Return from Niagara: wine, food and – surprise! – beer

I just spent a terrific, busy, fun and serious week in Niagara, judging at the National Wine Awards of Canada, newly organized by WineAlign, this year. It was mostly about wine, of course, because of the awards, but the evening program organized by Wine County Ontario, to showcase the region’s best for the coast-to-coast group of judges, allowed us to sample solid food and also, more surprisingly, excellent beer.

In terms of wine, the judging and the evening programs allowed us to confirm that Niagara (and Canada) can offer value, originality, high quality and ageability. Off the top of my head, a 2007 Wood Post Riesling from Thirty Bench, a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc sparkling wine and a 2002 cabernet franc from Angel’s Gate, the 2005 and 2006 Nuit Blanche from Hidden Bench, 2006 and 2007 syrahs from Lailey Vineyards, older Malivoire gamays, a remarkably fresh magnum of 2002 Cabernet Franc from Tawse (made by Deborah Paskus) a 2000 Trius Red, as well as a 1991 Klose Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon pulled from the Inniskillin library by Niagara founding figure Karl Kaiser showed just how great the region can be, and how much life the best Niagara wines can have over the long run. And that’s naming but a few.

About the food, I have to point out how Treadwell Farm to Table restaurant and Ravine Vineyards both knocked it out of the park, in very different but equally delicious style, that week. Every time I return to Treadwell, it ranks among my favorite gastronomical experiences from any region: the cuisine is extremely refined, the dishes remarkably balanced and showcasing local fare extremely successfully. Ravine’s cooking, in a more laid-back style, is very satisfying as well, and the location overlooking the estate vineyards is just wonderful. If you can get there when Paul Harber and crew are going whole-hog (by which I mean, doing a whole pig roast), please do. (Tawse and Hidden Bench wineries also provided remarkable meals showcasing local fare, but since those were private dinners and not locations generally accessible to the public for dining, I will avoid rubbing it in and limit my comments to expressing gratitude for the hospitality and thank all our evening hosts for great opportunities to talk shop in a relaxed fashion with local winemakers.)

Winemakers often joke that it takes a lot of good beer to make wine. That could be transposed to wine judging, as well: the hoppy and bitter notes are a great way to reset your palate, after tasting through 90-some-odd wines a day. But beyond the palate cleansing aspect of an evening suds, the week yielded some fantastic discoveries that would satisfy the most demanding wine aficionados.

I’d had previous opportunities to sample local brewing talents at The Merchant Ale House, in St Catharines, but this year yielded new favorites, like the Silversmith Black Lager, which shows how beer can be at once dark-colored and refreshing, but even more the offerings by Oast House, a brewery that leans on the belgian side of things with truly remarkable results – and in particular, balance. Oast’s Barn Raiser is hefty and satisfying but still fresh, and the Bière de Garde is indeed a complex brew that one would love to lay down.

My overall favorite, however, was Oast House’s Saison, a beer style that strikes the perfect note, for me, between the sweet and rich complexity of Doubles and Triples, on the one hand, and crisp freshness you’d expect in a summer lager. Their take on the style is, to me, one of the most successful I’ve tasted outside of the Dupont and Fantôme Saisons from its country of origin. It kept me wanting more.

I’m always happy to return to Niagara for rieslings, chardonnays, pinots and cabernet franc – and the occasional, too-rare gamay. Now, I might want to drive down for a beer, too!

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