There are two events that tell me that Spring has arrived – first, when my good friend Julie’s seeds are ready to transfer into her front garden and second, when Ontario asparagus hits our local farmer’s markets. And, once these two events have occurred I also know that the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake are gearing up for their spring wine passport event – Wine and Herb.
Unlike other passport events, Wine and Herb adds a third dimension to the experience. Not only do you get to indulge on a feature wine and complimentary food pairing but these food pairings are herb inspired. I’ve indicated my favourite herbs, wines and pairings below with a ❧.
One of the many reasons that I like stopping at the Niagara College Teaching Winery is because of the staff. They are usually Winery and Viticulture Technician students and are keen to share their knowledge with wine lovers like me. What I learned this visit was that the college wine maker is a lover of Sauv Blanc and is constantly trying to improve each vintage. Well, in my opinion, the 2010 is a hit. And to pair it with chives and fresh-picked Ontario spring asparagus was perfection. Yes, the chives complimented the wine well enough but it was the crisp bit of asparagus that set (and held) the bar for my day; this first pairing of the day ended up being my favourite.
Herb Inspiration: Chives – My Italian grandfather (Nonno) and grandmother (Nonna) had quite the garden in their Hamilton backyard when I was growing up. They had a plum tree, apple tree, grape vines and grew zucchini, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce, peppers and other delicious vegetables. They also had quite the impressive herb garden. One of my favourite things to do was to walk along the stone pathway my Nonno created munching on a handful of chives. Now whenever I eat anything flavoured or garnished with chives all I can think about it wandering through my Nonno’s garden. It’s quite nostalgic.
- ❧ Wine: 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
- ❧ Pairing: Spring Asparagus with Peppered Goat Cheese and Olive Oil
There is hardly a more grande looking winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake than Colaneri! Located a little off of the beaten path, this winery resembles some of the Italian villas that I saw on my trip to Northern Italy a few years ago. The exterior of the building has been finished for a while now and it’s hard to believe that it can look any better, but no doubt it will when the grande fountain in the middle of the driveway is finished. It seems that whenever I visit this winery for a passport event they are serving something hearty, hot and traditional – a pasta or pulled pork or something of the like.
Herb Inspiration: Garlic – As an Italian there was hardly a meal I ate as a child that had tomatoes and didn’t have garlic. I think this was the reason that my parents and grandparents always carried around Chicklets for us kids. Unbeknownst to most people, garlic is quite a versatile herb and quite delicious grilled and then spread onto a stone cracker with some beet marmalade. YUM!
- Wine: 2009 Chardonnay
- Pairing: Turkey Tetrazzini with Liberina’s Roasted Garlic Cream Sauce
Stopping at Southbrook this time around was a real treat especially considering the Southbrook sheep were out and about that day. Southbrook was one of the first wineries that I noticed on my very first drive into Niagara-on-the-Lake. Anyone driving down (or up) Niagara Stone Road is hard-pressed not to notice the impressive eggplant coloured structure that is this winery. And, the impressiveness carries into the LEED certified structure flanked floor to ceiling with windows that allow natural light to flood in. Finally, let me say that this 2011 Triomphe Cab Franc Rose was a real spring-time patio-loving winner.
Herb Inspiration: Arugula – This bitter little green is one of my favourites; in salads, stirfrys and quiches, on sandwiches and pizzas – one cannot go wrong with arugula. Oh, and did I mention that this is great in pasta? Southbrook certainly got this one right (although my arugula-avoiding hubby and his like-minded cronies wouldn’t quite agree).
- ❧ Wine: 2011 Triomphe Cabernet Franc Rose
- Pairing: Spring Arugula Pesto Pasta with Crumbled Monforte “Elsie” Goat Milk Cheese
Owned and run by the Bosc family, this modest (not!) chateau near St. David’s is responsible for some of the best wine and food pairings that I’ve had during these passport-type events. I love the experimental vineyard that sits just a stone’s throw from the patio – look closely and you can see the repeating planting patterns for each different kind of grape planted there. I was happy to see the 2011 Aligote on the bill – this rare grape is commonly used in France to make dry white wines – and is one of my favourite wines at Chateau Des Charmes.
Herb Inspiration: Lemon Basil – Lemon basil is one of my absolute favourite herbs; I love picking it, rubbing it between my fingers and smelling the sweetness of this lemon-infused plant. I’ve always wanted to grow this on my own, for some reason, have an herb garden and this isn’t in it. I’m tying a string to and crossing my fingers for next year.
- ❧ Wine: 2011 Aligote
- Pairing: Coq au Vin Chicken Breast and Smoked Chili Lemon Emulsion
Ravine is a winery, restaurant, marketplace, farm and more! Each time I visit I learn something new about Ravine and this visit was not different. The weekend that my mom and I were touring around for Wine and Herb was also the weekend that Ravine was hosting the Spring Handmade Market. There must have been close to 100 vendors on their back lawn overlooking the lake – some I was familiar with and others that were new to me. Amidst all the excitement, on the verandah to the side of the restaurant, was the Wine and Herb sign to guide our way. This cab franc and pork meatball pairing, made from Ravine’s own farm-raised pigs, was my second favourite of the day.
Herb Inspiration: Sage – Although I couldn’t identify it, I’m sure that most of the home-made soups that I relied on to ease the ailments of my childhood were infused with sage. Oddly enough, I like the texture of this herb just as much as I like the flavour and smell. And, my sister-in-law uses dried sage and lemongrass in her smudges that help my little angel nieces fall asleep.
- ❧Wine: 2011 Sand & Gravel Cabernet Franc
- ❧ Pairing: Pork & Sage Meatballs with Pure & Free Lowrey Bros. Tomato Sauce
I remember the first time I visited Small Talk Vineyards being confused about why they shared space with Stonechurch Vineyards. Well, as it turns out, Small Talk is Stonechurch – rebranded (and for the better if you ask me!). The new label is hip, fun and colourful and certainly appeals to a different demographic than some other labels I have seen in cellars of late. It was late in the day when we arrived at Small Talk and thankfully were still in time to try their french sorrel infused pea soup.
Herb Inspiration: French Sorrel – Having never heard of French Sorrel before I was very curious about this herb. As it turns out, it’s English and looks and tastes something like spinach except it is a little more tart and sometimes is red/purple veined. I cannot recall ever seeing it in the grocery store but I have to admit I’ve never looked for it before. I bet now that I have said I’ve never seen it I will see it everywhere I go – murphy’s law.
- Wine: 2o11 “For the Host” Sauvignon Blanc
- Pairing: Chilled Spring Pea and Sorrel Soup
Although I wasn’t able to make it to all 27 participating wineries but the ones that I did make it to were quite enjoyable. I find that, more than the wine and food, the people that I’ve run into and gotten to know at each location make the passport experience that much more enjoyable.
That said, if you are looking for an infusion of delicious wines, thoughtful pairings and warm welcomes I suggest bookmarking the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake website and – if you missed Wine and Herb – check out the new year-round, tasting, Between Friends Insider Program. It’s a great way to keep your Niagara VQA passport valid all year long.