sponsor, an association that has since been dissolved but which made me proud when I was still involved with the magazine. I particularly liked the fact that the competition was open to anyone, professional and amateur, and that no entry fee was required. That is still the case. The event is operated by volunteers and all awards and competition expenses (venue, food, wines, etc.) are provided courtesy of the sponsors. In a healthy spirit of competition, neither The Renaissance Project nor CCOVI keeps or publishes any individual scores. Only the names of the winners and runner-ups for each of the categories are announced.

            It’s a very tough competition – as it should be with so much at stake. All the wines and spirits are presented ‘double blind’ (purchased and at the competition, pre-poured out of sight by “bonded” representatives from CCOVI at Brock University) the “challenge” is to correctly identify the grape varietal, country, region of origin and vintage from a diverse range of world wines. The professionals try to identify seven wines while the amateurs attempt to identify three wines. There are two supplementary rounds where (1) three VQA wines are presented double blind and (2) three spirits are presented double blind.

            You can find out much more and see a list of the noble sponsors who make all this possible at the Challenge’s website, http://winetastingchallenge.com/.

Peter Boyd has something to sing about tonight

            And so to business:

1st Prize, professional: Peter Boyd, Sommelier at Scaramouche and an Instructor with the International Sommelier Guild, songwriter and preternaturally gifted blues musician.

2nd Prize, professional: Jonathan Salem-Wiseman, Professor at the Humber School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, winner of 1st Prize, amateur in 2010.

3rd Prize, professional: Eugene Mlynczyk, Key Account Manager, Sales at Vincor Canada.

1st Prize, amateur: Anthea deSouza

2nd Prize, amateur: Jordan Mills

3rd Prize, amateur: Monika Janek

Spirit Champion: Mark Coster, familiar to all as a contributing writer at Good Food Revolution.

CCOVI VQA Challenge Champion: Peter Bodnar Rod, Director of sales and marketing at 13th Street Winery and the Director Online education, Wine Industry Liaison at the International Sommelier Guild. He was also the first Grand Award winner of the Challenge, back in 2004.

            Huge congratulations to them all!

 

Massey College Wine Grazing Italy

22 Jan

 

To Massey College for the annual Wine Grazing, where 100 junior and senior fellows of the graduate college get together to roam between the library and the Junior Common Room, tasting lovely wines and the delectable dishes matched to them. I’m honoured to be a part of the event, helping to choose and introduce the wines and figure out the food.

This year our theme was Italy, dalle Alpi in Africa – “from the Alps to Africa.” When Sabrina Bandali, head of the Massey College Wine Committee, and I started planning the evening, almost a year ago, we envisaged a neat and tidy, scientific comparison between the wines of northern Italy and of southern Italy. To put it into zoological terms, we would find the wine that filled the same gastronomic niche in either region and taste them side by side. But Italy has a way of interposing itself, muddling our precise northern intentions. Last summer, we came across a white wine from Tuscany – in the middle of the country – just where we had intended to fold our map – that would not be denied. Like an actress auditioning far too hard for a part, this bianco threw herself onto the table and began to emote until we had to include her. It was the same story for our dessert wine. I had cherished plans to pitch a northern recioto di Soave against a southern Zibibbo – but the same thing happened. Another ravishing Tuscan – more mature, undeniably eccentric, but no less mesmerising – bewitched us again. And then Sardinia shot up its hand, reminding us that Italy has islands too. So our tidy north-south plan turned into a fairly chaotic race around the country. In other words, much more Italian in mood as well as matter. And how could it be otherwise? There are more than 2,500 different grape varieties in Italy, with as many as 600 of them used in a serious, commercial way. I think we work with around 20 varieties in Canada. Choosing 10 Italian wines to represent the country was always going to be a challenge.

We started with a sparkling wine from the north – from Franciacorta in Lombardy, to be precise – a charming, ephemeral bubbly, Ca’ del Bosco’s NV Cuvée Prestige (agent: Lifford Wine Agency). There have been vineyards in Franciacorta, where the Padana plain suddenly bumps into the foothills of the Alps, since Roman times but the idea of using them for sparkling wine is only about 35 years old. Ca’ del Bosco was one of the pioneers, the creation of a teenager fresh out of oenology school, a young man called Maurizio Zanella. He had fallen in love with Champagne and didn’t see why it couldn’t be grown in Lombardy. Fortunately, his family was immensely wealthy – his dad one of Italy’s largest auto parts manufacturers – so the project came to pass, with Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco planted in tight rows in the French way and a cellar built where Zanella could mimic the méthode Champenoise. That’s what we drank last night – classic, fresh, crisp Franciacorta bubbly with a nose of green apple and melon, a soft supple mousse that doesn’t last long and a streak of minerality in the finish. It’s still a rarity in Canada, something the millionaires who own the country clubs in that part of Italy like to keep to themselves. We matched it with a parmesan crisp to catch the wine’s buttery, yeasty nuances, and a slice of fresh apple to mirror the fruit.

After that we divided the crowd into two groups of 50 and sent the first cohort up to the library to begin the Grazing proper. We started with Tiefenbrunner’s 2010 Pinot Grigio (agent: Rogers & Company), a stunner from the Alto Aldige, that amazingly beautiful area that used to be part of Austria until 1919. The Adige river has carved a profound valley through the Alps and temperatures get as hot as Sicily there during the summer but when you look up –up –up you can still see snow on the tops of the mountains thousands of feet closer to heaven. There are Gothic schlosses, and little alpine stuben where you can get lunch, and some terrific white wines. Vineyards have been planted there since pre-Roman times. Hilde and Herbert Tiefenbrunner started making wines at Schloss Turmhof in 1968 and today they are one of the great bastions of quality in the Alto Adige. This Pinot Grigio had a fairly subtle nose, like yellow plums, but there was so much more texture to it than one might expect – a creaminess balanced by tangy acidity. Those yellow plums are there on the palate too but then it suddenly finishes with an unexpected flourish of peppery spice.

            Alongside the Pinot we poured Silvio Carta’s Badde Alva 2009 Vermentino from Sardinia (find it at Vintages). Vermentino is a lovely, lively, aromatic white grape that loves the climate around Corsica, Sardinia and the Ligurian coast, an enthusiasm it is easy to share when one recalls the sparkling Mediterranean, the cloudless skies and the landscape of yellow hills covered with a herb-scented macchia that gioves way here and there to olive groves and vineyards. Silvio Carta is a family firm based in the Orestano region on the western coast of Sardinia, a relaxed and easygoing place after the bustle of the Alto Adige.

            For these two wines, the brilliant Darlene Naranjo, who is in charge of Massey’s talented kitchen, created something consciously simple, a jumble of boiled potatoes and fresh arugula stirred with grated Piave cheese and plenty of Olio Carli’s super olive oil. The peppery arugula and the oil picked out the citrus element in the Pinot Grigio beautifully while the less acidic Vermentino provided a richer liaison with the food. The crowd appeared to be delighted with the match.

            Our second station also featured two whites, starting with Donna Chiara’s 2010 Greco di Tufo from Campania (agent: The Case for Wine). I love Greco di Tufo. It’s a deceptive wine, appearing rather shy on its own but proving surprisingly self-possessed when you pour it alongside food. We provided a salad of shaved squid and pine nuts liberally dressed with parsley, lemon and olive oil, and the wine rose to meet it. Donna Chiara does something unusual with its Greco, harvesting it late so there’s more flavour and body than usual – a tad less crisp acidity. It was a dazzlingly good marriage.

            The other white at the table was Frescobaldi’s Castello di Pomino 2010 Bianco, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from Tuscany (agent: Lifford Wine Agency). It’s fascinating to see how Chardonnay changes when it gets to central Italy. That uptight, chic, blonde Burgundian ice-queen in the Hermes scarf lets her hair down. It’s still a tightly woven wine but fragrant with peach and a good splash of oaky spice from Frescobaldi’s barrel program. We decided it deserved a salad of its own – grilled asparagus (that picked out the oakiness in the wine) tossed with mushrooms and fennel that isolated some unexpected herbal notes behind the fruit.

            Many of our guests were waiting for the big reds and we plunged deeply in for our next station, whizzing back northwards along the autostrada to Piemonte and Barolo country – steep, up-and-down hills smothered in tightly planted vineyards that look like green corduroy from a distance, the deep valleys filled with white fog on autumn mornings. This is the land of white truffles and of many fabulous red wines, the king of them all being Barolo made from late-ripening, tannic, perfumed – amazingly complex Nebbiolo grapes. In very old age, Barolos are spectacularly beautiful – the colour of orange Victorian brickwork, fragile and heady with the scent of old-fashioned roses. Our Barolo, however, was revelling in the vigour of youth, Fontanafredda’s 2005 Serralunga d’Alba (agent: Noble estates Wines & Spirits). It had a robust acidity with lots of spicy tannins coming in at the end of the palate, but there was so much going on in terms of aroma and flavour – ripe cherries and old oak furniture, the smell of walking through oak woods on a warm afternoon. We served a rich dish of fresh pasta with dried porcini mushrooms and a cream reduction, topped with shredded prosciutto. The richness of the food and the austere structure of the wine cancelled each other out letting the mushrooms find their proper place among the woodsy aromas of the Barolo. A smashing fit.

            Our second red wasn’t quite so well-balanced with the dish but it stood out magnificently on its own, Planeta’s Santa Cecilia 2007 Nero d’Avola from Sicily (agent: Halpern Enterprises). The ancient Greeks brought this grape to Sicily and it settled right in like a native, quite at home in the parched landscape, though it ripens very late, sometimes not until November. Back in the 1990s, when Diego Planeta and a group of other talented pioneers set out to revitalize the island’s wine industry, Nero d’Avola was a natural, native star for them to work with. Planeta bought land in the south-east, far from his own western estates, simply to flatter the grape and it responded beautifully. The wine is profound and opaque, almost black, full of the scent of black and red currants, oak and spice and shoe leather (though it’s Ferragamo shoe leather of the very finest quality), and underneath darker forces are at play – espresso and dark chocolate and a hint of burnt caramel.

            Our next station presented two more red masterpieces, starting with Tenute Girolamo’s 2008 Aglianico (agent: Liberty Wines). Some say Aglianico is another ancient Greek grape; others that it was already here in southern Italy when the Greeks arrived. Either way it is the great red of the south – making Taurasi wines around Avellino and Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata where it grows on the slopes of the volcano Monte Vulture. Tenute Girolamo brought it over the regional norder into north-western Puglia into a green valley deep in the mountains. In its youth, this wine has been described as dark and feral like the howling of the wolves that still roam these central mountains. This one had mellowed a little but it still spoke of wild places – forests of juniper and smoky evergreens, bramble thickets and dried black fruits, pepper and spice, liquorice and dark chocolate. It has become one of my current favourite reds and I’m delighted it will be appearing at the LCBO any day now.

            Up against it was a super Amarone Riserva, the 2005 vintage from Zenato (agent: J. Cipelli Wines & Spirits). I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about Amarone, how it’s pressed from grapes that have spent the winter drying out on trays, how the sweet, sticky juice slowly ferments itself dry without losing those ripe, raisiny flavours. The 2005 Zenato is a beauty, though it required a little palate-reconfiguration after those three dark, well-structured powerhouses – as if you had spent the evening listening to three very tall, stern and humourless maths teachers in their academic gowns, one after the other, and then suddenly came upon the English professor, sitting by the fire in an old tweed suit, smiling serenely… Do not be fooled! There is an intellect behind that warm and fuzzy manner. And the amarone provided the defining match of the evening, brilliant with our dish of juniper-spiked venison stew served with soft polenta and side orders of hot roasted chestnuts and peperonata.

And so to our finale, Badia a Coltibuono’s 2004 Vin Santo from Tuscany. Vin Santo is made in lots of places in Italy – I’ve had some brilliant ones in Udine, up by the Slovenian border, and some very strange specimens farther south – but Tuscany is surely its homeland. Like an amarone, it is made from dried grapes – but white grapes, usually trebbiano, malvasia and occasionally grechetto. The grapes are hung up in bunches for the winter rather than spread on trays, then they’re pressed and the syrupy juice goes into small barrels made of chestnut or oak where they are left to ferment very slowly, for years. Never topped up, there is loss to evaporation – the angels taking their share. It’s not unlike what happens to whisky. Yeasts die at 18 percent alcohol so that’s the strength these wines reach, usually, though not always, leaving plenty of sugar behind. Our version was simply magical, its nose suggesting everything from dried apricots and raisins to Scotch whisky, instant coffee powder and toffee. Darlene baked some almond-apricot biscotti to go with the Vin Santo and I urged our civil gathering to dunk them into the wine. I suppose it is indecorous to then try to suck the Vin Santo out of the sodden biscuit but it’s hard to resist doing so; better to just bite off the wet bit and enjoy it. I don’t really know why but it’s something that always gives me an enormous, almost visceral pleasure.

            So the gathering ended but no one really wanted to go home. Roberto Martella, co-owner of Grano and Italy’s unofficial cultural ambassador, was there. He had been a huge help all year, suggesting wines and making key introductions to agents on behalf of the Committee – such a generous soul. Brunello Imports provided a loot bag of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta for everyone to take home. Any day now, we’ll start thinking about a theme for next year’s gathering.

 

Four pre-Christmas treats and one post-

19 Dec

Liquored salmon belly at Starfish Oyster Bed: is Patrick McMurray a genius or what?

STARFISH liquored salmon belly. My wife chose Starfish for her birthday dinner over the weekend and the ever-hospitable owner and oyster-genius Patrick McMurray surprised us with his latest invention – liquored salmon belly. He was thinking about the salmon he gets – organic Irish salmon of the highest calibre – and what to do with it… Cure it? But how? With some kind of brine… And what is the purest brine – and always available at Starfish? The ocean water trapped inside the shell of each living oyster. He had some gorgeous Welsh oysters from Anglesey to hand – grown in almost the same water in which that Irish salmon swam when it was pink and carefree in the glory of its youth. Salmo salar! The leaper! The selfsame fish whose avatar once dwelt in a secluded pool on Ireland’s River Boyne, nourished by the hazelnuts of knowledge as they plopped into the water from the tree of wisdom until that salmon was the wisest of all creatures. Alas, not smart enough to elude Patrick McMurray. He opens the deep shell of a Welsh Menai Straits oyster, removes the oyster without losing the brine and lies two slices of the fish’s fatty belly into the viscous, salt-thickened water caught in the empty shell. He poses it on a coupe of crushed ice and sets the oyster itself beside it, still alive but beached on the other flatter half of its shell. The brine starts to cure the salmon – even a moment or two is enough to begin to turn that coral-coloured flesh pale and opaque. It tastes amazing! The soft, buttery salmon belly with that hit of ocean salt… The oyster fat and creamy with a cucumber, minerally finish… A very good reason to go to Starfish asap.

Interesting trivia fact: almost all British oystermen now have a bed or two dedicated to Pacific species! Why? Because their season lasts all year long. Indigenous British flats have distinct seasons and are periodically unavailable.

 

SOMA chocolatemaker Green Tangerine 66%. Proprietor-chocolatier David Castelan has an unerring sense of what constitutes the most delectable chocolate in the world. With this slender bar he blends sharp, fruity Madagascar Trinitario and Criollo beans, rendering a chocolate of 66% cacao content and flavouring it with essence of green tangerine. The chocolate is intense and fruitily acidic to begin with – but not as bitter as it would have been at, say, 70%. The green tangerine aroma/flavour is perfectly pitched – a citrus fruit that is more interesting than lemon or orange or grapefruit but less floral than yuzu or kumquat – the ideal chocolate corollary. I tried to make my dainty little 80-gram slab last until nightfall. Yeah right…

 

ALIMENTO is the new Italian gourmet emporium at 522 King Street West that took forever to open but is now up and running. Judging by the empty aisles and the empty chairs in the attractive mozzarella bar, it is still a well-kept secret but we went down and checked it out last weekend. There’s a charming décor of old wooden floors and extravagant displays of imported (and a few local) Italian treats. Great strengths: the salumi bar featuring dozens of fab Italian and Canadian meats, plus real Spanish Iberico ham at a very reasonable price. An impressive cheese selection. A predictably strong wall of Italian olive oils. Decent canned items, antipasti and pastries. Lots more… We ended up going home and cooking up a lunch from what we bought, built around a spectacularly good dried angel-hair egg noodle, Spinosini 2000. It cooks in two minutes and has a gorgeous grainy flavour. Our sauce was simplicity itself – sliced cremini mushrooms sautéed with finely chopped shallot, dried porcini reconstituted in chicken stock, pepper, plenty of cream and a tablespoonful of President’s Choice black truffle aioli. This last is a product that had been sitting in my fridge for a while, waiting to learn what its fate might be. I wasn’t sure whether it would have that rank, locker-room aroma that some truffle-flavoured products lend to a dish so I had hesitated to use it. As things turned out, it was surprisingly subtle, pleasing and just the ticket for our mushroom sauce – the sort of thing that disappears texturally in a sauce or dressing but leaves a ripe and poignant memory of truffle in the air.

 

ACE Christmas berry jam and fig bread. ACE bakery always does something special for the holidays. The berry jam is divine – like a rumtopf turned into jam with whole cranberries popping in a runny, spiced-up red-berry matrix. The fig bread is a tasty brown loaf with a good crunchy crust and great big dried figs in it. Slice it and toast it and your kitchen will smell like Christmas. The jam is great on the toasted bread – but so is a creamy blue cheese like Cambazola, spread quickly while the toast is still hot so that the cheese starts to soften and think about melting. Be merciful – scrunch – and put it out of its misery.

 

TOMMASI makes a single-vineyard Amarone Classico called Il Sestante (“The Sextant”) and it’s coming to Ontario in January, on the General List at around $39.95. It’s a beauty – old style amarone, which Tommasi does so well – complex and intense that will be perfectly delicious with a knob of parmiggiano reggiano or a well-hung grouse roasted and served with its own juices on toast or a firm slab of polenta. I was lucky enough to taste a preview bottle and I’m still smiling. It’s full of the sense of cold autumnal larch forests in the Italian pre-Alps, of liquorice and dark spicy honey, smoky firesides and cherries that have been spiced and preserved for months. The finish is all about dried figs and raisined grapes – sweet but dry, if you know what I mean – like a great amarone can be. Worth waiting for.

 

The uses of icewine

17 Dec

Sue-Ann Staff unexpectedly attacked by a wine barrel

To Sopra for a lunchtime tasting of 18 icewines and a sort of live seminar of food-and-icewine matching organized by the Wine Council of Ontario for “Wine Country Ontario.” It turned out to be a fascinating few hours for the food-writing brigade and for the wine-writing fleet, who rarely get invited to the same event. Being neither fish nor fowl myself (I’ve always preferred to forage in the tidal areas where food and drink overlap) I know both groups. It was heartening to see how well they all got along, thanks, perhaps, to the charm and engagingly easy manner of our two hosts, Sue-Ann Staff, winemaker and proprietor of Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery, who introduced the wines, and Jason Parsons, chef of Peller Estates. It was Parsons who determined the format of the tasting – taste nine icewines to demonstrate the range of the style, then nine more with accompanying food – some savoury dishes, some spicy, some sweet. The intention, of course, was to demonstrate that icewine had more versatility as a food wine than is generally thought to be the case. The experiment was a success.

            As chef of a winery, Parsons gets to play with icewine in the kitchen to his heart’s content. For January’s Icewine Festival, for example, he will marinate a whole sucking pig in icewine for two days before roasting it off. He also, famously and delectably, poaches lobster in icewine. Despite the fact that icewine is so very sweet (at least 35 brix – in other words, more than one third of the liquid is pure sugar (imagine that ratio in your cup of coffee)), this leaves neither meat inordinately sweet. Rather it brings out the natural sweetness of the pork or lobster. The very high acidity in icewine that balances all that concentrated sugar  has much more of an effect in the kitchen. Parsons even uses it to cure ceviche.

            It’s also the key in the dining room – as was demonstrated by the first confrontation. Sopra’s chef Massimo Capra had devised the menu but it was executed brilliantly for us by chef de cuisine Derek Von Raesfeld. Not every wine and food pairing was spectacular but there were more than enough bullseyes to allow the project to make its point. Here are the matches that impressed me most.

            A rich, smooth chicken liver paté coated in butter and strewn with grains of salt, served with a clove-scented, very sweet onion marmalade, was overpowered by two Riesling icewines (made me long for a Select Late Harvest) but was great with 2008 Harbor Estates Cabernet Franc Icewine. Why? The red icewine lacked the intensely tangy citrus kick of the Rieslings, offering red berry aromas instead and an illusion of lower acidity.

            Those two Riesling icewines worked much better with crumbled Bleu Elizabeth blue cheese served in a bitter endive leaf with dried cranberries. The sweetness of the wine and the intense saltiness of the cheese mute each other slightly, letting the wine’s fruit and the cheese’s more subtle flavours stand out. Like port and Stilton.

The spicy trio: (from left) duck confit with curried squash puree; seared scallop with chili butter honey glaze, chestnuts and carrot puree; slow-cooked Iberico pork cheek

            Icewine has a lovely ability to counterbalance intense spicing. Chef Parsons found this out by accident once when his kitchen accidentally over-spiced a piece of venison then sent it out into the dining room where he was introducing the match. The meat was too spicy to enjoy on its own, but paired with icewine, it worked beautifully.

So our next flight was of three spicy dishes with three different icewines. The epiphany was a duck confit with mostarda, curried squash purée, baby green cabbage leaves and caramelized roasted onions. All three icewines were delicious with it, each one muting what would otherwise have been an over-seasoned dish, but angels sang when I tasted the duck alongside Reif Estates Winery 2005 Vidal icewine. It reached right into my palate and dismantled the spicing in an extraordinary way, as if it were shining a bright yellow light on the recipe putting each flavour into sharp relief. But the same wine was too sweet and thick for another of the three savoury treats – a slow-braised Iberico pork cheek with chili-apple braised radish and spiced apple-celery salad. This time it was another red icewine, Hillebrand Showcase 2008 Cabernet Franc icewine, that lifted the spices away from the rich sweetness of the meat and spread them like a hand of cards.

The trio of desserts

            Throughout these experiments, the sweetness of the icewines was not an issue at all. The spicy seasoning or the saltiness of the food balanced the sugar out of the equation leaving the field to the acidity and the array of fresh fruit flavours that an icewine wears so beautifully.

            Three desserts had their own tales to tell. German apple cake with salted icewine caramel was overwhelmed by a young Riesling icewine, okay with a simpler Vidal icewine but absolutely lovely with an old icewine that had lost some of its sweetness and mellowed with age, the 1999 Mountain Road Company Vidal Icewine.

            Best match of this end of the meal was a pear poached in icewine and served with lots of dulce de leche and whipped vanilla mascarpone. This time the balance was absolutely perfect with the Peller Estates 2010 Vidal Icewine. I suspect that was the very wine in which the pear had been poached.

            In sum, everyone around the table agreed that our eyes had been opened to new uses for icewine beyond dessert. With blue cheese, certainly; with spicy duck; with richly braised and glazed meats. I’m tempted to open an icewine and try it with barbecued ribs or very hot buffalo wings. Could be interesting.

            Thanks to the Wine Council of Ontario for organizing the event and for the lovely parting gift – a white icewine aroma kit made by Wine Awakenings that contains samples of the 12 aromas most commonly found in white icewine, from passion fruit to raisins and caramel to kerosene. So interesting – and a good way to sharpen olfactory acuity. They will be on sale at Niagara wineries during the January Icewine Festival.