28 MAR 2019: The Cuvée Grand Tasting is the largest celebration of Ontario VQA wine in the country. This year’s 31st annual event which took place last weekend at Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls, drew a record crowd of close to 900 people. It helps highlight the $4.4-billion Ontario wine industry and includes top restaurants from the Niagara area. I always find exciting culinary surprises and delicious new wines to write about every time I attend.

This year 48 Ontario VQA wineries were at the event pouring two of their winemakers’ favourite wines along with local chefs preparing their signature dishes at live cooking stations. Organized by Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), proceeds go to the Cuvée Legacy Fund, which was established to fund industry-driven research initiatives and scholarships for students. Thus, there’s also a feel-good factor to the evening full of eating and drinking.

Ontario is the largest wine grape producing province in Canada, with 17,000 acres of vines. Its Niagara Peninsula is the largest Canadian wine appellation – with ten additional sub-appellations – encompassing more than 100 wineries. My husband and I make a weekend around the event stopping at wineries on the way there and when we drive back to Toronto.

This year we stopped for lunch at The Restaurant at Redstone Winery in Beamsville, about an hour from Toronto. Redstone’s chef David Sider was born and raised in Vineland, just minutes from the property and earned his Chef chops at such renowned places as Langdon Hall in Cambridge and Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. His goal at Redstone is to “create a cuisine centered on honesty, freshness and an unwavering commitment to the region”.

The restaurant is fronted by Redstone Winery, the latest venture by Moray Tawse and his award-winning winemaking team. Moray purchased the Lincoln Lakeshore property, formerly Thomas and Vaughan Estate Winery, in 2009. According to company lore, he was inspired by the intensely red clay soil, large stones and the red dust which covered everything the first time he strolled the vineyard, to name his new winery Redstone. www.redstonewines.ca

After a hearty lunch of PEI oysters, chicken skins, Fogo Island cod fish and chips and stone oven baked pizza we stopped at the winery’s tasting room for a sampling of their Redstone Sparking, Limestone Vineyard Chardonnay and Estate Syrah. My favourite was the sparkling, made in the traditional method (champagne style) from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris.

Our next stop was at Queenston Mile Vineyard, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s hottest new winery under highly respected winemaker Rob Power. It had that newly build look and smell yet was already drawing groups of wine enthusiasts. Here we sampled Queenston Mile Blanc de Noirs, a traditional sparkler with a base of pinot noir. Their Queenston Mile Pinot Noir red was sourced entirely from their estate on St. David’s Bench and their Queenston Mile White was a blend of vinifera grapes from across the Niagara Peninsula. www.queenstonmilevineyard.com

At the event that evening I was thrilled to find a 2017 Chenin Blanc wine made by Big Head Wines. Chenin Blanc is a grape variety most famous in the Loire Valley of France and in South Africa. This was the first made-in-Canada Chenin Blanc wine that I had tried, and it was a beauty. Big Head’s 2017 Syrah was also delicious. Winemaker Andrzej Lipinski told me he makes dozens of different styles of wine. He had me wishing for more. www.bigheadwines.ca

Other stand outs for me were the 13th Street Winery 2016 Blanc de Blanc and Whitty Vineyard Gamay. Winemaker Jean Pierre Colas told me he made his sparkling wine entirely from chardonnay, completely bone dry with no oak. It was elegant and fresh on the palate - an easy to love bubbly. His Gamay was expressive with a lovely depth of flavour and smooth tannins. https://13thstreetwinery.com

Domaine Queylus makes brilliant pinot noir reds and their 2016 Pinot Noir Tradition delivered solid fruit and a classic earthy perfumed bouquet. Alvento Winery poured a charming pinot noir rose. Though I didn’t manage to try all 96 wines that were poured at the event, I am certain every wine was special in its own way.

Some the restaurants served such tasty dishes that I made a mental note to visit them next time I’m in the area. Chef Ryan Crawford’s Backhouse Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake served Megg’s Egg, an egg white mousse atop a saffron infused yolk inside an egg shell topped with trout caviar and shrimp with anelli pasta. Both dishes were amazing. https://backhouse.xyz/

Chef Andrew McLeod opened Bolete Restaurant in St. Catharines in 2016 in a restored 150-year-old building. For this event he dished up albacore tuna tartare on a shrimp crisp and kabocha and shitake dumplings. Bushfire Smoke BBQ located in Niagara-on-the-Lake inside the big red barn at Niagara Oast House Brewing, cooked up a 14-hour slow smoked coffee rubbed brisket and a smoked Xi-an Cauliflower. Criveller Cakes and Italian Ice Cream, both located in Niagara Falls, had desserts to wow the sweet tooths in the crowd.

After the big night, we stopped for Sunday brunch at Peninsula Ridge Winery in Beamsville. Family owned Peninsula Ridge didn’t participate in Cuvee this year – they told me the staffing and time commitment was too much for a small operation like them to handle every year. However I have always enjoyed their wines and knew that their restaurant in an historic “Queen Anne Revival” Victorian mansion perched on the brow of the Beamsville Bench was lovely.

Brunch there with the gorgeous views over their vineyards of the Niagara Escarpment, Lake Ontario and the Toronto Skyline was a perfect cap to an Ontario food and wine focused weekend. http://peninsularidge.com

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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