Winter Wine Get-Aways
Unless you’re an avid winter sport kind of person, I think you’ll probably agree when I say that winter weather makes one think of travelling to get away from the ice and snow. Now I’ve got you dreaming of an escape to warmer climes, right? Forget it. I know a place that’s just as warm (in spirit) with even better food and drink than you’ll find at any southern resort – and at a fraction of the cost. That place is wine country. Seriously.
There was a time when wineries were virtual ghost towns during the winter, even the winemakers headed south. Lately, though, there’s been a kind of awakening, a realization that although the buds might not yet be breaking on the vines, the wine is still flowing abundantly.
I had the opportunity recently to attend the Icewinemakers Dinner at Reif Estate Winery. Reif is definitely among my top five favourite wineries in Niagara. Sure, the wine is great, but what I like best is the people. Everyone on staff, including winemaker Robert DiDomenico and owner Klaus Reif, are accessible, down-to-earth and always interested in good conversation over a glass.
The Dinner was held in the Grand Victorian Mansion, a 19thC home-turned-B&B on the Reif estate. If you’re into design, you’ll love this place. Totally restored by owner, Eva Kessel, with Queen Anne Revival influence, the walls are decorated with ornate finishes and an oak Chippendale banister framing the wide staircase. Dinner was held in the large, elegant dining room. There were probably about 35 people there that night visiting from Guelph, Michigan and even Korea. No matter where we hailed from, there was one common denominator that linked all of us – we all had a passion for great food and wine.
The food was a feast of local products, each dish enhanced with a touch of Icewine. The chef behind the night’s fabulous fare was none other than Robin Catering Howe. When you see his name listed on an event, definitely make an effort to go. The evening began with a cocktail of 2005 Reif Vidal Icewine with Trius Brut sparkling wine. This combination proved to be very refreshing and a great palate cleanser. It displayed a pretty aroma of talcum powder and a light fruity flavour. Not anywhere as sweet as I thought it would be.
The cocktail was paired with four of Chef Howe’s appetizer creations:
– Robin’s own Icewine cured salmon gravlax on Yukon Gold potato blini with crème fraîche and Icewine mustard. These were seriously addictive.
– Skewered shrimp wrapped in pancetta and Thai basil with a chili-Icewine glaze. The shrimp were perfectly moist and the pancetta crispy. The heat from the chili was just enough to leave you craving the next bite.
– Grilled crostini of Icewine poached fig and Ontario blue cheese. This pairing was really lovely and, of course, classic – icewine and blue cheese balance each other perfectly.
– Mini housemade sausages with Icewine grainy mustard. A quick glance around the room when these were being passed around told me how popular they were. No one passed these up, not even once. Like the sweet and salty pairing above, these little bites were super juicy, too.
The appetizers were paired with Reif’s 2010 Sauvignon Blanc. The bouquet showed nice grassiness and gooseberry with butter and lemon notes. The flavour was fresh with tones of Granny Smith apple and Seville orange. Great acidity with a very balanced finish.
Pan sautéed filet of fish with a shellfish mélange in a lobster saffron butter sauce spiked with Reif Icewine and wok-fried seasonal young winter greens. The fresh Ontario pickerel was super moist with a lovely creamy flavour. The sauce was subtly sweet and mouthwatering. It was paired with Reif’s 2009 Chardonnay Reserve (made from Reif’s oldest block planted in 1982). The wine’s bouquet took some time to open up, but eventually shone with rich butter and melon tones and some freshly cut white oak. It tasted like marmalade with a hint of citrus and honey. Give this wine some time to breathe, and you will most certainly be rewarded for your patience.
Icewine glazed confit of Muscovy duck on a lightly curried cauliflower and sunchoke purée, caramelized onions and Brussels sprouts leaves. OMG, this was good. The melt-in-your-mouth duck was just a joy to eat. I did not want this dish to end. Paired with Reif’s 2007 First Growth Pinot Noir (First Growth represents Reif’s best quality, and the designation is only used in the best vintages). These grapes were all hand-picked, and the wine was unfiltered. It displayed aromas of a forest floor with violets and slight spice. Crushed berries and spice flavours with a nuance of cedar were more and more evident as the wine opened up. This is a very well balanced wine. The Pinot was a perfect match with the duck. The two combined to create an almost truffle-like experience in the mouth.
Chocolate Icewine truffle cake with Reif’s own Icewine ice cream and fresh berry coulis. This is the best chocolate cake I’ve had in a long while, and the ice cream … wow! Dessert was paired with Reif’s 2005 Vidal Icewine. Dark amber in colour, it had a lovely, rich apricot and honeysuckle bouquet with a hit of caramel, too. It tastes as heavenly as eating a perfectly sweet orange with toffee and fresh peaches.
Admit it, you’re appetite has been whetted. Well, go out and get some for yourself! Winter’s a great time to visit wine country. There are fewer crowds, so the winemakers have more time to talk with you. Plan a visit for March to see work on the vineyards begin. The best thing to do is visit the winery websites to find out what events they happen to be hosting. Most wineries hold casual and formal functions most weekends. Check out Wine Country Ontario to find out what’s going on.