Friday, March 13, 2009

By Julianna Hayes
What do you get when you throw two acclaimed chefs into a kitchen and challenge them to create a meal around a selection of wines? You get a cook-off, a heck of a meal and a fair amount of chest pounding.

That scenario played itself out recently at Cabana Grille Restaurant when co-owner/head chef Ned Bell faced off against Mission Hill Family Estate Winery executive chef Michael Allemeier in what could easy be construed as Kelowna’s version of Iron Chef.

The two men are long-time friends and even co-hosted the show Cook Like a Chef on the Food Network. Their kitchen reunion was nothing short of a culinary showdown in front of a formidable crowd of 110 hungry patrons.

The inspiration for the evening was a selection of Mission Hill wines and each chef was challenged to make a dish to pair with each using a specified ingredient. For example, the ingredient in question for the 2007 Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio was shellfish, but beyond that the menu was script free.

Allemeier explained that each chef would give his “interpretation of the wines” in his choice of the final ingredients and their preparation and presentation.

For the shellfish course, Allemeier opted to use B.C. spot prawns and scallops from which he made a ceviche. The cold dish featured basil, yogurt, parsnip, micro greens and tiny “verjus” pearls made from the wine itself.

Bell, meanwhile, served up a roasted Ocean Wise – meaning it comes from sustainable seafood sources – jumbo scallop with organic walnuts, golden raisins soaked in the Pinot Grigio, curried lobster emulsion and eggplant puree.

Both dishes delivered big in the flavour department, but Allemeier was the clear winner when it came to the wine pairing component. The lemony bright citrus and mineral character of the wine mirrored the freshness of the ceviche, which tasted like it was plucked fresh from the sea. Bell’s version, while scrumptious, overpowered the lightness of the wine, which, despite its abundant acidity, failed at cutting through the richness of the colossal scallop and its robust accents. A better match would have been a crisp and aromatic Riesling.

Wine number two was the 2006 Perpetua, a Chardonnay from the winery’s new luxury line of products know as the Legacy Series. The secret ingredient was rabbit and this time it was Bell who served up a cold dish featuring a “finger sandwich” of rabbit brioche, brassica mustard crème fraiche and a galantine of rabbit with hazelnuts. Allemeier opted to make a rabbit Sheppard’s Pie.

In my view, both chefs executed their dishes beautifully, but came up a tad short in the pairing. I thought the elegance and refinement of the Perpetua – a wine to be treasured for its full palate yet delicate balance between fruit and oak – was somehow lost next to these culinary offerings.

The third course featured the another Legacy wine, the 2005 Quatrain – a blend featuring Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon – matched with venison. Allemeier elected to run with venison loin served with mushrooms and mint bread pudding. Bell produced braised venison shank on stoneground polenta with roasted carrots and plum.

Both dishes were incredible and picking a winner was a challenge as each had merits. Bell’s option was rich, flavourful and the meat melted in your mouth, mirroring the wine’s velvety texture. But Allemeier triumphed slightly with his rare loin cut and wild mushrooms, which picked up on the wine’s underlying earthiness.

Not to be outdone, Bell conquered in the next round when the men squared off with aged cheese for the 2005 Oculus, a Bordeaux-style blend also from the Legacy series. His dish of blue cheese shortbread and Camembert was simply yummy. Blue and hard cheeses have an underlying saltiness and their proteins cut through young, bold, tannic wines like the Oculus and soften all their hard edges. Bell accomplished this masterfully. Allemeier tackled a soufflé made from Salt Spring Island’s Moonstruck White Grace cheese and hazelnuts on beetroot with a side of cherries soaked in Oculus. In theory, it should have worked, but the dish was a little fussy and was easily manhandled by the big wine.

The last course was dessert featuring some kind of citrus to be paired with the 2007 Reserve Riesling Icewine. Dessert and the sweetest of dessert wines are always uneasy co-pilots. Both chefs got the pairing bang on though by balancing the sugary component of their dishes with healthy hits of citrus that picked up on similar characteristics in the wine without giving diners too much of a good thing.

If I had to pick a winner though, it would be Bell, and this is purely a case of personal preference. I’m not a fan of chai thus Allemeier’s orange and cardamon-scented chocolate chai didn’t appeal to me. I also struggle with foods that have semi-firm textures like tofu and Allemeier had two of those components in his dish – a cold lemon madeleine “cake” that sat in the chai and a lime gelatin “marshmallow.” But others loved the dessert and got a kick out of the presentation.

Bell’s dessert was a simple lemon and white chocolate cream with a honey pistachio baklava that was refreshing, light with a lovely sweet-sour component.

In the end, most people – including myself – thought the battle came to a draw, certainly if you tallied the votes in this could. But I thought people reading this might think that was a cop-out, so I came up with two tie breakers – best overall wine pairing and best overall dish. Here’s how that played out:

Best Wine Pairing Overall - Ned Bell for the aged cheese and Oculus course
He nailed the 2005 Oculus, an earthy, robust, Old-World style blend with his blue cheese shortbreads. The savoury, salty flavours were simply ideal with the wine. If this were a round of golf, this pairing would have represented that pleasing “ping” you hear when you connect with the ball in just the right way.

Best Dish Overall – Michael Allemeier for his rabbit Sheppard’s Pie
I don’t even care for rabbit, but I could not stop eating this dish and that was something I heard from many other diners that evening. While it may not have gone perfectly with the wine for which it was intended, Allemeier rocked the ultimate in comfort foods and brought it up to a whole new level.

So after the bonus round, we still have a draw. Hey, it even happens on Iron Chef from time to time.

Wine Notes

Pentâge 2005 Pentage
Aromas: Leafy tobacco, meaty, compost, mushroom, herbaceous, cherry, coffee bean, pepper
Flavours: Coffee, cedar, pepper, cherry, dusty cocoa, cranberry, tea, mentho
Body and Finish: Dry, earthy palate with moderate tannin and a slightly hot finish
Overall Impression: More Old-World and earthy in style than the fruit bombs we typically see in the Okanagan – not to everyone’s taste
Would I Buy It? For something different.
Cellaring Potential: Hang onto it for a couple years
Score: 89/100
Price: $29
Availability: Winery directly, private retailers

Mission Hill 2007 Five Vineyards Rose
Aromas: Orange blossoms, cranberry, strawberry extract, pomegranite, citrus
Flavours: Pomegranite, strawberry, orange zest, vanilla
Body and Finish: Bright fresh entry, nice acidity at the mid-plate, lots of zip on the finish
Overall Impression: A tasty little rose blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cab Sauv made in a lively, quaffable style.
Would I Buy It? Sure
Cellaring Potential: Drink Now
Score: 89/100
Price: $14.99
Availability: Winery Only

BC Buy of the Week

St Hubertus Estate Chasselas 2007 $15.99
Light bright wine of fresh green apple, a hint of peach, citrus and lemon. Easy sipping wine. Think cheese fondue.

Import of the Week

Sileni Cellar Selection 2007 Pinot Noir (New Zealand) $20.99
Forward bright fruit expression with aromas of fresh ripe Bing cherries, strawberries, and a touch dillweed. A graceful wine with juicy red berry flavours, menthol and mouthwatering acidity. Easy to drink.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wine Q&A: Which Wines Are Best for the Cellar?

Q: Recently I’ve been inspired to start collecting wines and have accumulated a couple of cases. That may not seem like much, but it has been tough to resist drinking those wines. I’d like to get more serious about collecting, but am curious about a few things. What criteria do you use when selecting wines you think are suitable for cellaring? And how do you know when a wine is ready to drink?
- Roger

A. Tucking wines away for future drinking can be a rewarding experience. To wine geeks like me, there is nothing quite like sipping a fine wine that has been aged to perfection. All the bite is gone and what greets you in the glass is luscious and smooth liquid gold – at least that’s what you envision.

But there’s a risk. You can make reasonable guesstimates as to the future prospects of a wine, but such as it is with an item often referred to as a “living thing,” many factors come into play that can spoil your fun.

There is a lot of bottle variation with wines kept over time. Even the same wines stored under identical conditions will sometimes not age and taste the same when opened side by side and these differences cannot easily be explained. A bum cork often assumes the blame, but it is sometimes not as simple as that.

There is also no exact science when it comes to assessing when the wine is ready for consumption. It is disappointing to open a wine you’ve invested some time in and discover you’ve jumped the gun. But it’s even more distasteful to wait too long and end up with a wine that has gone off and is virtually undrinkable.

That being said, I recently attended a tasting of 12 Okanagan wines that had been stored at least a decade and most of them were still quite lovely, which was a delightful and encouraging discovery.

When deciding how much time to put into a bottle, consider that as wines age, they lose their freshness. Dominant fruit flavours begin to melt away and are replaced by secondary flavours – more earthy, mineral or flinty, spicy and nutty characteristics. Sweetness also fades, while acid and alcohol become more noticeable. So if you like your wines zippy and bright with fruit-forward character, drink them sooner rather than later. I recommend buying a bottle to taste immediately before investing in more to put away. A wine that ages well should taste good on release, meaning you should also be able to drink it young. Unsavoury characteristics will not improve over time.

Wines shouldn’t taste better or worse with aging, just different.I personally seek out wines that exhibit good fruit character and complexity both in the nose and on the palate. I prefer those without a great deal of alcohol and aren’t excessively oaked. In reds, some tannin is desirable but the wine should not be bitter, which suggests unripe fruit.

Experts suggest that you can evaluate the wine’s age-ability by opening and decanting and tasting it at different intervals over several hours. While this method won’t mimic true aging, it will give you some idea how a wine may develop over time. Aerating the wine will open it up some and reveal some of the various layers that may be hidden in a tightly wound young wine.

Keep in mind that your cellaring conditions will affect the wines you store. Ideally, you want a climate-controlled environment if you’re putting serious money and time into your collection. Apart from that, chose a cool, dark, quiet, dust- and odour-free location in your home and store the bottles which have corks on their sides (this is not necessary for wines sealed with screwcaps). It is preferable that you take them out of the box.

Examine bottles before purchase for signs of any leakage. Bottles that appear to be seeping should be avoided, but if you notice this in ones you’ve already acquired, drink them immediately – hopefully they’ll still be good.

Wines kept for extended periods may have to be professionally re-sealed as corks can shrink and disintegrate over time.

Look for literature on the wines you invest in for clues on recommended aging periods and make note of when you think they should be opened. Have some fun by setting dates for the “big reveal” and invite your friends over if you’re willing to share.

In Focus: Disgorgement and Dosage
These two elements are involved in making of traditional sparkling wine. At the end of the process, a plug of yeast has to be removed from the bottle and this is called disgorgement. The neck of the bottle is isolated and frozen allowing the plug to be easily kicked out. Following that a "dosage" of sparkling wine is used to top up the bottle, and it is corked. The dosage is often blended with sucrose which will determine the sparkling wine’s overall sweetness.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

BC Wines at Yellow Tail Prices

By Julianna Hayes
I recently wrote about a study, which showed overall Canadian consumption of wine was escalating dramatically but complained that the report failed to provide specific details explaining why. I wanted to know why foreign wine sales were far surpassing local ones and what people were spending on average were per bottle. Well, several readers were more than pleased to provide me with the answers.

"B.C. wines are substantially pricier than imports,” wrote John. “If I’m looking for good value I head to the Chilean and Australian shelves.”

"I'm not ashamed to admit I buy a lot of Yellow Tail," wrote Hugh, referencing my cheeky suggestion that Canadians are now merely blowing their beer budget on this wildly popular Australian wine brand that has saturated the market. "It's reliable and affordable."

"I may be drinking a bit more wine than I was five years ago, but I'm trying to cut back on what I pay per bottle, especially now," said Karen. "Consequently, I don't buy a lot of local wine."

Ironically, nobody saw fit to provide me with an exact dollar figure, range or ceiling on which they base their spending.

But using Yellow Tail products as the benchmark, it appears the magic number lies between $13 and $18. Which makes me wonder where people do their shopping.

I did a little simple sleuthing and discovered that B.C. VQA stores list some 180 wines under $18. Let me repeat that – 180. Meanwhile, government stores list 120 local wines under that price point. And they don’t include all the bulk plonk from fruit of questionable origin that is made by the truckload in this province. Now if you can’t find something local you like and can afford in this lot, I’m at a loss.

I’m not going to get all preachy about how you should drink only local wine. I’m every bit in favour of people doing a little global trotting when it comes to their wine purchases.
But when people make blanket statements about the lack of value in B.C. product, it drives me to distraction.

Granted, there are indeed $25-plus wines aplenty in the marketplace. But the same holds true for products from Australia, Chile, Argentina and the like. Isn’t it time you give homegrown wines a fair shake?

O.K., I’m stepping off my soapbox now. I think the numbers speak for themselves. But since price is such an issue to consumers, I’m introducing a new feature – a tasting note called “B.C. Value Wine of the Week,” which will focus on products in the under $18 category.

And I’m kicking it off with a bang with an introductory list of value wines to get the party started.

18 Under $18

* Please note – availability of these wines at these price points are either through VQA stores or BC LDBS. Some may be available through private retailers, but expect a price mark-up.

Arrowleaf Red Feather 2007 $11.99
A blush that is earthy and full of red berries, fruit leather, mineral, spice. A touch of residual sugar but finish with a fresh, clean snap. Think hot tub for now and patio in the summer. Great deal.

Blasted Church Hatfield's Fuse 2007 $16.99
Fresh approachable white blend featuring green apple, citrus rind and flinty aromas. Has a fresh bright fruit entry with sweet-sour character and clean finish. Value and great packaging too, plus a twist off.

Cedar Creek Estate Pinot Gris Classic 2007 $16.99
If you like bone-dry, food friendly gris, this represents great value in a stylish version that features green apple, orange peel, mineral, and lime. Bright fruit on the palate with a lemon-lime slightly sour finish.

Gehringer Brothers Cuvee Noire 2007 $12.99
Surprisingly complex nose and palate of smoked meat, pepper, dark berries, mocha, earth and tobacco. Supple, silky and easy to quaff and at this price point, there should be no complaint.

Granite Cellars Ehrenfelser 2006 $17.90
Great value in a intensely aromatic wine featuring a bouquet of peach, orange peel, floral notes, spice and mineral. Sweet entry on the palate balanced by intense citrus fruit, peach flavours.

Inniskillin Merlot Reserve 2005 $17.99
This is not the fruit bomb you’d expect from Merlot, but if you like savoury reds, this peppery, earthy, leafy, black olive, resiny, smoky cedarbox is your kind. Think big, fat juicy steak.

Jackson Triggs Merlot Proprietor's Reserve 2006 $15
Yearly consistency with this wine, it features ripe, round black fruit aromas, licorice, spice and a touch of smoke. Juicy intensity in the mouth. Killer value.

Little Straw Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007 $16.90
Classic SB aromas of gooseberry, fresh cut grass, green apple and grapefruit. Bright, lean, crisp palate with a pleasant saltiness – for those who like a fresh personality. Pair up with oysters or other shellfish.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2006 $15.99
Nice, fruity, easy drinking style with supple texture and great freshness on the finish. Loads of cherry, cassis, cranberry, herbal notes in its blended character.

Peller Estates Family Series Merlot 2007 $14.49
Another savoury merlot featuring aromas of cedar, smoke, black cherry, plum and pepper spice. Nice weight on the palate, a bit of a dry finish, but tannins are moderate.

Prospect Winery Riesling 2007 $12.99
Apple, apricot, candied citrus peel, lemon-lime and a hint of floral in the nose. Fresh on the palate with a lingering acidity on the finish. A great buy.

Quails’ Gate Dry Riesling 2007 $16.99
This winery has done up dry riesling right with loads of green apple, floral, grapefruit and a touch of lemon character. Lemon oil, mineral, apple skin and grapefruit on the palate. Very stylish.

Road 13 Honest John’s White 2007 $17
Green jujubes, apple skin, orange peel, floral, pear, spice, grass and pink grapefruit with hints of honey. This is a complex blend made for foodies. Delicious.

Sandhill King Family Vineyard Pinot Gris 2007 $17.99
A perennial favourite among critics and consumers alike, this is always full of green apple, orange peel, mineral, yellow grapefruit, floral notes with a nutty hint. Bright acidity with mineral, lemon lime, apple skin and a clean finish. Could double the price.

St Hubertus Estate Chasselas 2007 $15.99
Light bright wine of fresh green apple, a hint of peach, citrus and lemon. Easy sipping wine. Think cheese fondue.

Sumac Ridge Estate Merlot Private Reserve 2005 $16
Deep.dark, aromas of black cherry, pepper, chocolate, coffee beantobacco leaf, spice, vanilla. Has all the lusciousness you’d expect in a ripe merlot. Long, slightly hot finish.

Tinhorn Creek Estate Cabernet Franc 2005 $17.99
Herbaceous, tobacco, pepper, black cherry, meaty, smoky, leather and vanilla notes. Features black berry, tobacco, bell pepper, herbs and a hint of orange peel on the palate. Terrific cab franc.

Township 7 Chardonnay Unoaked 2007 $17.99
Orange blossom, tropical fruit, marmalade, spice in the nose and on the palate. It features crisp acidity along with its lusciousness. A delight to drink.