“… I like to think about the life of wine …How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained … I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now…”
Maya in “Sideways”
One of my very favorite quotes from one of my very favorite films.
I could add, however, that one of the things I personally like to think about while sipping wine, is simply geography — where the wine comes from and its amazingly evocative flavour. Drinking icy French chablis with oysters on the half shell, for instance, will to take me back to dark and chilly November nights in Paris; a glass of spicy gewürtztraminer, and I’m lazing and gazing and grazing on a Rhine River cruise; and vino verde from Italy can transport me to summers in Siena where I spent my student days.
But enough nostalgia! I’m so glad to see that we have a couple of wine-soaked evenings coming up at Go Cooking: a tour of Spain, on January 28th; and an overview of our own Niagara wine region, slated for February 18th. The earlier date is sold out right now, but I believe that there are still some seats available for the February evening. Our wine tastings are called “Sips, Tips and Tidbits” and they feature Peter Kline, our funny and incredibly erudite sommelier, from Bacchus Sommelier Services. Peter pairs up with a chef who will be creating hors d’oeuvres to accompany the various vintages. Chef Carl Dahl, from Julia’s and Ritorno in Oakville, will be cooking for the Spanish evening; and Chef Ken LeFebour from Nellie James Gourmet Food to Go, for the evening that highlights wines from the Niagara peninsula.
I am actually old enough to remember when it was dreadfully un-chic to serve Ontario wines. (Anybody else recall Baby Duck?) In fact, it’s almost a miracle that a cold climate country such as ours even has a wine industry, although I was surprised to discover that the Niagara peninsula actually lies on the same latitude as Bordeaux, France. Still, the Niagara wine region came about as a sort of quirk of geography. Apparently our Lake Ontario warms up during the summer and retains its heat. In the winter, an offshore breeze sends the still warm air from the lake across the Niagara peninsula where it is stopped by the escarpment (Bump!), and bounces back toward the lake (Swoosh!), raising the temperature of the terrain beneath it. This re-cycling process manages to preserve a sort of micro-climate on the Niagara peninsula that is suitable for growing wine grapes.
Grape growing, in fact, has been going on in this area for over 200 years but it began with an indigenous Lambrusca variety of grapes that made for a rather rough and rustic drink. It is only since the 1970’s, when European vinifera grapes were imported and grown, that the modern wine industry was born. Some of the earliest wineries were Chateau des Charmes, Inniskillin, Cave Springs and Henry of Pelham and the first grape to win international renown was the riesling. Since then, however, many varieties of grapes have been grown: chardonnays, pinot noirs, baco noirs, gamay grapes — well, you name it — the industry has expanded swiftly and surely. In 1991 Inniskillin won a grand prize for icewine in Bordeaux, France and Canadian wines achieved international recognition.
Anyway, there are two major wine regions on the peninsula: the Niagara Escarpment and the Twenty Valley and the area around Niagara-on-the-Lake which is a few degrees warmer. At our wine tasting we will be sampling wines from several wineries. Here are three of the most well-known:
Angels Gate winery was opened in 2002 and sits just below the forested escarpment with a view of Lake Ontario and rolling vineyards. It has a gorgeous mission style building which was designed to commemorate the Congregation of Christian Sisters who once owned the property. The Terrace restaurant is a popular lunch destination and several of the wines have won numerous awards. Peter has chosen a sparkling wine to sample from Angels Gate.
Tawse Winery lies right on the Niagara Escarpment with three barrel cellars carved into the rocky wall. The winery uses organic and biodynamic farming practices and has been named Canada’s winery of the year for three years in a row. We will be trying out a riesling — the winery makes several types at different price points.
Henry of Pelham is a family estate, near St. Catharines, founded in 1988 by the Speck family. They create many kinds of wine. both reds and whites, as well as icewine, but are most well known for an iconic baco noir which we will be sampling. The Spectator’s Dan Kislenko introduced me to baco noir, a hybrid French grape, many years ago and it was love at first sip. Wine writer Natalie Maclean notes, of the Pelham, 2014, baco noir, “A medium bodied red with attractive dark red berry and plum aromas. Round and supple. Henry of Pelham ups its game every year on baco. This is terrific.”
The evening will be rounded off with two more surprising wine choices and, of course, each drink paired with Chef Ken LeFebour’s delightful “tidbits” which will, no doubt, be locally sourced. I hope you can join us for this introduction to the high quality of our Niagara peninsula wines.
And here’s a recipe from Angels Gate that sounds divine.
Smoked Salmon Penne
from Angels Gate Winery, best served with Angels Gate Mountainview Chardonnay
penne, or your favourite shaped pasta
1 cup room temperature cream cheese
1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped
4 green onions, sliced
1 lemon juiced and zested
1 heaping spoonful of Dijon mustard
1/4 cup capers
8 oz smoked salmon, or more
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1) Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook al dente, until pasta is cooked through but pleasantly chewy. Scoop out 1 cup of the starchy pasta water. Drain the pasta, but leave it a bit wet.
2) Put the pasta back in the pot with 1/2 cup of reserved water and the rest of the ingredients.
3) While still steaming hot, toss well to melt the cheese. Season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.