Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Niagara Icewine Festival

It’s a huge misperception that Ontario’s wine regions shut down in the winter. While some Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore producers are open by appointment only during the colder months, there are plenty of activities from December to March to keep wine lovers very busy while visiting all of our wine regions. The Niagara Icewine Festival is just one of these events and it’s a very enjoyable way to spend a winter afternoon in Niagara. Shawn and I enjoyed ourselves so much last year that we opted to brave the snow and attend this year’s festival in January

The Icewine Festival can be visited in two different ways. You can head to Niagara-on-the-Lake Main Street and enjoy ice sculptures and a walk-around tasting, or you can purchase a ticket that allows you to enjoy an Icewine sample and a food pairing at the participating wineries. We went that route, as I was eager to pick up some non-Icewine selections as well.

Our first stop was Vineland Estates, which is always one of my favourite places to visit. They were offering two pairings for the price of one. Shawn tried Chef Justin's hearty beef stew with Cabernet Franc (I don’t eat beef, so he kindly offered to take that one off my hands), while I sampled their vibrant and lush Vidal Icewine with a mini chocolate and Icewine tart. Served in the restaurant, Vineland made the tasting process interactive and fun – there was a knowledgeable host to talk about the wines and a chef from the restaurant to tell us about the pairing. It was a strong start to the day, especially since I was also able to taste a few other Vineland wines – including a few ahead of release that I can’t wait to purchase. Another plus about this visit? Vineland is an absolutely stunning property in the snow.

Next, we visited Creekside Estate Winery, where I indulged in a back vintages tasting and no Icewine at all! However, Shawn tried Chef J. Mark Hand's open-faced smoked candied bacon and onion sandwich and said it was one of the best things he ate all day. The Creekside tasting will be a story for another day, but it was the highlight of the trip for me.

We made a quick stop at 13th Street Winery after Creekside to indulge in some of their delicious backed goods – the bakery there is a wonderful treat – and to try their 13 Below Zero Icewine Riesling and spiced Moroccan stew pairing. While I wasn’t able to indulge in the stew, Shawn said it was quite delicious and went well with their Icewine. I had hoped to do more tasting at 13th Street, but after so many wines at Vineland and Creekside I was feeling a little wined out (yes, it happens). We will definitely rectify that on our next trip to the area, as 13th Street has some fantastic wines.

A drive through very snowy and windy road conditions led us to Pillitteri Estates Winery, where they were celebrating in full force – Beavertails with an unusual (but very good) Chardonnay Icewine? Check. Hot chocolate spiked with Icewine? Check. A back-vintages tasting of Icewine dating back to 2002? Check. There was so much to do and sample at Pillitterri that we could have stayed for hours. I highly recommend trying their 2002 Cabernet Franc Icewine if you can get your hands on some.

Our last stop was Southbrook Vineyards, where we were thrilled to see The Yellow Pear food truck serving up mouth-watering sandwiches alongside a lovely 2006 Cabernet Franc Icewine. The Yellow Pear team were even kind enough to make a veggie version of their pear, smoked ham and Montforte sheep cheddar grilled cheese for me so that I could enjoy the pairing too. If you get the chance, Shawn and I have eaten at The Yellow Pear twice now and we highly recommend them.

We also very much recommend the Niagara Icewine Festival for a fun and delicious winter activity in wine county. Kudos to the festival for continuing to make designated driver passes available. 

And what did Shawn, as our designated driver, ask for in exchange for not imbibing? Stops at Niagara Oast House and Dillon’s Distillery, which are two of our favourite non-wine vendors – we always plan a pop-in to pick up some of their great beer and spirits to take home.

For more information on the Niagara Icewine Festival and other great Niagara wine activities visit:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Few South African Sippers

When I was offered the opportunity to review two wines from South Africa, I jumped at the chance. While we spent a little time on this country in my classes, it’s not a region I am particularly familiar with. I know about Pinotage, of course, and I have friends who swear by Two Oceans but I haven’t really sampled much so far.

I started out by consulting The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, one of my favourite go-to references for wine, and spent a little time reading about the region. South African wine production has really come into it’s own in the last twenty years and it is now one of the leading wine producing countries. Chenin Blanc, called Steen there, is one of the most popular varietals.

The wines I tried were the Nederburg Winemaster's Reserve2012 Sauvignon Blanc and the Obikwa 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are entry-level wines and are perfectly-suited for pairing with a lazy Sunday night meal. Given my usual tastes, I expected to prefer the Sauvignon Blanc, so I was surprised to find that it was the opposite.

The Sauvignon Blanc was very pleasant on the nose – lots of gooseberry, lemon and cut grass, then quite intense on the palate. There was lots of acidity and tropical fruit, with a medium-long finish that brought out a bruised apple note. I think this would be a good pairing with fish, grilled chicken or other light meals. For my tastes, it was a bit too intense on the palate, but that was completely preference and not an indication of quality.

I found the Obikwa a bit sweet, but quite enjoyable. It had dark berries, smoky meat and a bit of spicy leather on the nose and the palate was very fruit-forward (think spicy cherry and plum), with firm tannin and a good mouth-feel. This is a very drinkable, crowd-pleasing red.

Interested in learning more about South African Wines? Be sure to check out the Wines of South Africa Canadian website:

* I received sample bottles to review for this post, but all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Gourmet Food and Wine Expo 2013

I’m a little late with this review, but since most of these beverages are still available at your local LCBO, winery, brewery or through an agency, I hope you won’t mind.

Every year the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo (GFWE) takes over the Metro Convention Centre for a weekend in November. It’s an interesting mix of education and alcohol sampling that sees the wine and spirits community out in force.  Here are a few of my favourites, discovered over two days of tasting:

At the Noteworthy Wines booth I tried Grady Wines from Lodi, California. These were a fantastic introduction to Lodi wines, which I’ve never tried before. With Shawn and I hoping to head to California in July, it was nice to be able to explore some wines from a lesser known region. My favourite was the 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvigon.

I was pleased to see a large selection of wines from Ontario’s Southwest represented, as I haven’t had much experience with them and Shawn and I are hoping to visit the area soon. My favourite of the wines I tried was Burning Kiln’s Riesling. Burning Kiln is also the home of the Zip ‘n’ Sip wine adventure – something I really can’t wait to try!

Also from Ontario, I fell further in love with Hidden Bench’s Riesling and Muskoka Lake’s incredible Red Maple cranberry maple dessert wine. And, of course, I took a moment to stop by the Lighthall Vineyward's booth to indulge in a little of their crisp, lively Progression Sparkling – a longstanding personal favourite (and the perfect compliment for any oyster dinner).

A great treat was getting to sample the Tierra Hermosa Veinte Grados (or 20°), a red blend of Tempranillo, Syrah and Garnacha from Granada. This was a spicy, warm wine full of red fruit with lovely strawberry and anise on the nose. The tannin was medium and there was very nice pepper on the finish – a wonderful discovery!

My favourite non-wine beverage of the event? Pommies Dry Cider, of course. This is a staple for me and I’ll happily go out of my way to find an LCBO that carries it. Pommies is made in a wine style and I love the crisp, refreshing taste. It’s not cloyingly sweet and it doesn’t have the bitter aftertaste I don’t like in some ciders. I was thrilled to see more people discovering it at the show.

And Shawn’s favourites? He really enjoyed trying more craft beer from Oast House and checking out the cocktails at Tag Vodka.

Our favourite foods at the show were easy to pick. Rock Lobster’s amazing lobster rolls (these are truly drool-worthy), Fire in the Kitchen’s grilled cheese sandwiches with chicken (be sure to stock up on FITK spice rubs – you won’t be disappointed) and Le Dolci’s uber-delicious macarons. I truly couldn’t get enough of those cookies – I went back more than once on both days I visited the show.

Shawn and I had a fantastic time at GFWE this year and look forward to our next visit! For more information: