Weekend in the County

I was recently the lucky recipient of a gift certificate for Countylicious 2014, courtesy of The County. It arrived and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was for East & Main, a restaurant in Wellington I had wanted to try before but had never matched up with its somewhat limited hours.

A weekend adventured ensued, complete with Saturday wine touring, a Countylicious dinner, and a fantastic Sunday breakfast at the Tall Poppy Cafe.

We spent our Saturday afternoon snaking through the wineries of Hillier, a region with too many options to cover in one afternoon, so we picked ones we had yet to visit. We took home bottles from Harwood, Hillier Creek, Stanners and Trail Estate. Two highlights were chats with wonderful wine making ladies at Harwood and Stanners, which I found was the most fun part of the tasting. I do appreciate that wine makers might want a Saturday off, but tasting is much more enjoyable with passionate people whose own livelihood is tied up in their product. The complimentary cheese pairings at Harwood and the crackling wood stove made it the best stop of the day- it is a great place to visit in the colder weather. I’m most excited to try the Harwood Pinot Noir & St. Laurent blend we took home, and the county Pinot Noir from Stanners.

We spent our evening at East & Main, where the Countylicious menu did not disappoint. $35 pp for 3 courses was very reasonable, and even better when you have a gift certificate. The service was very competent and efficient, and the place was hopping the whole time we had dinner, with a new crowd coming in as we finished. The menu was a bit different than what was on the Countylicious website, but the selection was still really good. For the appetizer I would recommend the french onion soup if they have it- very classic salty broth and cheesy broiled top. The scallop dish is decent too. Perfect November food, especially on a rainy and windy evening. The mains we had were good but not great- I wish I had gotten the lamb, as the veal scallopini I ordered was actually more like schnitzel, and the steak frites was pretty ordinary. But they won me over with the dessert- the banana and caramel bread pudding was really incredible. I can still taste it! Also the apple/berry crumble was nice- but I think the bread pudding was the star of the whole meal. We paired the meal with a bottle of Sandbanks Baco Noir, which matched the meaty main courses well, and added some coffees with dessert. Overall- really good meal with great service too- I will be back (if my timing matches their hours again!).

I tried to book us a B&B that was walkable to downtown Wellington, but everything I tried was either closed for the season or full for the weekend, even booking weeks in advance. I think it was a combo of small inventory + others with Countylicious weekend plans. We ended up staying at a guest suite in one of the small businesses in Wellington. I wish I could give them a shout out, but unfortunately the suite smelled so strongly of second hand smoke, coupled with dog hair around the suite, it really ruined our stay and I can’t recommend them. Allergy disaster! To avoid spending too much time there, we wandered over to the new Drake Devonshire hotel post-dinner. Some of the pluses: amazing waterfront property and neat architecture. The minuses: overly kitschy hipster decor (read: trying way too hard), roaring noise from dining room/bar and poor ventilation in the dining area- you will smell like whatever is cooking. What I hear about the Drake in general is that it is fine but has overpriced rooms and food, geared to a Toronto crowd. Personally, I’m looking for authentic experiences when I am in the County and I don’t see myself hurrying back here. We didn’t even get a drink as planned on Saturday evening, the bar was so loud and smelled so strongly of the kitchen, to pay $15 for a cocktail seemed masochistic. Also- dining host was not attentive (read: could not be found) and front desk staff could barely rip her eyes away from her laptop to acknowledge my existence. Perhaps a Toronto attitude has also been imported? We sat a bit in the lobby, the “eccentric” furniture was surprisingly comfortable. I think the only good reason to come back here would be to enjoy the waterfront in the summer- they have one of the only hotel properties in the County that really maximizes the beach and water.

I woke up early Sunday morning, eager to get the heck out of that smoker’s haven, and we were at the Tall Poppy before most of their staff had started their day! I love that cafe- the food is good, the atmosphere is great and the people are even better. We chowed down on the breakfast menu, honestly, everything I have ever eaten there is good, and given their 7am-3pm daily hours I eat there pretty well every time I am in the area. Also good coffee and lovely baked goods- you will not be disappointed! And it is licensed with very fair prices. It’s probably a good thing I don’t live close enough to show up daily.

The only downside to our early start on Sunday was that no stores or wineries were open by the time we were heading out, so instead of a slow meander home through Bloomfield and Picton, we had a speedy trip back home, complete with a stop for cheap gas on highway 49.

So, the moral of the story is that you have until November 23, 2014 to get in on Countylicious, and if you miss that, remember that Wassail runs the last 2 weekends of November and the first weekend in December. Plenty of time to do a little Christmas shopping in the County! There’s a bus tour every Saturday during Wassail for $15 and you just might find me back again in a few weeks.

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20 Bees Shiraz

20 BEES SHIRAZ, $11.95. LCBO#146837.

20 BEES SHIRAZ, $11.95.
LCBO#146837.

Round #2 of my Wine of the Month Club: The January delivery included a bottle of 2012 20 Bees Shiraz. I have to say I was not excited to see it- I have had 20 Bees Baco Noir and one glass was more than enough for me. I also find their labels and winery name to be overly cute. And Shiraz in Canada? I don’t know- I really like Australian Shiraz (in fact we had a killer bottle last week- 2011 Dandelion Vineyards Lionheart of the Barossa, $20, amazing value, none left at the LCBO, sob, drink some for me if you can find it).

So, I opened the bottle with low expectations on a freezing cold Wednesday night. But my snobbery turned to a smile as we paired it with beef tacos- great match. The wine is what the critics say: dry, light-medium bodied, not overly complex, and a little fruity with a peppery finish. This would be good BBQ wine in the summer.

That said, I don’t know that I would buy it again. The price is reasonable, the wine is fine, it’s just not what I’m looking for in a Shiraz. It was an interesting bottle, not something I would typically pick up on my own, so I will give the Wine Club a pass on this one. But there are a lot of $12 red wines I would buy before this one.

Overall, I give this wine 7.5/10 for taste and 4/5 for value.

Cave Spring Riesling Dry

Riesling Dry

2012 CAVE SPRING RIESLING DRY, $14.95. LCBO#233635.

This year, my resolution is to drink more wine and blog about it. Tough goal, right? To ensure some inspiration, I joined a “Wine of the Month Club” this December which brings new bottles of VQA Ontario wine to my door each month. The club is run by Winery To Home and the critics are David Lawrason and Tony Aspler. I am doing the $45/month version, which includes one white and one red bottle; there are varying price and quality levels, but I thought I would start with the basic one and see how things go.

My December delivery (just pre-Christmas, what a lovely gift to oneself!) included a bottle of 2012 Cave Spring Cellars Riesling Dry. I have long been curious about Cave Spring, there is something very clean and crisp about their name and their wine labels, but not being a big Niagara drinker, I hadn’t bought a bottle yet. We shared the bottle with friends who enjoy Riesling, particularly dry varieties, and the review was a big thumbs up.

It is definitely as described by the critics: light, fresh, some mineral and citrus. Dry, but not overly so. It went very well with a charcuterie spread, particularly prosciutto and sharp cheese, a nice contrast in flavour. A surefire crowd pleaser- would also do well with seafood.

I think $15 is good value for this bottle, and I’m happy to see the local LCBO has lots on hand. So far so good with the wine club- I’ve been introduced to a new wine and winery, and have a new go-to party wine. I plan to pick up more of this bottle soon.

Overall, I give this wine 9/10 for taste and 4/5 for value.

Sandbanks Shoreline Red

2009 Sandbanks Shoreline Red, $14.95. LCBO#159962.

Kevin & I have been big fans of Sandbanks Estate Winery for the past few years. I first visited the vineyard on a PEC tour in 2009, and came home with bottles of Dunes & Baco Noir, which quickly became our go-to Ontario wines. Dunes is perfect with appetizers, especially anything cheesy, and the Baco Noir is great solo or with something meaty.

On our latest trip to Prince Edward County, we stopped by again to see their new building (which is lovely) and had a fun tasting out on the patio with one of their energetic young staff. We came away with yet another winner, the newly released Shoreline Red. I’m having trouble deciding if it has dethroned Baco Noir as my personal favourite. It’s along the same lines, but a bit more restrained. The fruit is still in there, but it’s not such a cherry bomb. The Cabernet Franc in the blend lends some smoothness and a bit of vanilla.

The thing I love most about Sandbanks is that they make such reliably great wine at really reasonable prices. The quality and price in Prince Edward County really varies, and while I love trying new wineries there, I also like knowing I can count on Sandbanks for very drinkable wine.

Ontario wine drinkers may want to note that while prices from the winery and the LCBO are the same, when you buy direct from the winery, they get to keep a greater share of the profit. Sandbanks offers complimentary shipping; consider ordering directly from them on their website. I notice that other PEC wineries are also offering complimentary shipping as well.

Overall, I give this wine 9/10 for taste and 4/5 for value.

100th Post: Adventures in Prince Edward County

Fabulous view at By Chadsey's Cairns.

To celebrate 3 years of togetherness, Kevin and I took ourselves to Prince Edward County to indulge in fabulous local scenery, food and drink. I’m always amazed that this jewel of a county is only an hour’s drive away, complete with lake views and a quaint ferry ride. It seems fitting that this weekend of gourmand-ness would coincide with the 100th post on La Gourmandesse!

We began the adventure with a wise choice: we stayed 2 nights at the Merrill Inn in Picton, a lovely B&B that knows how to feed and pamper its guests. Our room, in a third floor gable, was cozy and calm, and just what you would expect from a historic inn. They have a restaurant in-house that serves an amazing breakfast spread and gourmet dinners with local wine. We indulged there on our first night, pairing local wines with gazpacho, sauteed calamari, perch and prime rib. We followed that up with house-made peach pie, and declared the evening a locavore’s delight.

Another hilight of the weekend was our wine tour with PEC Wine Tours. We went on an afternoon tour, which was informative and fun, not to mention deluxe due to our limousine ride! The driver and guide, Gilles, was full of great info about the wines of the region, as well as quite a few back stories on the vineyards and personalities of PEC. The tour company’s owner, Bev, also happened to be on the tour that day with some family members for their own enjoyment, and made a lively addition to the day.

My top 3 vineyards of the day were Karlo Estates, By Chadsey’s Cairns and Sandbanks Winery, each for a different reason.

Karlo Estates' multi-purpose barn.

At Karlo Estates, we got to meet the winemaker and owner, Richard Karlo. Tasting wines with him was the best part of my tour, as he is warm, funny and articulate, explaining each wine as we moved through at least 5 tastes. He clearly loves what he does, and it comes through in the character of his wines. We came away with a bottle of the Frontenac Gris Rose, and are on the waiting list for the upcoming Petit Verdot. Can’t wait! I plan to go back soon to soak up the atmosphere and check out the dry stone bridge on the estate.

By Chadsey's Cairns tasting room.

By Chadsey’s Cairns is incredibly picturesque. The land comes complete with a loyalist graveyard, a few historic barns and an apple storage house converted into a wine tasting room. With views of the lake to the south and vineyards to the north, this is a beautifully peaceful place. I enjoyed tasting their wines and discussing them with one of their cheerful tasting staff, but walked away empty handed. It could be that we visited late in the day when my palate was fairly overwhelmed, but nothing grabbed me as something I had to drink again. But I would definitely return to grab a few quiet moments on their deck overlooking the vineyard.

Sandbanks Winery's new indoor/outdoor tasting building.

My other favourite of the day was Sandbanks Winery, one I have visited before. We are already big fans of their Dunes blend and Baco Noir, and had an enjoyable time on the gorgeous patio with one of their fun, young staff. We tried their new Shoreline blends and several others, and came away with a few bottles of Rose, the Shoreline Red, and the Winter Harvest dessert wine. I enjoy Sandbanks’ approachable wines and reasonable prices. It is a bit more commercial than Karlo Estates or By Chadsey’s Cairns, but brings something different to the table. What it may lack in boutique style, it fully makes up for in drinkability and affordability.

We managed to fit in a few other indulgences: lunch at the Tall Poppy Cafe in Wellington and some sweet treats at Miss Lily’s. A trip to Sandbanks provincial park capped off the weekend, and we headed home with 6 local bottles of wine, plenty of good memories, and plans to head back again soon.

 

Holiday $10 Wine Tasting

The bottles, after the big reveal, in the order we tasted them.

Our $10 wine tasting was such a hit this spring, we decided to throw a repeat for the holidays. The details from the first party and the logistics can be found here. In a nutshell, a $10 wine party involves each guest bringing 2 bottles of $10 wine, one gets tasted and the duplicate bottle goes in as a prize for whoever brings the best bottle, as voted by the guests.

This time was as fun as the last, and the appetizers disappeared just as fast. The fan favourites continue to be home made sausage rolls and baked brie topped with fresh raspberies. I was quite proud of the spread, but am sad to report that I have no pictures of it. My camera man had too much fun socializing and neglected his duties! I suppose this means I will have to host another party and manage to document all the tasty treats.

This time we had seven bottles of wine to taste, and ended up with 2 whites and 5 reds. We covered the bottles in paper bags for a blind tasting and randomly tried them, starting with the whites and moving to the reds. I don’t know how much research there is on wine tasting bias, but the first 3 bottles we tasted got the top scores. Perhaps they were indeed the tastiest, or perhaps we got harsher as the night went on. I also liked the first three bottles the best, so I really can’t comment on tasting psychology!

There was a 2-way tie for first between the 2 white wines. It was great to see that both bottles were Ontario VQA. Third place went to a California red. The final 4 reds were very close in scores, so I won’t rank them. The tasting crowd was similar to the spring party, and it was easy to see that people like what they like. At the last party, off-dry whites and easy-drinking reds were a hit, and we saw a repeat of that this time.

Our winners were:

1. 2008 Eco Trail Chardonnay Auxerrois, VQA, $8.95. LCBO#591719. Pelee Island Winery, Ontario. Crisp, fresh, slightly sweet with apple and citrus flavours.

1. 2009 Strewn Gewurztraminer-Riesling, VQA, $10.95. LCBO#467662. Strewn Winery, Ontario. Off-dry with peach and floral flavours.

3. 2008 Barefoot Merlot, $9.95. LCBO#53991. E & J Gallo, California. Medium bodied with hints of toasty oak and vanilla. Very smooth and easy to drink.

The runners up:

  • 2008 Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon, $9.95.
  • 2009 Mommessin Beaujolais, $9.85.
  • 2009 McGuigan Shiraz, $9.95.
  • 2009 Fuzion Shiraz Malbec, $7.75.

Our entry, the McGuigan Shiraz, was my second choice for a red in the blind taste. I still enjoy its spiciness and complexity, but I don’t think our guests enjoy a bold red very much. For our next party……perhaps I’ll have to bend to the will of the crowd and pick an off-dry white!

Sandbanks Estate Winery Baco Noir & Dunes

2009 Sandbanks Baco Noir, $15.05, LCBO#110049 & 2008 Dunes, $13.05, LCBO#110031.

This weekend I went into the LCBO with one thing on my mind and one thing only- to pick up some great wine. Although I continue to have fun trying out new $10 wines, the gems seem few and far between lately. Rather than purchase yet another bottle of affordable disappointment, I thought it was time to splurge on some summer favourites.

For this Wine Wednesday I am sharing my two best Ontario wines- which coincidentally come from the same winery and are 100% Ontario grown. When it comes to home grown wines, I really only feel right buying VQA. There’s just something so silly to me about labels that say “cellared in Ontario,” as if you won’t notice the conspicuous absense of the VQA seal.  If you didn’t grow the grape here, where it got cellared does not mean much to me. Hence my beef with most of the wine WalMart and the Wine Rack carries. By these standards, retirees can start putting “cellared in Ontario” on the crappy home made wine they make in their basements. Maybe WalMart will start carrying that?

I discovered Sandbanks Estate Winery on a Prince Edward County wine tour in May 2009. Our tour had the good fortune to bump into the winery’s lovely winemaker, Catherine Langlois, and I can see how her sunny disposition leads to great wine.  In my opinion, her wine is the best that Prince Edward County has to offer, and I’ve sampled most of the region’s vineyards. I love that I get to buy local and get great wine, and I can only imagine how much better things will get as the vines mature.

Their Baco Noir is one of my go to red wines. It’s exactly what I want in a wine; bold and fruit-forward with a touch of oak. I guess it’s just my luck that baco noir is often grown in more difficult climates like Ontario because it is definitely my kind of grape. That said, I have tried some other Ontario baco noirs and they are nowhere near as good as this one. So I must give some credit to the winery for growing a lovely grape and making a fabulous bottle.

Their other great bottle is Dunes, which is a Vidal Riesling blend. Again, it is a fruity and fresh wine. Not too sweet, with some crisp citrus notes that make it very refreshing. This has been one of Kevin’s favourite whites ever since I introduced it to him last year.

We’re having a small dinner party this week, and I think the Dunes will be a good opener with olives and cheese, while the Baco should partner well with some juicy steaks off the BBQ.  Cheers to great summer sippers!

A German-Canadian Twist

I’m not typically one to browse the German section of the LCBO, especially because smaller stores seem to mainly feature such atrocities as Blue Nun, wine that Germans themselves would never touch.  So I am not terribly familiar with German varietals and wineries.

2008 Pelee Island Gewurztraminer, $9.95. LCBO#135970.

By some strange coincidence, however, two Ontario wines based on German grape varietals have crossed my path this week. Last night, our friends Mac and Stacy dropped by for dessert and brought a bottle of Gewurztraminer that was a great partner for my Fudgy Layer Cake.

Pelee Island Winery’s 2008 Gewurztraminer is floral, fresh and fruity.    Most of Pelee Island’s wines are VQA, but this one is a 30% domestic/70% foreign blend, cellared in Canada. We’ll have to forgive them as a little research has informed me that Gewurztraminer is a very temperamental grape to grow. A crisp pale straw colour, with a typical bouquet of roses and flavours of peaches and pears; it is very balanced with a smooth finish. Definitely on the sweet end of the spectrum, it’s a great dessert choice, but is quite sippable and could pair well with spicy asian food.

Overall, I give this Gewurztraminer 8.5/10 for taste and 4/5 for value.

2007 Trumpour's Mill Riesling, $11.95. LCBO#28258.

Tonight, our spring salad with baked salmon needed a white wine partner, so it was the perfect time to break out a VQA Riesling we got this fall.  It’s from the Grange of Prince Edward County, an incredibly charming little winery on a farm property near Picton, ON. Their Trumpour’s Mill 2007 Riesling is an interesting bottle. We got it as part of a food and wine festival door prize, and I’m not sure I would ever have picked it up on my own.  We had 2 bottles of it, and looking back at my November 2009 notes, this second try has me drawing the same conclusions.

The wine has a strange chemical quality to both the nose and the taste. Kevin and I agree that it is reminiscent of cheap dollar store erasers. I have to admit it ruins the wine for me, I can’t get past it. If the chemical aspect was absent, it would be a nice, crisp, off-dry wine with a taste of apples and citrus. It has a bit of a tart finish that leaves you puckering in a good way.  Maybe future years of this wine will not have the same chemical issues. Until then, I will pass.

Overall, I give this Riesling 7.5/10 for taste and 3/5 for value.

Pelee Island Monarch Red

2008 Pelee Island Monarch Red, $9.95. LCBO#107763.

Wine Wednesdays have made me especially fond of the middle of the week. I thought I’d be patriotic and sample a Canadian $10 bottle, which is no mean feat if you want something VQA, and not mass-produced in the Niagara (Romanian juice) tradition.

Pelee Island Winery delivers an exceptionally fun and sippable bottle for a reasonable price. It is a red blend, which they list as Zweigelt: 33%, Baco Noir 40%, Chambourcin 10%…..and 17% mystery if you are able to do simple math.  No matter, as the wine is well worth drinking, even if the vintners were drunk when they calculated the technical data. I really like Baco Noir, and this delivers a lighter version of that extreme fruitiness.

The wine is a ruby colour, with an earthy nose and a fruit forward, jammy taste. Kevn detects raspberries while I say grapefruit. It has a sweet-tart quality but still a balanced finish. Somewhere between light and medium bodied, it would be excellent as a summer wine, and paired well with our BBQ dinner. I feel a picnic related daydream coming on…..

It is a very fun and friendly wine, and I think I may keep some on hand for our inevitable housewarming party.

Overall, I give this wine 8/10 for taste and 4/5 for value.