It’s Saturday morning and I’m following Lake Ontario and the “Golden Horseshoe” arc that so aptly describes the southwest journey from Toronto to the Niagara Peninsula. Another 30 minutes of drive time, and I can visit one of the world’s most famous landmarks – Niagara Falls. But I won’t be a maid in the mist today. Instead, I exit the highway and make my way south to the infinitely more interesting Twenty Valley (King Road) – one of my all-time favourite, four-season wine routes!! I’ve over-shot my destination by about 10 km so I can stop at a few favourite wineries and pick up some of the outstanding cool climate wines that we excel at making in the Niagara region.
For readers ‘from away’, Niagara is Canada’s largest wine region (15,000 acres) and one of the most celebrated wine and culinary destinations in North America. Today’s meandering drive takes me through the Niagara Escarpment Regional Appellation and specifically the Beamsville Bench, one of 10 sub-appellations in the Niagara Peninsula and the highest elevation point on the famed Niagara Escarpment.
The Beamsville Bench is defined by cascading east–west bench lands, an underlying bed of Dolomite Limestone (minerality, anyone?) and a symphony of creeks, streams and ravines, which add important natural irrigation. The Escarpment’s ancient reef spine is a climatic and topographical gift, hence the designation as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This is the same ridge – that further west – creates the 90 metre vertical drop of the Niagara River’s mythical falls.
Mythical perhaps, but the Escarpment’s natural slopes and aspects have also forced an unusual viticultural design on Niagara winegrowers resulting in predominantly north-facing vineyards. While this is rarely seen in Northern Hemisphere vineyards – most are south facing – it works well in Niagara because of the buffering influence of the Escarpment. Prevailing winds off Lake Ontario are absorbed by the Escarpment ridge and circulated back into the agriculturally rich bench lands.
Of course, all this rich terroir combined with a glorious summer climate makes Niagara perfect for growing fruit, vegetables and – yes Virginia – noble European wine grapes. While Icewine is Niagara’s signature wine, Niagara’s climate is actually similar to that of other fine wine growing regions like Burgundy, Northern California, Oregon and New Zealand. So take note wine world: we make dry and sparkling wines with the best of them! And the closer grape growers are to the moderating “hot water bottle affect” of Lake Ontario, the richer the opportunity to grow a wide selection of varietals.
Where there’s good food there’s good wine
Nestled at the foot of the Escarpment and strategically positioned to enjoy the benefits of Lake Ontario, is my destination – The Good Food and Wine Co. A winery, cooking school, bistro and all-round gastronomic haven, The Good Earth is all about celebrating Niagara’s bounty.
TBH, The Good Earth is one of those culinary treasures and wine country paradises, you want to keep secret but are compelled to share. It’s rustic, laid back and utterly unpretentious, reflecting the values and personality of its ‘delightfully eccentric’ and spirited owner. It took several months to secure my coveted spot at ‘facilitator of fun’ – Nicolette Novak’s cooking school, and I know this post runs the risk of making the next booking even more challenging. Still, “we rise by lifting others” and a farm-to-table meal, a glass of wine and – in my case – a three hour cooking class at The Good Earth, is just good medicine.
Good Farm-a (get it?)
Nicolette Novak opened her home, farm, orchards, vineyards and gardens to the public twenty years ago. She grew up on her Beamsville farm climbing orchard ladders, pulling weeds, and doing her share of the heavy lifting around the rustic, barn-board property. Her parents grew peaches, plums, cherries and pears and most of the food on her dinner plate came from their, or their neighbours’ gardens. After graduating, she moved to Toronto to work but returned to the farm when her father died.
Nicolette’s culinary epiphany to share her family’s farm-to-table experience with stressed-out, nature-starved urbanites was well ahead of the “foodie” curve and wine renaissance in Niagara. Importantly, geography was on her side with millions of hungry GTA residents (Toronto, Burlington, Hamilton, Oakville) living just down the road. Classes started in her farm cottage in 1998, and a year later, in 1999, she built the demo kitchen, summer el fresco kitchen and beautiful outdoor patios.
The need for healthy food education using local and seasonal ingredients is central to her cooking school’s menus and cooking demonstrations. As a bonus, Nicolette estimates she’s worked with at least forty of the talented chefs from around southern Ontario in the twenty years she’s been running the cooking school. She also figures she’s hosted at least a thousand public and private classes!! “It’s all about celebrating the goodness of the earth,” she says. “We want food to be approachable, seasonal and fun and the cooking school was an opportunity to demystify chefs and cuisine. My philosophy, here? No pretense. Just good, honest, real food prepared with TLC. ”
Nicolette realized she couldn’t have food without wine – preferably her own wine – and in 2002 her family converted 10 acres of struggling fruit tree orchards into vineyards. “We were fighting fire blight on the pears and plum pox on the peaches and apricots and many of the trees were reaching the end of their life span,” she says wistfully. “It was so exciting to start fresh with the vineyard and with our focus on culinary experiences, it just made sense.”
This year, the Novak family will celebrate their 10th vintage and eight years of making their own wine on site at The Good Earth Winery. “We’ve grown as demand has grown,” says Nicolette. “All our wines are 100% VQA from the Niagara Peninsula. We have our 10 acres here on the farm (VQA Lincoln Lakeshore) and we also buy 10 acres of grapes from a wonderful local grower further up on the Beamsville Bench.”
Nicolette has the good fortune to work with seasoned Niagara winemaker, Ilya Semchuk. “We’re still small, with only 3,000 cases a year, but everything we do is small lot, hand-picked on low yielding vines, and our wines are absolutely food-friendly. When we built the winery we also built the four-season bistro and now food-pairing is absolutely central to everything we do.”
Let’s eat!! Global Roaming themed food and wine pairing
Today’s The Good Earth cooking class is led by Chef Erica Guidi, owner of the Blend Catering Company in Hamilton, and one of the regular chefs at Nicolette’s school. There are twelve of us participating in the Global Roaming themed class and I can see how teaching twelve super-inquisitive food lovers is akin to herding cats. Erica is a pro. Anyone who can cook for Cannes Film Festival celebs on a single George Foreman grill and double burner in a pop-up, sweltering beach tent, can hold her own with this bunch of foodies.
Below is the fabulous food and wine-pairing menu from our yummy Global Roaming world food tour. I’ve added my own wine tasting notes. Note: Nicolette’s summer menus feature more outside grilling and produce that comes from her gardens or local Twenty Valley farms and markets.
Global Roaming Menu
Swedish Beet & Dilled Cured Salmon Gravlax,
Toast, Dill Crème Fraiche
The Good Wine, 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay
Residual Sugar 3.8 g/l, ABV 13.0%
If you like classic, cool-climate Chardonnay that’s fruit forward, light and crisp, this is the wine for you. This Unoaked Chardonnay is made with fruit from The Good Earth’s Beamsville Bench vineyards – some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in Ontario (35-40 yrs old). The wines is pale straw coloured, with a mineral backbone and a refreshingly light bouquet of apple, pear and citrus. On the palate this wine is dry, medium-bodied and boasts a vibrant acidity with apple, citrus and riper pineapple flavours.
This bright Chardonnay pairs beautifully with the textural richness and fatty flavours of the Salmon Gravlax and dill-drenched Crème Fraiche.
Laotian Crispy Rice Salad with Red Curry,
Lime & Mint
The Good Wine, 2015 Gewürztraminer, VQA Beamsville Bench $21.95
Dry, Residual Sugar 8.8 g/l, ABV 12.5%
Gewürz – the colloquial and easier to pronounce term for the white wine grape – is one of the most fragrant, floral, “aromatic” white wines from France (Alsace), and Niagara does this varietal proud. The Good Earth’s fragrant Gewürz pairs beautifully with the exotic Asian spices and flavours served in this Laotian rice dish. One of the great wine-pairing monikers is “intensely flavoured food needs intensely flavoured wine”. Remember that, and you can’t go wrong.
This wine is straw colour, with an explosion of blossom, grapefruit and lychee aromas. The rich, full palate follows the aromatics with grapefruit, peachy and tropical lychee flavours (the Gewürz grapes and lychee fruit actually share the same chemical compounds). It’s well balanced, dry with a touch of sweetness and a beautiful long finish. Just yum!
Argentine Chimichurri Steak
with Cucumber & Cabbage Slaw
The Good Wine, 2015 Big Fork Red, VQA
Residual Sugar 3.0 g/l, ABV 12.0%
Nicolette Novak says this 75% Cabernet Franc/25% Merlot deep ruby blend is the Good Earth and Wine Co.’s best seller. This big-shouldered red does a great job of building on Niagara’s finesse and success with the Cab Franc grape. Big Fork Red delivers a beautiful red fruit, savoury and coffee bouquet. On the palate, it’s medium-bodied, nicely-balanced, with ripe red fruit and earthy, herbal notes and a vibrant freshness.
Again, the goal with wine pairing is to match the intensity of the wine with the dish (and sauces) being served. You don’t want a robust wine with a delicate dish. This Big Fork Red happily takes on the chunky, parsley, shallot and garlic Chimichurri Sauce and Striploin Steak combination, and the well-salted meat makes this rustic red taste less tannic and softer.
Moroccan Meskouta Orange & Cardamom Scented Almond Cake
Feature image photo credit: Karen Black