Enjoying a country’s wine and cuisine in its home setting is a true gastronomic experience.
Like love and marriage or a horse and carriage, wine and food are meant for each other. Whether it’s Napa or Niagara, Bordeaux or Burgundy, wherever you find great wine production, you’ll find interesting and usually exciting cuisine. Nothing compares to enjoying the fruit of the vine in its native land, along with the dishes that are the specialty of the region. It gets even better if there are opportunities to meet the people who produce the wine and, at the same time, enjoy spectacular scenery.
Here are four of my favourite places where going for the food and wine is worth the trip.
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Although it is not the largest or most famous of New Zealand’s seven wine-producing regions, tiny Waiheke Island (it’s only 26 km long and 19 km across at its widest point) is one of the most engaging and tourist-friendly areas. Situated in Hauraki’s Inner Gulf, the island is a pleasant 35-minute ferry ride – and a world apart – from the big-city bustle of downtown Auckland.
Oneroa, the main town, overlooks a beautiful curving beach to the north and a sheltered bay to the south. It’s a lively village with an infectious Mediterranean-like atmosphere. It’s also a centre for imaginative arts and crafts as well as a place with excellent cafés where millionaire weekenders rub elbows with barefoot backpackers, some with greying ponytails.
Dozens of vineyards and olive groves nestle on the surrounding hills. Most are tiny. From many of them, you can see the sea sparkling on the horizon. The climate and soils proved to be perfectly suited for Bordeaux-style red wines. Many of the vineyards open for wine tasting have restaurants in idyllic settings amongst the vineyards.
Waiheke is home to Stonyridge, producers of Larose, claimed to be New Zealand’s most expensive wine. The menu selections at the vineyard restaurant are both interesting and moderately priced.
Someone once said, “wandering along the vineyard terraces above Lake Geneva is like walking between heaven and earth.”
While Switzerland is better known on this side of the Atlantic for chocolates and cheese, the Chasselas grapes grown here produce a dry, heady wine with subtle aromas and a colour that “hesitates between gold and a lime tree blossom.” 75% of the local wine is white and even the very best comes in a screwcap bottle.
Sadly, few Swiss wines find their way to Canadian wine shops, as the Swiss proudly tell you that their wines are so good they drink 95% of what they make. That kind of endorsement is reason enough for a visit.
Seven hiking trails wind through the area’s vineyards. A cheerful little yellow wine train, reminiscent of The Little Engine that Could, climbs among the terraces from Vevey, passing through five villages and by some 40 wineries. Hop off the train at Chexbres and work up an appetite along the 4-km downhill trail to the medieval, cobble stoned village of St. Saphorin and L’Auberge de l’Onde for their legendary roast chicken or fillet of char, fresh from the lake.
Wineries to visit: La Colombe, Flechy; Conne Cellar, Chexbres.
Where to eat: between Geneva and Montreux there are more Michelin-starred restaurants per population than anywhere else, including Paris. And many more unpretentious little cafés that feature local specialties.
Understandably, the first attraction, for anyone who hasn’t experienced the region, is The Falls.
With that accomplished, it’s easy to spend a delightful two days, on a bike or by car, wheeling around Niagara-on-the-Lake and the well signposted Niagara Wine Route, to the town of Grimsby, tasting great wines at a broad spectrum of wineries and indulging in some mighty fine fare along the way.
Compared to California’s Napa Valley, this is virtually undiscovered territory, but visitors quickly realize that it is one of the world’s great wine regions. The number of wineries has jumped from 18 in 1989 to 90 today. Several have lured top-notch chefs to run their restaurants. You can expect exceptional dining at Inn on the Twenty, Hillebrand’s Vineyard Café, Terroir la Cachette at Strewn Winery, Marc Picone at Vineland Estates, Peninsula Ridge or Peller Estates. Some wineries have incorporated unique attractions to complement their winery tastings and tours, such as Jazz in the Vineyard at Hillebrand, concerts in the amphitheatre at Jackson Triggs or Niagara’s only winery cooking school at Strewn Winery.
Mid-May is my favourite time to visit, when the orchards are in bloom and the land is brushed with a myriad of fresh spring greens. But a fall visit can be timed to celebrate the harvest at the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. In 2004, the festival will be held from September 17 to 26 in St. Catherines, with more than 100 events, including grape stomping and barrel tasting.
Before visiting, request a copy of the Ontario Wine Council Route Map and Official Winery Guide at 1.800.263.2988 or download a copy from www.winesofontario.org.
Believing that one of the best ways to discover the food of a region is to attend a local cooking school, I headed for France three years ago to live and cook at, Hostellerie de Crillon le Brave, a luscious innsituated 40 km northeast of Avignon in the tiny hilltop village of Crillon le Brave.
For five glorious days in November, three Canadians, one American and a Swiss couple – all decked out in monogrammed white jackets – chopped, sliced, stirred, creamed, sautéed, garnished then ate under the watchful eye of executive chef Philippe Monti and pastry chef Jacques Lorensot.
When we weren’t hands-on in the kitchen, we shopped for specialties at the nearby Carpentras market, tasted wines in the cave of a Côtes du Ventoux producer, visited the neighbouring artisan cheese maker, chocolatier and boulanger and even went truffle hunting.
The cooking school took place at the time of the release of the new vintage Côtes du
Rhône, the third Thursday of November. This is the occasion when hundreds of vintners gather in Avignon, resplendent in the robes and regalia of their appellation, to parade after sunset through the streets of the old town, before ceremoniously cracking open the first bottle of the latest vintage amid a magnificent fireworks display.
Exciting as this spectacle was, for six wanna-be French cooks, the crowning moment really came on Friday evening when, having prepared a meal that we considered worthy of at least one Michelin star, we were paraded into the private dining room to receive a round of applause from a handful of specially-invited guests and were presented with very official-looking diplomas.
50 Plus November 2003