Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Felled by Oak

I wanted to title this post 'Ashen Faced Over Oak Error', but that seemed a bit over-the-top. It's true, however, that my face was pretty red recently when I made my biggest wine tasting error ever. Apparently, no matter how much practice I've packed into the last year, this newbie still has a long, long way to go. At least I'm fairly certain the journey will be a fun one.

Here's the story:

I was invited to a get together with a handful of Toronto's wine lovers - all of them far more seasoned than me, but all very encouraging of my burgeoning wine passion. We each picked a wine to bring with a story to tell about it. I agonized over what to choose right up until a few days before when I visited the Niagara College Teaching Winery. It was there that I discovered their 2009 Dean's List Chardonnay - a wine that I anticipated would be a huge, oaky, buttery chard - but when I tasted it at the winery I didn't get the big hit of oak I expected. It was crisp, a little acidic, nicely balanced. I loved it. So I bought a bottle and brought it to the event as my selection of the evening.

They asked a simple question, is it oaked? Lightly, I replied, suddenly unsure. It hadn't tasted oaky when I tried it, but it didn't say unoaked on the bottle. So that meant it must be oaked... Yikes! Anyway,  they served my wine first and I told them how I didn't like big oaky chards, but this wine was really different - not at all what I anticipated. Then, as I took a sniff, I realized... all kinds of huge oak. How did I miss that? When I smelled it at the winery, I caught a hint of oak but now this was full-on oak-a-palooza. If I could have crawled under the table at that point, I likely would have. But I didn't, and the wine was still, well, pretty fantastic. And while I could taste the oak more this time, it was not as oaky as most of the Chardonnays I've tried and I still liked it a whole lot. I think a lot of the others at the table liked it to.

And, in the end, I had a great night. Everyone was far too lovely to tease me for my oak-error and I learned so much from them that I can't thank them enough for including me. Was it embarrassing? Absolutely. And believe me, I will never make that mistake again, but I think that these sorts of foibles are par for the course when you're learning. And having such an amazing and supportive wine community has helped so much - I know that they were all once newbies (I have to remind myself sometimes that no one comes out of the womb a fully formed sommelier), and they know I'm trying my best.

I also saw this as a learning opportunity. So here are the rookie mistakes that led to my oak idiocy:

1. I tasted just after having Icewine. We were there for the Icewine fest and participated in the group pairing and tasting right before hitting the tasting bar. There's a reason you usually taste Icewine last - it can dull your palette and make it harder to pick up on nuances. Especially for a newbie like me.

2. It was crowded and busy and I didn't ask enough questions. Or write everything down. I need to have my wine journal out and take my notes right there. The winery staff were a bit overwhelmed and I didn't want to add to the stress, so I didn't take my time.

3. I didn't research the wine. I'd tasted it and loved it, which is great, but before a big wine event you should really do some deeper digging and be fully prepared to answer all the questions.

4. I picked a wine that was new to me. While I had done one tasting, that was it. I should have picked something I was more familiar with and had enjoyed at more than a tasting bar. I was so afraid that I'd bring something that wasn't interesting enough that I chose a wine I didn't know well enough.

All in all, great lessons. Do I wish I hadn't learned them the hard way? Sure. But all that really matters is that you laugh at yourself and pick that wine glass right back up again.

Have you ever made an embarrassing wine error? I'd love it if you'd share some of your stories so I don't feel so bad about mine!

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Oast House

When we heard that there was a new craft brewery opening in Niagara, Shawn and I were thrilled. Shawn doesn’t mind wine but it’s not his passion, so for the most part he’s happy to tag along while I tour wineries and be the designated driver. However, when there’s a chance to visit a brewery or distillery we always try and take it because he’s much more interested in beer and spirits. Fair’s fair afterall.  

And The Oast House, which opened in November, is a delightful place to visit whether you’re a beer fan or a novice like me. If you’ve driven down Niagara Stone Road recently you likely couldn’t miss their big red barn, which is the fantastic home to the brewing operation and a beautifully-designed tasting room.

When we visited we were lucky enough to have a tour and tasting with co-owner Mike Berlis, who showed us the brewing operation and let us taste the three brews they currently have on offer. Mike’s a sommelier who has recently moved into the beer industry, so it was great to chat about how similar the two actually are.

So, since Shawn was doing the tasting and he knows way more about beer than I do, I thought I’d put him to work on helping me with the tasting notes.

Shawn’s tasting notes:

The Farmhouse Saison is a tasty strong beer with hints of banana. It’s an interesting process, as the beer is under cork and cage. This is an ageable beer that’s suitable for cellaring (although they’re still working out for how long, as this is their first vintage). It will be an interesting experiment to keep this one amongst our wine collection.

The Barn Raiser Country Ale has a citrus undertone and a clean, crisp finish. We would have liked to take some of this one home, but they’re all sold out so it’s only available on tap right now. We’ll definitely be back for this one.

The Belgian IPA has a higher alcohol content and a long finish. Unlike some beers, this one isn’t bitter at all. It would be great with burgers, steak or barbecue. Mike also suggested pairing this one with a charcuterie plate or sausage, which would work well too.

We will definitely be visiting The Oast House on our future trips to Niagara and look forward to bringing home even more of their beer.  A great addition to the Niagara area! 

The Oast House is located at 2017 Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Interested in learning more about beer? The Thirsty Wench has a fabulous blog about all things beer. Check her out here:

Some more photos from our visit:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Niagara Icewine Festival

When my wonderful Twitter friend Jason (@cono_sur) invited me to join his tasting group on a Niagara Icewine Festival adventure, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve never attended the Icewine Festival, but it sounded like a fun way to sample some of the areas best selections.

Icewine is an interesting drink for me. I like it, but I find that when we buy it we rarely drink it. Opening a bottle seems a bit silly when we almost never get through it. You have a little drink and then you’re good. The bottle inevitably sits open in the fridge way longer than it should and I feel guilty for spending so much money on something I don’t finish. This trip was a great option, as it allowed me to experience some fabulous Icewines without having to buy a whole bottle. Don't worry, we bought plenty of non-Icewine at the wineries to make up for it!

We met up with Jason and his group at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, to sample their 2010 Cabernet Franc Icewine with a salted caramel cheesecake bite. I love Cabernet Franc, so I was excited to try the Icewine version and it didn’t disappoint – it was sweet and strawberry jammy. The cheesecake, which they made with slightly more cheese to cut the sweetness a little was a good pairing.

I really enjoyed visiting this winery – it was so inspiring to see how many of their students have gone on to be amazing winemakers and I like the idea of supporting student winemakers when I buy their wines (which are pretty darn good, from what I sampled). Don’t worry, as our host joked, you’re not drinking their homework, they learn alongside seasoned winemakers so they get hands-on experience and what we get to drink is an impressive selection of the best of their best. I picked up a Dean’s List 2009 Chardonnay, which was absolutely delicious when I tasted it.

Our next stop was a personal favourite, Chateau des Charmes. Their wines are a mainstay in our wine fridge because we just like them so very much. We started off with a fantastic tour, which was much more fun with our small group than the one I had with the enormous group the last time I was there. That previous tour experience was a rookie mistake on my part – you don’t go to one of the biggest and best known wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake on a Saturday during harvest and expect the tour to be a small one!

All in all, both tours there were great, but I'm glad to have had a more intimate experience with a small group. Following our tour, we did a three-wine tasting experience (more on that in a future post) and moved on to the Icewine! We sampled the 2009 Riesling Icewine with a lovely shrimp bite with Thai curry, lemongrass and coconut nage made by Queens Landing's Executive Chef Marc Lyons. Delicious!

We left Chateau des Charmes (after stocking up on a few favourites) and headed to Jackson Triggs where they were showcasing their Vidal Icewine with house made East Coast lobster bisque. The line here was long and I felt bad for the poor staff who had to manage such a big crowd (especially when the bisque needed re-stocking), but it was well worth the wait and they kept things moving and upbeat the whole time. Their lobster bisque was incredible and it paired very well with the super sweet Icewine. I could absolutely have eaten a big bowl of bisque – even though I suspect it's a pretty crazy calorie bomb!

Shawn toasting an Icewine marshmallow at Peller
Our last winery stop of the day was Peller Estates, which was also the most fun and festive experience. They were featuring Chef Jason Parsons' Icewine Marshmallows with their 2011 Vidal Icewine and it was an experience I’m glad we had! The marshmallows were definitely the best thing we ate all weekend and joining dozens of others to toast them over several of the fire pits spread out throughout Peller’s courtyard was so much fun. Icewine and marshmallows was definitely sweet overload, but I had no complaints.

We ended the day at the Icewine Village on Main Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was a nice experience, but I personally preferred the Discovery Pass option. If you wanted to try a lot of the Icewines without having to drive from winery to winery, the Village is a great way to do that. Luckily for me, Shawn was willing to play DD at this year’s fest and – even better – they included a mocktail Discovery Pass so that he could sample all the foods and enjoy a tasty non-alcoholic beverage at each location. No, it’s not the same as sampling a lot of lovely Icewines, but it sure is safer! Kudos to the organizers for offering the option.

For $30 we got a tasting glass and enough tokens for three Icewine tastings and three food tastings in the village. I was a little Icewine’d out, so I just tried two – the sweet and sassy Ravine Vineyard 2009 Riesling Icewine and the Riverview Cellar’s 2010 Cabernet Franc Icewine, which I thought was great – a little less sweet than some of the other options I tried.

We took some silly pics with the quickly melting ice sculptures and looked for some food options I could eat – there weren’t very many. When you don’t eat red meat you’re often at a loss at wine events and this was no exception. We did have an incredible butternut squash soup with shrimp sample and the lovely chef from The Charles Inn offered to make me a version of his pork and cornbread without the pork. Shawn had it with pork and said it was fantastic – as was the venison stew and brisket sandwich he sampled from other vendors. We will definitely be putting The Charles Inn on our list of places to eat – the cornbread I had was divine.

But my top pick of all the Icewine’s I sampled was one I tried on Sunday when I visited Creekside Estate Winery. I had heard their Shiraz Icewine was worth seeking out and I’m so glad I did – it’s not too heavy, not too sweet and just the right amount of, well, everything. This was the only bottle we brought home and I can’t wait to have a dinner party so we can introduce more people to this one.

Do you have a favourite Icewine? I’d love to hear which ones you think are worth seeking out.

For more information on the Niagara Icewine Festival, check out their site:

And I encourage you to check out Jason's blog, which highlights his picks from the Vintages release each month, among other awesome wine finds:  

A few more shots from the festival: 

Toasted Icewine marshmallows at Peller

Chocolate and nut goodness from The Epicurean

Loved this sign at Niagara College Teaching Winery

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jackson Triggs Proprietors' Selection Merlot

As regular readers know, I'm not much of a red drinker. I suffered from headaches when I drank red wine in the past, so I stuck to white. Lately, I've been experimenting a bit and learning that not all reds give me that reaction. It's been a fruitful discovery as I continue on this wine journey - it's hard to learn all you can when you can't drink half the wines!

For Christmas, Shawn and I received a bottle of Jackson Triggs Proprietors' Selection Merlot and I decided to give it a try. I had no trouble drinking Vineland Estates excellent Cabernet Franc recently when I tried it on tap, so I thought it was worth a try. I'm glad I took the chance - I had no headache the next day after having a glass or two the night before and I enjoyed this wine. It's a full-bodied red with a lovely, cherry-tinged nose. It paired nicely with our chicken-pasta concoction. The Jackson Triggs' site suggests pairing with peppercorn steak too, though I'll have to take their word for it since I don't eat red meat.

This is a nice, inexpensive red wine option to have with dinner on a cold, winter evening at home. Nothing wrong with that!

I'll be visiting Jackson Triggs as part of our Niagara Icewine Festival adventure next week - look for my review of the Festival over the next week or two.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chateau des Charmes Aligoté

A few months ago, I turned to Twitter on a quest to find a dry, white, Ontario wine that would change the minds of some friends who swore they had never had an Ontario wine they preferred to their favourite international vino. As an added challenge, it had to be available at the LCBO.

As always, Twitter came to my rescue. I got a number of great responses and the one we went with - Cave Springs Dry Riesling - was divine. I believe, though I can't swear to it and sadly forgot to favourite the Tweet, that the amazing wine expert Konrad Ejbich (winezone on Twitter) recommended the Cave Springs. If I'm wrong, please forgive me, but  irregardless, Konrad is an incredible resource for great wine information.

Michèle Bosc (mbosc on Twitter) suggested the Chateau des Charmes 2010 Aligoté. Michèle is married to Paul-Andre Bosc and handles marketing for Chateau des Charmes, but she's never steered me wrong on a wine, so I looked for that one too. I couldn't find it in time for the party, but I did pick some up when we visited Chateau des Charmes in September.

Those same friends were joining us for New Year's Eve this year, so we broke out the Aligoté and I have to say we were all very impressed. It's dry and fruity with crisp acidity. This is a wine that's eminently drinkable and just unique enough to be a great conversation-starter. Michèle had suggested I try to get our friends to guess the grape, but I don't think we would have gotten very far with that. I certainly wouldn't have been able to determine what it was!

For proper tasting notes and more information on this wine, I encourage you to visit the Chateau des Charmes site:

You can also order the wine there if your LCBO doesn't carry it. I know it was difficult to find near me.

We'll definitely be drinking more Aligoté now that we've discovered it. Did you find a terrific wine this holiday season? Please share it in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook. I'm always looking for great wine finds!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Marshmallow Making

I often joke with friends that without Twitter I’d never do anything fun. This is of course an exaggeration, but I can honestly say that since I started actively Tweeting life has gotten a whole lot more interesting.

Case in point, Joel Solish (foodie411 on Twitter) recently Tweeted a pic of Margarita Marshmallows he’d found on Pinterest – they were absolutely drool-worthy and I responded as such. Thus began a Twitter chat about how much better homemade marshmallows were than store bought. I could attest to this because I’d picked up some amazing ones at The Good Earth during our Twenty Valley visit. They were to die for and I highly recommend you pick some up if you’re in the area – the cherry raspberry jam is equally fantastic and you should get some of that too, but I digress.

So Joel suggested I try making my own marshmallows and I demurred since, as those that know and love me can attest, I’m not a great cook. But he said it was easy and well worth the effort and then Tanya Kelly (theparchment_p on on Twitter) slipped into the conversation mentioning that she’d just whipped up some of her own and agreeing that it was easy and worth trying. She also, very kindly, offered to post her recipe on her blog so I could try making them.

You can see the post, on her excellent The Parchment Playlist blog here.

I highly recommend you check out her blog if you’re a foodie – it’s brilliant.

So with that kind of encouragement, and the added bonus of both recipes involving some form of alcoholic beverage, I decided to give it a go.

Let me just say that marshmallows seem far more daunting to make than they actually are, but they are not – especially for a novice baker – easy. And if you don’t have a stand mixer, as is the case in our tiny kitchen, they present an even greater challenge. Luckily for me, I married a personal trainer and he had the stamina to hold the hand mixer for ten or more minutes at a time, otherwise this would have been an epic fail.

I started out with the Margarita Marshmallows, since I thought they looked easier. Ha!

They’re from a book called Marshmallow Madness, by Shauna Sever and they look pretty awesome. The first challenge was finding some of the ingredients – note that mine did not include Swedish Pearl Sugar in the end. Also, I’m sure it does in the book, but the recipe posted online did not include instructions on how to line the pan – kind of a critical step. Thank goodness for Tanya and The Parchment Playlist, because I was able to use the suggestions from her recipe with good results.

The marshmallows were actually pretty fun to make. I think it would have been impossible without Shawn helping with the mixing, just because you need to be doing some of the steps while things are mixing, but other than that it was all totally doable. 

Husband as stand mixer

The Margarita Marshmallows needed eight hours to set, so I started in on the Sake and Pequin Pepper marshmallows right afterwards. These ones seemed to go a little better, although they became sake and Grand Marnier marshmallows when I realized too late that I was supposed to get dried pequin peppers. Definitely a d’oh moment in the kitchen, but they tasted really good regardless.
The second batch seemed to go much more smoothly despite a few hiccups – I had to use pure vanilla extract because I couldn’t find vanilla beans at the store, the aforementioned pepper fiasco and the realization that I didn’t have enough white sugar for both recipes and had to use cane sugar for half of these. They turned out a slightly beige colour, but they were still more than edible, which is the important thing, right? 
Awkward shadow and colour aside, they looked pretty good.
So what was the final verdict? Homemade marshmallows are pretty great. Neither batch was perfect – more so because I’m still learning than because of any flaw in the recipes - and it was definitely a challenge to cut them out (marshmallows are super sticky before they’re powdered), but I’d give these a try again. And the guests at our New Year’s Eve party all agreed that they were pretty great. Thanks again to everyone who came out for agreeing to try them (and taking home some of the extras).

Not pretty, but darn tasty
I’m not sure I’ll make marshmallows again any time soon – Shawn pointed out that they have a ton of sugar and things like corn syrup that we wouldn’t normally eat – but I’m glad I tried it out. Big thanks to Joel and Tanya for their help and encouragement. It was great to test my limits and try something fun and different. Can’t wait to see where Twitter takes me next.

You can check out The Parchment Playlist here:

And Joel can be found at The Community Foodist here: